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Tom Petty, Heartbreakers frontman who sang 'Breakdown,' 'Free Fallin' and other hits, dies at 66

Tom Petty was that rare classic rocker who didn’t turn into a nostalgia act. As a singer, songwriter, guitarist and band leader, Petty excelled through four decades of acclaimed albums and concerts that hewed to a narrow but brilliantly realized vision of rock ’n’ roll.

Petty, 66, died Monday after being taken to UCLA Medical Center for cardiac arrest Sunday night. His death was confirmed Monday night by his family’s spokeswoman, according to the Los Angeles Times. The singer-songwriter lived in Malibu, Calif.

After debuting in 1976 with an album that included such indelible songs as “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” Petty went on to become one of the more revered rockers of his generation. He sold more than 80 million albums, many recorded with his excellent band, the Heartbreakers. He scored only two top-10 hits, “Don’t Do Me Like That” (1979) and “Free Fallin’ ” (1989), but those accomplishments barely hint at the breadth of his success and influence. He was held in high esteem by his peers and even some of the artists who inspired him, notably the Beatles’ George Harrison, Bob Dylan and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. One of his side projects was the Traveling Wilburys, which also included Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

Along the way he and the Heartbreakers rode out the fickle ebb and flow of pop trends to carry the torch for guitar-based rock, inevitably selling out stadiums around the world no matter what kind of music was atop the pop charts at the time. The band was on the road over the summer to celebrate its 40th anniversary, including a sold-out concert at Wrigley Field in June. Petty acknowledged he was something of a purist with a narrow definition of what rock should be — “It’s like jazz or folk or blues — take it too far and it isn’t any of those things,” he once told the Tribune. “We see these banners at some of our shows: ‘Greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world.’ And sometimes I think we’re the only one. There aren’t many left.”

That “won’t back down” mentality — which later spawned one of his greatest songs — was forged while growing up in Gainesville, Fla. Born in 1950, Petty had a difficult relationship with his insurance-salesman father, who never understood his son’s lack of interest in sports and passion for the arts. The young Petty was smitten with music after meeting Elvis Presley as a child through the auspices of a relative working on one of Presley’s movie sets, and later seeing the Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He took guitar lessons from a future member of the Eagles, Don Felder, and began playing in a series of bands while working dead-end jobs — everything from washing dishes to digging graves.

“Music was a safe place to be,” Petty told the Tribune in 2002. “I think that in many ways I had a pretty tough childhood, and the music actually became a safe haven for me. That was where I escaped to. It really is the only true magic I’ve found in this world. Most magic is a trick of some kind. But music is actually a healing thing. It has this power to heal and inspire and to lift you right up.”

His first taste of modest success came with Mudcrutch, which would include two future members of the Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, as well as Tom Leadon, whose brother Bernie was in the Eagles. The band was a local draw on the club circuit but never was able to persuasively capture its country-rock sound on a recording.

Petty then cut a demo with Campbell, Tench, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch that led to a record deal and the release of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ self-titled 1976 debut album. Later, one of Petty’s heroes — the Byrds’ McGuinn — recorded a cover of “American Girl,” which emulated the Byrds’ chiming guitar-driven sound.

Petty’s economical approach to songwriting — evocative but never flowery lyrics, sharp melodies, taut arrangements framed by guitars, drums and keyboards, and a stray-cat drawl drawn equally from the Rolling Stones and his bone-deep Southern heritage — gave him an aura of a no-nonsense, guy-next-door artist. That carried over to the way he conducted business.

Even as he became more successful with a succession of hit records — notably the 1979 album “Damn the Torpedoes,” which included “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Even the Losers”; and the hit single “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which he wrote for Stevie Nicks — he refused to buckle to industry demands to soak his fans financially. When his label, MCA, sought to charge $9.98 for “Hard Promises,” the follow-up to “Damn the Torpedoes,” Petty refused to allow it to be released until the label dropped the price back to the industry standard of $8.98. In the late ’90s and early 2000s he managed to keep a $50 lid on his concert ticket prices for several years even as SFX, Clear Channel and later Live Nation created a concert-venue monopoly and raised ticket prices for comparable artists to triple digits.

“I’ve had business people come to me several times and tell me, ‘Your peers are charging much more and you should too,’ ” Petty told the Tribune in a 1999 interview. “And I just think it’s not a good idea. We ought to try to keep this music affordable. … I know when I was a teenager I could not have remotely afforded these prices. I just don’t think it’s worth that much, for one thing, and we don’t need the money that badly. We’re making a nice wage.”

Amid the musical successes, Petty and his band went through their share of personal strife. Petty’s home and many of his personal possessions were destroyed in an arson fire in the ’80s, and he endured a difficult breakup and eventual divorce with his wife of 22 years, Jane Benyo, in the ’90s. He clashed with Lynch, who eventually was ousted as the band’s drummer in the ’90s. Bassist Howie Epstein, who had replaced Blair after he grew weary of touring, died of complications from drug abuse in 2003. It was a near breaking point for the band, Petty later told the Tribune, but they were bailed out when Blair agreed to return to reclaim his old spot at the band’s 2002 Hall of Fame induction.

“If Ron Blair hadn’t been there to step back in, I personally would’ve called it a day as far as the Heartbreakers are concerned,” Petty told the Tribune in 2010. “I couldn’t have faced a new person filling that slot, it would’ve felt phony. I owe Ron a lot. From that point on the band got reinvigorated and got a new start.”

Petty continued to release albums and even orchestrated a Mudcrutch reunion, which led to two well-received albums in 2008 and 2016. “It only took 40 years to record our debut,” Petty cracked, “but it was worth it.” His final studio release with the Heartbreakers, “Hypnotic Eye,” became his first No. 1 album, in 2014.

In numerous interviews, the low-key but always bracingly honest Petty would get giddy only when talking about his rock ’n’ roll heroes; he would look back fondly on driving around Harrison’s English country estate in the ex-Beatle’s tractor or having Little Richard as the minister at his wedding to his second wife, Dana York Epperson, in 2001. “He was pretty nervous, but so was I,” Petty said of Richard’s service. “He gave a long talk about love and its characteristics, and what it shouldn’t do. He was pretty inspirational.”

Petty took particular pride in recording much of his best music with his old friends and original bandmates from Gainesville. Like their allegiance to the tradition-based music they played, their personal bond appeared unshakable to the end. Tench, his longtime keyboardist, once mentioned that though he was long regarded as one of rock’s great sidemen, he never once felt like a hired hand in Petty’s band.

“We involve everyone in everything,” Petty once told the Tribune of his bandmates. “I don’t stay in better hotels. I’m not treated any different than they are. We had very few times where we had a crisis in the voting about anything. At least the majority of us feel the same most of the time. Our trip has never been about becoming a celebrity or being in People magazine. Today it seems people want to start at the top, start at ‘American Idol’ and go on to some form of instant fame from there. But ultimately that’s not a good way to go. Musically, there are not a lot of things like us around anymore. We came up playing live for our living, and then became a recording act after lots of trial and error. That served us really well.”

Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

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