Tom Petty...in a nutshell

You couldn’t make up a life that’s more perfect for a rock star.  

Elvis showed him how his world could be different.  The Beatles showed him how to get there.  

He started collecting records.  He got an electric guitar and learned how to play.  

His mother encouraged his creativity and nourished his passion while his father despised how different his son was and beat him so hard that it drove him to succeed.  

He showed up in Hollywood with a box full of demos and landed a record deal almost immediately.  When it became clear two albums later that the contract he’d signed was a bad one, he fought the record company…and won.  

Then, when the record company wanted to debut a higher selling price for their albums with one of his releases, he fought them again…and won again.  

He became a video star without the critical accusations of being just a hairstyle band that dogged so many other video stars.  

He became friends with a Beatle.  And toured with Bob Dylan.  And recorded with Johnny Cash.  And became a close friend of Stevie Nicks.  And worked with Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne and Jimmy Iovine and Rick Rubin and Dave Stewart and performed with Prince and Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl.  

He wrote some of the most memorable, most enduring songs of the past 40 years.  And so far in his career he’s sold 80 million albums and counting.  

You have to agree that’s a pretty good run.  And he isn’t done yet!

The time Tom Petty declared bankruptcy

In the record business, it used to work like this.  You sign a contract with a record company and they advance you the money to record your first album.  Typically that’s a hefty sum.  And if you’re lucky and your album sells well, you’ll bring in enough to pay the record company back, and then and only then start earning money for yourself and your bandmates.  In Tom Petty’s case, even though his first two records were successful, he and his band had little to show for it.  And he blamed it on the deal he’d signed with his label, Shelter Records.  So when Shelter Records was being spun off from its parent company to a new corporate owner and Petty saw the publishing rights for the songs he’d written falling into new hands, he fought back.  He refused to release his third album and took full responsibility for the cost of recording it himself.  The move put him $500,000 in debt.  But it also allowed led him to declare bankruptcy in order to get that onerous contract declared null and void.  

The strategy worked.  The record company released Petty from the deal.  And then re-signed him to a more rewarding $3 million contract with a brand new subsidiary label created specifically for the occasion.  It was a win/win situation.  When it came out, that new album, Damn the Torpedoes, immediately sold more than 2 million copies and went double platinum—so you know the record company was happy—and Tom Petty and his band went on to find both fame and fortune.  

You’d think the record company would have learned its lesson.  Just a couple years later Tom Petty had to stand his ground again when they wanted to release his next record, Hard Promises, as one of the first at the newer, higher price point of $9.98 an album.  But that’s a topic for another story.

"Listen to Her Heart"

Ah, record companies. Used to be if you were a musician, you couldn’t live with ‘em and you couldn’t live without ‘em. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers put out their first, self-titled release on the Shelter Records label, but once the song “Breakdown” started getting them noticed, Petty made it clear he didn’t think the label was giving their music the support it deserved. Two songs from that first album had become hits in England. So when it was time renegotiate his recording contract after “Breakdown” made its breakthrough, Petty knew what he had to offer. He emerged from the closed door meeting looking like a winner. Perhaps he knew how to call their bluff. In a Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe, Petty said, “I told all the lawyers that I had made a living a long time before I made records and if I couldn’t get a fair deal, I just wouldn’t record anymore. I meant it.”

Besides, they had an audience to reach. Instead of getting right to work on album number two, Petty and company went out on the road for most of 1977 to promote their first which was just starting to find its audience. The word was getting out, but reception was spotty. They played a sell out in a 3000 seat theatre in Seattle. Down in Portland they only filled half the venue. While up in Vancouver, they could only muster a few curious fans in a nightclub.

All that time on the road made for a year of rocky love relationships. When Petty and the Heartbreakers convened to make their next record, the working title was Terminal Romance. It was only at the eleventh hour that they came up with name that eventually stuck, You’re Gonna Get It. In typical bad boy fashion, they communicated this to their record company by anonymously sending pieces of paper with those words scrawled on them to the label’s executives. Which prompted one nervous staff member to notify the FBI.

Keep in mind that these were the same executives who were anxious about the drug reference that appeared in one of Petty’s newest songs. Before the album was released, they begged him to change the line to “You think you’re gonna take her away/With your money and your champagne.”

No wonder he was pissed.

"American Girl"

1976. The Eagles were dominating the rock and roll landscape with their masterwork Hotel California. Heart had just made their debut. Thin Lizzy had finally broken through to the mainstream with their Jailbreak album while Steve Miller was flying like an eagle, Peter Frampton was coming alive, and Bob Seger was workin’ and practicin’ on his “Night Moves.”

In the midst of this musical feast, a scruffy young band out of Gainesville, Florida, had just signed a recording deal and put out their first record naming it after themselves: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The first single, “Breakdown,” barely cracked the Top 40 which seems amazing for a song that’s such a crowd pleaser today. But what really gained them notice was the second single, “American Girl.” It was a magic combination of a simple, passionate melody and a jangly Rickenbacker guitar, and all anyone seemed to talk about was how much this group sounded like The Byrds. In fact, when Roger McGuinn’s manager first played him the Tom Petty hit, McGuinn asked with puzzlement, “When did I write that song?”

Tom Petty did admit that he did come up with the song during a visit to California, though the lyric about “waves crashing on the beach” was purely a product of his imagination. In actual fact, he was renting an apartment right by the freeway in Encino. As he told an interviewer years later, “I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash,…it was just the cars going by.”