28. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a rock band from Gainesville, Florida. Singer/songwriter Tom Petty was inspired to be a musician after meeting Elvis Presley, and, a few years later, watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Success came gradually for the Heartbreakers. Along with guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench, Petty achieved local popularity with Mudcrutch, but they were unsuccessful when attempting a recording career. Mudcrutch broke up in late 1975. Within a year, fellow Gainesville musicians Stan Lynch and Ron Blair were added to complete the first Heartbreakers lineup. Their first album, 1976’s Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, achieved some success in Great Britain, while receiving little attention in the United States. About a year later, the single “Breakdown” was re-released in America and was a top 40 hit (exactly #40). From that point on, the band’s reputation grew, and ever since, Tom Petty and his band have been a consistent presence on FM, AM, and satellite radio. In recent years, Petty hosted his own radio show on Sirius/XM Radio, “Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure”.

Over thirty five years, the Heartbreakers have released twelve albums of original material, and have sold over sixty million units worldwide. In recent years, the band’s fine musicianship plays a greater role in their overall sound, and they enjoy a reputation as one of the premier concert bands.


Of special note is Wikipedia’s summary of Tom Petty’s nuanced views on artistic control.

Wikipedia Biography of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Official Tom Petty Website

In the band’s history, there have only been two personnel changes. Since 2002, the sextet is as follows:

Tom Petty (1953-2017), guitars, vocals, songwriter
Mike Campbell (b. 1950), lead guitarist
Benmont Tench (b. 1953), keyboards, vocals
Ron Blair (b. 1948), bass, vocals
Scott Thurston (b. 1952), guitars, keyboards, harmonica, vocals
Steve Ferrone (b. 1950), drums

Howie Epstein replaced Ron Blair as bassist from 1982-2002, and drummer Stan Lynch left the band in 1994 to pursue other interests.

Howie Epstein (1955-2003), bass, vocals
Stan Lynch (b. 1955), drums

Thanks to BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test for these two early performances, “American Girl” and “Listen To Her Heart”:

Songwriters On Songwriting

Among the books in my modest collection of references is Paul Zollo’s “Songwriters On Songwriting”, a ten year compilation of interviews with sixty-two notable songwriters. The book focuses on the songwriting process, versus the mechanics of songwriting.

Amazon.com Link to “Songwriters On Songwriting”, by Paul Zollo

Zollo: “Is it unusual for something to arrive in one piece, with words and music together?”

Petty: “It’s not unusual for most of it to arrive. For the whole song to arrive instantly is really strange. Really unusual. I don’t think it’s ever happened to me more than once or twice. It happened to me once on this album, the song “Wildflowers”. I just took a deep breath and it came out. The whole song. Stream of consciousness: words, music, chords. Finished it. I mean, I just played it into a tape recorder and I played the whole song and I never played it again. I actually only spent three and a half minutes on that whole song. So I’d come back for days playing that tape, thinking there must be something wrong here because this just came too easy. And then I realized that there’s probably nothing wrong at all. [Laughs]”

Zollo (asking about particular songs): “Face In The Crowd”

Petty: “I wrote it one evening with Jeff Lynne. Just strumming our guitars. He had a musical idea for that one and I worked on the words. Because it’s very hard for me to sing other people’s lyrics. Jeff is a melody guy. And he’s very good at that. He would do a lot of editing. One good thing about him and the whole Wilburys experience is that I became completely unashamed. I would spout out anything. And that was really good for me. Because it was literally four or five people sitting there going, “Handle with care.” [Laughs] “No. Yes.” Spout out whatever I thought and it would immediately go to committee and it’s knocked out or it’s approved. And then that line would lead to something else. But that’s a different way from how I usually work. But it really loosened me up. I’m not inhibited by trying anything lyrically just as you wouldn’t be inhibited to try anything on the guitar. You just want to keep letting your mind go and seeing what falls out. [Laughs]”

Tom Petty has a nice way of expressing romantic love. He is exceptional at “the hook”, that catchy, memorable phrase that reverberates in one’s mind. As I review my list of recommended songs, Petty’s love songs cover the spectrum from friendship to pure lust. Even the lusty songs are not demanding or threatening, with the possible exception being “Honey Bee”. I get the impression that Mr. Petty loves women in an easy-going, positive fashion, as both friends and lovers. He’s not selfish; he’s that mellow friend that wants everyone to be happy.

“Before all of this, ever went down,
In another place, another town,
You were just a face in the crowd,
You were just a face in the crowd,
Out in the street, walking around,
A face in the crowd.”

— Tom Petty

I interpret “A Face In The Crowd” to say that love is a matter of chance, serendipity that can’t be anticipated. Love always came to me when I least expected it. When I met my wife in 1989, it was a rare time in life when I was self-satisfied and didn’t need someone. She came along, and though I enjoyed her looks, her company, our conversation, I had no expectations whatsoever. Romance never crossed my mind. Our lives were headed in different directions, and I’ve shed more than a tear lamenting that some of life’s goals were never met. She came out of nowhere and we started talking and I never felt nervous and it all happened so easily. It got scary when she wanted to marry and I wasn’t sure I was ready but I didn’t want to lose her. “A Face In the Crowd” was released that year, and is the song that I not only associate with meeting my wife, but one that best describes falling in love with her.

I Won’t Back Down

Ten days after the September 11th, 2001 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center, Tom Petty performed “I Won’t Back Down” for a nationally televised fundraiser for the victims of the tragedy. This understated, serious performance adds gravitas to this forever relevant song:

Runnin’ Down A Dream

One time I played “Runnin’ Down A Dream” for my father. He just didn’t get it, which is strange, as I consider this one of the better “driving” songs, especially Mike Campbell’s extended solo as the song fades. In this video, Campbell is fun to watch as the Heartbreakers blaze through this 1999 performance:

Room At The Top

Petty’s first marriage lasted twenty-two years and ended in 1996. This song, from the album after his divorce, 1999’s Echo, is a simple and poignant songs about missing someone:

Learning To Fly

“Well the good ol’ days, may not return,
The rocks might melt, and the sea may burn.
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings,
Coming down is the hardest thing.”

— Tom Petty

The Heartbreakers with Stevie Nicks helping out on background vocals from 2006:

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have improved with age. My collection is biased to their later work, starting with 1989’s Full Moon Fever. For me, the core collection is:

Full Moon Fever
Live Anthology
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Their most recent album, Mojo is a departure from previous efforts. The songs are longer and feature extended instrumentals from Mike Campbell and the Heartbreakers. Mike Campbell is one of my favorite lead guitarists in pop music, a versatile performer who seems to possess the perfect counterpoint to Petty’s lyrics at all times. Some critics have panned Mojo as having one of Petty’s weaker collections of lyrics, but the band’s brilliance more than compensates, making this one of my favorite Petty records. It’s one of the few albums in recent years when, based on a glowing Rolling Stone magazine review, I couldn’t wait to get it, then listened to the entire album on a nice drive through the countryside to hear each song. Songs like “First Flash of Freedom” feature dual guitar work reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. In some ways the modern Heartbreakers are like the great Florida band, playing a spacey, ethereal style of rock that folks of my generation relate well to.

Tom Petty & The Hearbreakers Songs:

You Don’t Know How It Feels, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★★
Runnin’ Down A Dream, Tom Petty ★★★★
Free Fallin’, Tom Petty ★★★★
A Face In The Crowd, Tom Petty ★★★★
First Flash Of Freedom, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★★
Learning To Fly (Live), Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★★

American Girl, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★
Time To Move On, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★
I Won’t Back Down, Tom Petty ★★★
Running Man’s Bible, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★
Breakdown, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★
Here Comes My Girl, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★
Learning To Fly, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★
Wildflowers, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★
Refugee, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★
Something Good Coming, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★★

Square One, Tom Petty ★★
Listen To Her Heart, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
I Need To Know, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
Lover’s Touch, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
The Trip To Pirate’s Cove, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
Don’t Pull Me Over, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
California, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
The Last DJ, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
Breakdown (Live), Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
Walls (No. 3), Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
You Wreck Me, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★
Honey Bee, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ★★

I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, Tom Petty
Yer So Bad, Tom Petty
Damaged By Love, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Don’t Do Me Like That, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Room At the Top, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Free Girl Now, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Into The Great Wide Open, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
A Self Made Man, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Goldfinger (Live), Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Jefferson Jericho Blues, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
I Should Have Known It, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Let Yourself Go, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Angel Dream (No. 4), Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Rockin’ Around (With You), Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
It’s Good To Be King, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Don’t Fade On Me, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Related Songs:

Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around, Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty ★★

Handle With Care, Traveling Wilburys ★★
End Of The Line, Traveling Wilburys

Goldfinger, Shirley Bassey ★★

I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, The Byrds
I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better (Alt), The Byrds ★★

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