Our 25 Favorite Tom Petty Stories
Tom Petty died in 2017, and it's still difficult to grasp the magnitude of that loss. In some ways, it feels like he's still around: For starters, the late songwriter's estate issued the long-awaited, four-disc Wildflowers box set in 2020. We looked through the UCR archives and rounded up our favorite stories about Petty — from his classic music videos to the influence of Elvis Presley to Kevin Bacon's hilarious impression.
He Essentially Improvised One of His Best Songs
Artists love to boast about writing songs quickly. But Petty reached a new level of time management with "Wildflowers," the title track from his 1994 LP. “I swear to God it’s all ad-lib from the word ‘go,’’ Petty told Paul Zollo for the 2020 book Conversations With Tom Petty. "I turned on my tape deck, picked up my acoustic guitar, took a breath and played that from start to finish. And then sat back and went, ‘Wow, what did I just do?’ And I listened to it. I didn’t change a word. Everything was just right there, off the top of my head."
He Was an Expert at Turning Past Pain Into FM Hooks
"Even the losers get lucky sometimes," Petty sings on the Damn the Torpedoes classic. A change of fortune inspired the song's backstory. As detailed in Warren Zanes' Petty: The Biography, the tune originated from a 1969 party the singer attended in his hometown of Gainesville, Fla. While tripping on LSD, he noticed a girl named Cindy, who'd previously brushed off his advances in middle school. They wound up smoking cigarettes on the roof and skipping rocks on a lake (both referenced in the lyrics) until they were alone. "She let me know it was just for that night," Petty told Zanes. "And it scarred my brain all over again. In a matter of hours, I'd let myself believe another story, the one I'd wanted to believe for a long time. I only saw her a few times after that. But finally she took me into a room at someone's place and said, 'You keep trying, but you and me isn't going to happen.' When I wrote 'Even the Losers' years later, that night came back. I obsessed over her so much. She's probably in a lot of songs."
He Was Inspired by Unexpected Artists, Including Prince
In one co-writing attempt with Stevie Nicks, Petty inadvertently showcased his love of Prince — even if the final product sounded nothing like the Purple One. The Heartbreakers leader recommended she work with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart for a 1984 writing session, resulting in the foundation of "Don't Come Around Here No More." When Nicks left for the night, Petty took control of the piece by laying down a guide vocal. The Fleetwood Mac singer then bowed out of the track, allowing Petty to claim it for his 1985 LP, Southern Accents. “I think when we brought it to the record company, they were very mystified by it – because it wasn’t like anything I had ever done," he told Paul Zollo of the sitar-laden psych-pop song. "I think they were a little concerned that it was a little too far off the map. But I thought, at the time, Prince had come out with 'When Doves Cry' [and] I saw it as kind of going for the same kind of thing in a different way.”
He Had High Standards
Like "Don't Come Around Here No More," Petty co-wrote the horn-fueled single "Make It Better (Forget About Me)" with Dave Stewart — and even though it made the track listing, the song deviated from the loose conceptual structure of Southern Accents. “I hate that song, it’s just trash,” he told Paul Zollo. “It was Dave just trying to get me to knock a song out. Just write a song for the sake of writing one. And I think that’s what it sounds like to me. It’s one of the few that I just don’t like. I like a lot of our work. I’m pretty proud of most of it. That one was the result of some misguided people. We didn’t really know what we were doing.”
He's Known as a Nice Guy of Rock — but He Did Inadvertently Make One Enemy
"Jammin' Me," a snappy rocker from 1987's Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), is full of pop-culture references — including the lyric "Take back Vanessa Redgrave / Take back Joe Piscopo / Take back Eddie Murphy / Give 'em all some place to go," penned by the track's co-writer, Bob Dylan. Petty reportedly earned scorn from Murphy, which led to some embarrassment. "I remember seeing Eddie Murphy on TV really pissed off about it," he later explained. "I had nothing against Eddie Murphy or Vanessa Redgrave."
'Full Moon Fever' Has One of Rock's Goofiest Hidden Tracks
Petty's debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, boasted some of the songwriter's biggest hits, including "Runnin' Down a Dream," "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Fallin'." It also featured one of his silliest moments: a hidden track located at the midway point that functions as a direct intermission announcement. “Hello, CD listeners," he says. "We’ve come to the point in this album where those listening on cassette or records will have to stand up or sit down and turn over the record or tape. In fairness to those listeners, we’ll now take a few seconds before we begin Side Two. Thank you. Here’s Side Two.”
Stevie Nicks Admitted She "Accidentally" Stole a Demo Away From Him
Remember when Petty wound up taking control of "Don't Come Around Here No More"? In a (much more complicated) role reversal, Nicks accidentally "stole" the initial demo that wound up becoming Petty's "Runaway Trains." The Fleetwood Mac singer picked up the wrong cassette at Petty's house one night, taking a tape from Mike Campbell's pile of instrumental tracks. (She often worked from the guitarist's demos that Petty rejected.) After writing lyrics to it, she started to record the tune with Fleetwood Mac — but when she called Petty to let him hear their progress, he started "screaming" at her. "I’m realizing, 'How stupid are you, Stevie?'" she told Yahoo! Entertainment. "So I had to go in the next day and tell Fleetwood Mac, 'Guess what, we can’t do this song.' 'Why can’t we do it?' 'Because I stole it from Tom Petty, and I’m absolutely a total criminal and a thief.'" The demo eventually led to two songs: "Runaway Trains" and Nicks' 1989 solo cut "Ooh My Love," using her original lyric and melody.
The Heartbreakers Plan to Honor Petty Onstage With Help From Guest Singers
It's difficult to imagine the Heartbreakers onstage without their leader, but Campbell predicted in 2018 that the legendary backing band would reunite some day. “It would be a great tribute to Tom just to do [Wildflowers],” the guitarist told Rolling Stone. “We’d probably have four or five different guest singers with us. We don’t know who they might be, though, or when this might happen.” When touring paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's unclear if those loose plans will ever surface. But fans will be waiting.
Petty the Songwriter Probably Wouldn't Exist Without Elvis Presley
Petty briefly met Elvis Presley after his uncle got a job working on the set of the rock 'n' roll pioneer's 1962 movie Follow That Dream. As the songwriter recalled in a 2017 interview with Uncle Joe Benson on the Ultimate Classic Rock Nights radio show, it was a "really religious experience." “We were in a little backstage area where they had the trailers, and he came in, and arrived in a line of white limos," he recalled. "And, you know, when he came by, stopped and said hello, my uncle introduced me and my cousins. It was very exciting. Changed my life, really, because after that I started collecting records and just went in that direction.”
Eddie Vedder Saluted Him on a National Stage
Eddie Vedder offered a tender, surprise tribute to the late Petty at the 2018 Oscars ceremony. During the annual In Memoriam montage, the Pearl Jam singer performed the Heartbreakers' 1999 track "Room at the Top," which Petty described as the "most depressing song" he ever wrote.
Bob Dylan Tipped His Cap to His Late Traveling Wilburys Bandmate
Bob Dylan, Petty's former bandmate in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, saluted the late songwriter onstage in October 2017, marking what would have been his collaborator's 67th birthday. Performing in Broomfield, Colo., the legend played a surprise version of Petty's 1991 hit "Learning to Fly."
He Honored a Late Beatle With a Special Message on 'Hard Promises'
Petty was in the studio recording the 1981 Heartbreakers album Hard Promises when John Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment the previous December. As a tribute to the late Beatle, Petty had the mastering plant etch a special message — "We love you, J.L." — into the LP's run-out groove.
Some of His Music Videos Remain Classics
Petty wasn't interested in gimmicks, consistently prioritizing songwriting over his media image. But he still made a lot of compelling music videos during the prime MTV era, including the Alice in Wonderland-styled surrealism of "Don't Come Around Here No More," the animated adventure of "Runnin' Down a Dream" and the Johnny Depp-starring Hollywood tale of "Into the Great Wide Open."
Kevin Bacon Does a Fantastic Tom Petty Impression
One of Jimmy Fallon's funniest Tonight Show bits was "First Drafts of Rock," where the host recruited famous people — typically in extravagant costumes — to satirize famous songs. The best installment starred actor Kevin Bacon, decked out in a blond wig, who nailed a spot-on Petty impression while playing a goofy "early version" of "Free Fallin'." The tune opens like normal but quickly derails into absurdity, with Bacon singing almost exclusively about horses — you know, the ones the protagonist "loves" so much.
"Free Fallin'" Was a Joke Before It Was a Hit
"Free Fallin'" became a hilarious parody in the hands of Kevin Bacon and Jimmy Fallon — but the original song, as Petty told Billboard, actually started off as a joke, too. The singer stumbled upon the main riff while playing keyboards during the Full Moon Fever sessions; after whittling down the chord progression, Petty started singing the first verse, initially as a joke for producer Jeff Lynne. "Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff, but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word[s] ‘free falling,’" Petty recalled. "And I went to sing that and he said, ‘No, take your voice up and see how that feels.' So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast."
He Stood a Few Feet Away From an All-Time Great Guitar Solo
Tom Petty witnessed one of rock's greatest guitar solos close up at the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He was joined onstage by Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and Prince, who closed out a cover of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with some wild showmanship. "You see me nodding at him, to say, 'Go on, go on,'" Petty told The New York Times. "I remember I leaned out at him at one point and gave him a 'This is going great!' kind of look. He just burned it up. You could feel the electricity of something really big [was] going down here.”
He Took His Radio Ventures as Seriously as His Songs
Petty didn't just slap his name on a radio station and call it a day. He was hands-on with SiriusXM's Tom Petty Radio, which debuted in 2015 — helping supply exclusive tracks, vault rarities and other exclusive content. He was even the channel's first DJ, building on his years of experience hosting the deep-cut "Tom Petty's Buried Treasure."
MCA Originally Dismissed 'Full Moon Fever'
MCA, Petty's longtime label, initially passed on the eventual blockbuster Full Moon Fever. In Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes writes, "Petty had made what he felt was a great record, only to have the doubters at his record label be among the first to hear it and pass judgment on it. The rejection knocked him down. It hadn't ever happened that way. That anyone at MCA felt they were in a position to respond as they did left Petty stunned." Even though MCA did later release Full Moon Fever, Petty's debut solo album, those tensions led the songwriter to sign with Warner Bros.
You Could Always Count on Him to Speak His Mind
Petty loved lots of things: musical collaborations, soaring choruses, radio shows. But he was always vocal about the stuff he hated. While promoting his 2014 LP, Hypnotic Eye, he vented about some of those annoyances, which included bonus tracks on greatest-hits LPs, DJ-based music, MP3s and streaming and reality television.
Thanks to Police, Stolen Guitars Found Their Way Back to Petty
In April 2012, five of Petty's guitars (reportedly worth more than $100,000) were stolen from the California soundstage where the Heartbreakers had been rehearsing for a tour. The singer offered a $7,500 "no questions asked" reward for the instruments, which were recovered after police learned that a security guard pawned one of them for $250.
His Family Didn't Back Down From Unapproved Song Use
Petty's family issued a cease-and-desist notice to Donald Trump after the president used "I Won't Back Down" at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla. Adria, Annakim, Dana and Jane Petty, who administrate his estate, were direct in condemning the usage, writing in a statement, “Trump was in no way authorized to use this song to further a campaign that leaves too many Americans and common sense behind. Both the late Tom Petty and his family firmly stand against racism and discrimination of any kind. Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate. He liked to bring people together.”
His Last Show Was a Fitting Farewell
One week before his sudden death, Petty played his final show on Sept. 25 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, closing out his 40th-anniversary tour. He'd already told Rolling Stone that the trek could be his "last big one," so these final shows were a fitting close to a legendary career. Petty and the Heartbreakers pulled out the classics — including "You Don't Know How It Feels," "Free Fallin'" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" — for the last of three sold-out dates at the venue.
His Fans Paid Tribute With a Clever and Moving Vampire Walk
One night before Bob Dylan's stage tribute in 2017, devoted Petty fans gathered in L.A. at the corner of Sepulveda and Ventura boulevards to sing and strum along to "Free Fallin'." The geography is an obvious reference to that song's famous lyric "All the vampires walking through the valley / Move west down Ventura Boulevard."
His Hometown Fans Belted "I Won't Back Down" at a College Football Game
Illustrating the ubiquity of "I Won't Back Down" (and, really, Petty himself), thousands of college-football fans joined in a glorious sing-along of that classic cut during a Florida Gators game on Oct. 7, 2017 — five days after the songwriter's death. The school, based in Petty's hometown of Gainesville, also played a video tribute while blasting the beloved single.
He Staged His Final Tour Partly in Allegiance to Crew and Fans
Petty didn't know his tragic fate when he embarked on his final tour, but according to his widow, Dana, he still felt like the live run was closing a career chapter. “He would do anything to help anyone — his bandmates, the crew, the fans – and that's why he did the last tour with a fractured hip,” she told Billboard. “He was adamant. He found out a few days before the tour was gonna start ... that he had emphysema.” Calling Petty "stubborn," she added, "He’d had it in mind it was his last tour and he owed it to his longtime crew - from decades, some of them - and his fans.”