Tom Petty—the influential singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who achieved great success both as a solo artist and with his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—has died. Petty was rushed to the hospital late last night after being found unconscious and in full cardiac arrest at his Malibu home; he was taken to the UCLA Santa Monica hospital, where he was taken off life support after it was confirmed that he had no brain activity, according to TMZ. News of Petty’s death was reported shortly thereafter by CBS, then retracted after the LAPD denied that it had confirmed Petty’s death, causing widespread confusion.
A few hours later, Petty’s manager Tony Dimitriades released a statement printed in the Los Angeles Times. It reads: “On behalf of the Tom Petty family, we are devastated to announce the untimely death of of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty. He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.” Petty was 66.
Born on October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida, a young Tom Petty decided to become a musician after seeing The Beatles perform on TV. He showed little interest in school, and dropped at the age of 17 to co-found the band Mudcrutch alongside guitarist Tom Leadon; Mudcrutch was a staple on the Gainesville music scene, but Petty and the band had bigger ambitions. In 1974, the members of Mudcrutch moved en masse to California, only to break up after the band’s one and only single on Shelter Records, “Depot Street,” flopped.
Based on the strength of that one single, however, Petty was offered a solo recording contract with Shelter. After trying and failing to find new backing musicians, he recruited his former Mudcrutch bandmates Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keybords, along with bassist Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch, to form a new band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut was released in November 1976, topping out at No. 40 on the Billboard charts. (Ironically, “American Girl,” which appeared on the album, would go on to become one of Petty’s most iconic hits after it was re-released in the ‘90s.)
The Heartbreakers’ next two albums, You’re Gonna Get It! (1978) and Damn The Torpedoes (1979), established the group as rock ‘n’ roll heavyweights, particularly after Damn The Torpedoes reached No. 2 on the charts. It also gave Petty the leverage to stand up to the band’s new label, MCA, in 1981, after losing a long and expensive legal battle against the label in 1979. In response to the label’s attempt to price the Heartbreakers’ new album at $9.98—a full dollar more than the regular list price—Petty threatened to either withhold the master recordings or call the album Eight Ninety-Eight in protest. Eventually, the label conceded, and Hard Promises came out in 1981, spawning the group’s first No. 1 single. “The Waiting.” Petty would remain fiercely devoted to artistic freedom and control of his music throughout his life.
Soon after, Petty collaborated with Stevie Nicks on her album Bella Donna (1981), producing several tracks on the album and dueting with Nicks on the hit single “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” (“Edge Of Seventeen” was also dedicated to Petty’s first wife, Jane.) The ‘80s would be full of hit songs for Petty, but also personal acrimony, beginning with Blair’s departure from the Heartbreakers in 1982. He was replaced with Howie Epstein, and the Heartbreakers collaborated with producers Dave Stewart, Robby Robertson, and Jimmy Iovine for Southern Accents (1985). That album spawned the classic “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” whose Alice In Wonderland-themed video became an MTV staple.
In 1986, the Heartbreakers went on tour with Bob Dylan, a tour that led to the formation of the Traveling Wilburys—a supergroup composed of Petty, Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and George Harrison—in 1988. The next year, Petty released his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, a smash hit that spawned three of Petty’s most enduring songs, “Free Fallin,’” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” He remained loyal to his bands, though, releasing Volume 3 with the Traveling Wilburys in 1990 and Into The Great Wide Open with the Heartbreakers in 1991. Around the same time, Petty announced that he had brokered a deal with Warner Bros. and would be leaving MCA, but not before leaving the label one hell of a goodbye present: The Heartbreakers’ wildly successful 1993 Greatest Hits album, frequently cited as one of the best greatest-hits records of all time.
Petty’s first album for Warner Bros. was 1994’s Wildflowers, another artistic triumph that coincided with a difficult period in Petty’s personal life. He and his wife Jane divorced in 1996 after 22 years of marriage, after which Petty descended into heroin addiction. He continued to tour and record with the Heartbreakers throughout these dark years, and by 2002 Petty had kicked heroin and married Dana York, who he met in 1991 but didn’t start dating until 1996, when both had divorced their subsequent spouses. (He also appeared on The Simpsons in 2002, parodying himself on the episode “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation.” That gig presaged his most significant TV role, as the voice of “Lucky” on King Of The Hill from 2004 to 2009.)
In 2006, the Heartbreakers embarked on a 30th anniversary tour; that same year Petty released an album recorded with Jeff Lynne, Highway Companion, which reached No. 4 on the Billboard charts. Forty years after it was first formed back in 1967, Mudcrutch reunited in 2007, releasing its first full-length album in 2008. As always, Petty continued to play with the Heartbreakers throughout the last decade of his life; his last album with the band was 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, also their first record to hit No. 1. The Heartbreakers announced their 40th anniversary tour last year, and toured the U.S. throughout this spring and summer; Petty’s final show, the last date of a three-night run at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, took place just one week ago on September 25.