Greatness doesn't happen overnight and it never hurts to take lessons. Tom Petty didn't leap out of the womb knowing how to play guitar, he had to learn just like everyone else: with the help of a great teacher. When Tom was young, he joined a band with two boys from his town. At the time, Tom could only play bass, though he wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Don Felder, the guitarist for The Eagles, just happened to be from the same small town as him. He worked in a guitar shop and gave lessons to earn extra cash. Speaking with Gibson, Don recounted the day he first crossed paths with Tom. "One day this kind of scrawny, scraggly blond-haired kid came in and wanted guitar lessons. I started teaching him guitar and we became friends and I went over to his house a couple of times." Tom took to the guitar like a fish to water and he soon left his small town to move to L.A. to pursue his dreams of rock stardom.
A house fire is a terrifying experience for any family. The only thing worse than losing everything in a fire is having the knowledge that someone deliberately caused all of that. On the morning of May 17th, 1987, Tom Petty was enjoying breakfast with his wife and 5-year-old daughter when they smelled smoke. They discovered the fire and escaped the house unharmed, though their housekeeper did suffer some mild burns when her hair caught fire. Tom attempted to put out the fire, but when he grabbed a hose it melted in his hands. Soon the whole house was engulfed, and the family lost nearly everything (estimated in value around $1 million). Investigators later found that there was evidence of a flammable liquid present on the rear, wooden stairs, which is where the fire started.
"We were shaken for years by it," Tom said in Paul Zollo's 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty. "It's sort of like being [assaulted], I would imagine. It really took a long time. And it was 10 times as bad, because you knew that somebody just went and did it. Somebody tried to off you." Even though no one was seriously hurt or even injured, the incident haunted the Petty family for years, probably because the person who did it was never caught.
Even though Tom Petty was mostly known for his music, and rightly so, his other entertainment ventures are nothing to scoff at. Tom was a semi-regular feature on the animated comedy King of the Hill. He voiced the character of Lucky, a simple man who often turned to a life of crime for convenience. That was Tom's longest-running acting gig since he worked on about 20 episodes of the show. In fact, one of the showrunners, John Altschuler, developed the character and described him as "Tom Petty without the success." The show then got the brilliant idea to ask Tom Petty himself to voice the character and Tom enthusiastically jumped on board. The rest, as they say, is history.
David Grohl was the drummer for a band that was pretty popular in the '90s, maybe you've heard of them, Nirvana? After frontman Kurt Cobain infamously killed himself, the band fell apart and David was on the lookout for a new band to join. When the drummer from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was fired, their band needed a drummer to play with them for an appearance on Saturday Night Live. David agreed to play with them that night. After the SNL performance, Tom offered to let David stay on as their drummer on a permanent basis, but David turned him down. He went on to make his own band, the Foo Fighters.
Petty much everyone has to have a day job before they make it big and Tom Petty was no different. Before he became the legendary guitarist and singer we know him as today, he worked a lot of odd jobs. Perhaps the oddest of them all was when Tom worked as a gravedigger. "You didn't have to look too sharp," Tom told a group of contest winners who got a chance to be a part of a Q and A session with the famed musician. Thankfully for all of us, Tom finally got his shot at the big time and didn't have to spend any more time digging graves. Can you imagine a world where Tom never became a famous musician and instead just dug holes for a living?
George Harrison, a former member of the Beatles, was about to get help recording a new song with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra. George ended up inviting Tom Petty along because he'd left his guitar at Tom's home a few days before. Roy Orbison was also there that day and the four men worked so well together, they decided to make an album together. Bob Dylan joined the band shortly after that and The Traveling Wilburys were created, all because George Harrison was forgetful one day.
It's always nice to see an artist who truly sticks up for their fans. In 1981, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were about to release their highly anticipated album Hard Promises. Just before it was due to be released, MCA Records revealed that they planned to introduce special pricing for "superstar" artists like Tom. Instead of charging customers the standard $8.98, they would up the price one dollar to $9.98. It might not sound like much, but Tom dug his heels in and refused to release the album if the price increase took effect. "A lot of our fans have been with us for a long time, and I think they trust us," Tom said in an interview with the New York Times. "MCA [Records] has done a great job selling our records, but they couldn't see the reality of what it's like on the street - they couldn't see that raising the album's price wouldn't be fair." The label eventually caved and Tom got his way.
When Sam Smith released his breakout song "Stay With Me," there were a lot of music fans left scratching their heads. There was something familiar about the tune, especially the repeating chorus. In fact, it sounded almost exactly like Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's 1989 classic hit, "I Won't Back Down." Tom's people reached out to Sam's people about the similarities and the two sides reached a speedy resolution. Sam claimed that he'd never heard "I Won't Back Down" and that any likeness was a simple accident. He agreed to add Tom as a co-writer on the song and to pay him a percentage of the song's royalties. Tom never held the incident against Sam, and released a statement that said as much:
"Let me say I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam. All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case, it got by... Sam did the right thing and I have thought no more about this. A musical accident no more no less. In these times we live in this is hardly news. I wish Sam all the best for his ongoing career. Peace and love to all."
When you had a career as long as Tom Petty's, there are bound to be things you've done in the business that you end up regretting. As part of his first album with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers titled "Southern Accents," Tom had a song called "Rebel." It was from the point of view of a character with a lot of Southern pride and when he and his band would perform it on stage, they would fly a Confederate flag as part of the act. In a piece he wrote for Rolling Stone, Petty didn't shy away from admitting that it wasn't the best idea. "I just honestly didn't give it much thought, though I should have. It was a downright stupid thing to do."
Eventually, people began bringing Confederate flag bandanas and other such items and throwing them on stage. That changed the way Tom looked at the flag. He had an honest conversation with the audience that night. "I said, 'Look, this was to illustrate a character. This is not who we are. Having gone through this, I would prefer it if no one would ever bring a Confederate flag to our shows again because this isn't who we are.'" Even though there were some boos that night, no one ever brought the flag to one of Tom's performances ever again.
Even the most successful among us occasionally get rejected. That's exactly what happened to Tom Petty when he tried to release his first solo album Full Moon Fever in 1988. Executives at his record label MCA Records listened to the album and expressed doubts that it would be as big a commercial success as they would prefer. At this point in his career, Tom had already been a part of two incredibly successful bands, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Traveling Wilburys. 'In Petty: The Biography' by Warren Zanes, who wrote the book with Tom's blessings, there's a passage that reads, "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." Tom didn't stay down for long, though. Eventually, the record label relented and published the album. It went on to be certified 5-times platinum.
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