The late, great Tom Petty had a career like nobody else. After making his emphatic arrival in 1976 with his mindblowing debut LP Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, over the next 40 years he would carve out a niche for himself that is incomparable to anybody else. Despite being recognised as one of the greatest American songwriters of all time, he always operated from the outside looking in, expertly crafting mainstream hits from the periphery.
Like many of his counterparts, Petty had a distinct sound, one which he had honed to a tee and quite early on in his career he made the call to stick to a sonic structure rather than experiment with each album as stars like Dylan and Springsteen had. Many have tried to follow in Petty’s footsteps but nobody has quite nailed Americana in the same way that he mastered it and nobody probably ever will. It’s the kind of style that permeates everything he did, his lyrics, his guitar sound and, perhaps most notably of all, in his vocal too.
The Heartbreakers were born to rally against “disco trance music,” according to Petty, and produced “the kind of rock that used to come blasting out of the AM radio when every song was a new Creedence or a new [Rolling] Stones, and all you wanted to do was crank it up.”
Tom Petty made the boldest call of his career in 1989 when he cut The Heartbreakers from his upcoming project. Instead, he opted to unleash his first solo album which proved that he could operate just as wonderfully on his own two feet as he could with a group. Full Moon Fever is arguably one of the defining rock albums of the decade and ‘Free Fallin’’ is one of the finest tracks that Petty has ever written.
This era re-established Petty as a star once again after some years spent treading water, this break from The Heartbreakers was exactly what he needed. The album was produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne, who also co-wrote ‘Free Fallin” and this opportunity to create with new people was one that reinvigorated Petty’s artistic outlook.
In a 2006 interview with Esquire, Petty stated: “‘Free Fallin” is a very good song. Maybe it would be one of my favourites if it hadn’t become this huge anthem. But I’m grateful that people like it.” It’s certainly one of his favoured tracks and when you listen to the isolated vocal below, you can truly understand the message of the song.
Tom Petty may not be regularly championed for his vocal style but when you isolate it, the tone and strength of his singing voice comes shining out.