The impact Tom Petty had on music was colossal, to say the least. Petty was one of those rare artists that managed to have an impact on their own generation and continued to do so on subsequent generations, even as attitudes and technology shifted. His back catalogue is a vast and dense one, and the music and themes that comprise it are of considerably more pulp than many of his stadium-rock contemporaries.
Although Petty had an image problem for years, not knowing if he was a rock or pop artist, this was also, paradoxically, Petty’s USP. If Bruce Springsteen was heartland rock, he would be Tom Petty. Petty managed to appeal to the husband, the wife, the old and the young, bringing them all together under his spell of anthemic country-rock.
Like Neil Young, he managed to straddle the mainstream and alternative culture, thrusting himself into the hearts of many worldwide. Although some of his work may not be for you, I’d wager that you’d love other parts of it. It’s simply impossible to not enjoy the 1979 classic ‘Refugee’.
When Petty passed away in 2017, as is the case with titans of popular culture, the nature of his impact was brought into full view. You hear his work colouring the sounds of The War on Drugs, The Killers and even Car Seat Headrest, artists who channel elements on his heartland rock attitude to create a noise that’s equally as impassioned and uplifting. It’s a reflection of Petty’s musical mastery that we’ll still be talking about his influence for years to come.
“Very sad to say goodbye to Tom Petty, he was a kind and generous man, an excellent musician and writer,” wrote his friend and singer Peter Gabriel when he learned of the singer’s death. English icon, Elton John also shared a similar view, opining: “Tom Petty’s music and songs are timeless. He was a wonderful writer, musician, and singer. Irreplaceable and unique.”
Whether it be with Mudcrutch, The Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys or as a solo artist, Petty always conveyed a sense of real authenticity, owing to his Florida upbringing and his indomitable personality. These factors permeate his work, giving it a palpable feel that far eclipses many of today’s stadium fillers. It’s no coincidence that some of the best in the business, including Bob Dylan and George Harrison, hailed Petty as one of the finest songwriters to have ever graced the earth.
One thing is clear, Tom Petty learned from the best. The sincere figure that we all loved so much was first inspired by music’s original everyman, Elvis Presley. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Petty’s generation who was not inspired by the ‘King of Rock and Roll’, but the impact he had on Petty went one step further than many of his contemporaries. This is due to the fact that as a young boy, Petty met Elvis, and it changed his life forever.
In the summer of 1961, Petty visited his uncle who was working on the set of Presley’s film, Follow That Dream in Ocala, Florida. “He arrived in a fleet of white Cadillacs,” Petty recalled to Rolling Stone in 2011. “People were screaming, handing records over a chain-link fence for him to sign. I remember his hair was so black that the sunshine was glowing off of it. Just a nod and a hello made your skin tingle. I was high for weeks. It lit a fever in me to get every record I could, and I really digested it. Elvis became the soundtrack of my early years.”
Galvanised by Elvis’s music and his man of the people persona, this meeting gave Petty the adequate tools his needed to go on and become a legend in his own right. In just over a decade, people would be saying that he, too, was glowing.