“It’s good to be king, if just for a while
To be there in velvet, yeah, to give ’em a smile”
– It’s Good To Be King (Wildflowers 1994)
Discovering the greats who came before him, namely The Beatles and Elvis Presley, a young Tom Petty growing up in Florida, was inspired to learn to play guitar and join a band of his own. By 1976 the band he would become most known for, the Heartbreakers, was ready to take their Gainesville brand of heartland rock to the studio. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers continued to record and release albums every decade thereafter. Petty would eventually record music with some of his own childhood idols including former Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison. In the nineties Petty would soar to popular heights with teenage audiences with honest songwriting and avant garde music videos.
Petty’s vocals have always been unmistakable, and despite having a shorter range than many vocalists the harmonic songs in his repertoire beautifully demonstrate his capabilities as a singer. As a lyricist, Petty was second to none. Witty, playful, insightful – Petty knew how to communicate a story in every song that he wrote. Evocative, a Tom Petty song creates a distinct mood every time, here is an example:
“I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine…”
– Runnin Down A Dream (Full Moon Fever 1989)
Petty’s debut solo album Full Moon Fever (1989), made it to number 3 on the US Billboard Charts. Songs from this album received considerable radio play in North America and produced a few memorable music videos that exposed Petty to a generation of many new fans. Into The Great Wide Open (1991) continued in this vein. In 1993 the ever-popular “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was released, a virtually inescapable single that year with an enigmatic music video starring Kim Basinger.
Looking back on Petty’s career, his trials and tribulations with the music industry, his time with the Travelling Wilburys, and his remarkable early nineties popularity amidst a plethora of angst-filled alt rock — his contribution to the soundscape of modern rock will certainly be missed in the wake of his passing at just 66 years old.
Perhaps great songwriting is owed its credit, or maybe Tom simply found his finger on the pulse of a generation born about 20 years after he was; regardless, his breakthrough popularity in the nineties earned Tom Petty songs regular jukebox rotation with the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. For the generation that experienced this, he will always be regarded as rock royalty.