Rock music’s A-list has indeed gotten shorter this year. The premature losses of frontmen like Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell were reminders that all is not always as well as it seems with younger musicians.
The loss of rock great Gregg Allman and the super-talented Steely Dan cofounder Walter Becker made us nostalgic for their bands’ heydays, the latter’s death occurring just as we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Steely Dan’s greatest recording, Aja.
But this week’s passing of Tom Petty sent us reeling. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to yet another of rock music’s greats, especially one who himself was just wrapping up a year-long 40th anniversary tour marking the 1976 release of his famous band’s self-titled début album, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
Thomas Earl Petty was one of rock music’s truest heroes, a legend among legends. He was a one-of-a-kind, no-nonsense heartland rocker who was as unapologetic about his rock-and-roll roots as he was adept at crafting a hooky chorus and melody, characteristics usually more associated with pop music stars.
It was his unique song craftsmanship that made him a pop singles chart fixture for over two decades and a regular visitor to the album chart’s upper tier for even longer.
Tom Petty’s sudden passing on Monday, October 2 at age 66, came as a shock on a day that we had already awakened to the most horrific news involving another music-related event – the deadly shooting massacre at a Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas, NV, which killed dozens and injured nearly 500 more.
Petty’s death has understandably taken a backseat to the more jarring story still unfolding in Vegas, but his importance to the rock world and to music in general cannot be overstated, as the many tributes since Monday have attested.
Petty’s professional life has been chronicled and dissected many times since the initially premature but ultimately official reporting of his death on Monday – from his 41-year career as leader of The Heartbreakers, to his stint as a solo artist, as a member of super group Traveling Wilburys and as founder of his one-time 1970s band, Mudcrutch, to which he returned during this millennium.
His accomplishments were many; the list of fellow artists with whom he worked and whose mutual respect he earned read like a Who’s Who in Rock, from Dylan and Harrison to Orbison and Nicks. His longevity in the industry – dating back to 1976 – was exceeded by few rock musicians, all of those also élite.
Petty’s music touched multiple generations – and people of many ages lapped it all up – even while he stayed true to the same rock-and-roll roots that flourished in his first Heartbreakers album in 1976. He was the one true constant in an ever evolving musical landscape that saw many genres come and go (and come back in some cases).
As a djrobblog tribute, I dug up some unusual facts and figures about Petty’s legendary career that his fans might find interesting. Of course, to list all of his achievements would take more than a 1500-word blog post to capture. So I’ve narrowed it down to ten somewhat unique facts and figures that set Tom Petty apart from anyone else.
Here they are:
1. When Tom Petty’s last Heartbreakers album Hypnotic Eye hit No. 1 in 2014, it sent shock waves through the industry…not because he was at No. 1, but because it was his first album to do so after 38 years of charting. Interestingly, the album beat out fellow classic rock god Eric Clapton, who was at No. 2 that week, marking one of the few times in history where the two top albums were both by artists over 60 years old. Perhaps it was also payback for Petty, whose “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was held at No. 2 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in 1985 by Clapton’s “Forever Man.”
2. It may have been No. 1, but Hypnotic Eye only spent three weeks in the top ten. By contrast, his longest-charting album, Full Moon Fever, spent 35 weeks in the top ten in 1989 and ’90, although it only peaked at No. 3. Fever also yielded three top-40 singles – more than any of his other albums.
3. His best album, arguably, was the 1979 release, Damn The Torpedoes. That classic would’ve been Petty’s first No. 1, but it hit a brick wall – literally – in early 1980. It peaked at No. 2 behind Pink Floyd’s The Wall, for seven straight weeks.
4. Claustrophobic Torpedoes: For three of those No. 2 weeks, Damn The Torpedoes was actually stuck between two “walls.” Above it at No. 1 was Pink Floyd’s The Wall, while right below it at No. 3 was the Michael Jackson breakthrough album, Off The Wall. Not bad company to be sandwiched between.
Quick note of irony: Petty’s last Hot 100 single with the Heartbreakers was the song “Walls,” which peaked at 69 in ’96.
5. Aside from Petty, there’s likely no other artist who can claim to have at least two top-10 albums with four different entities. Petty reached the top ten eight times with the Heartbreakers, twice more as part of the Traveling Wilburys, twice in his first band Mudcrutch (with both of those coming after he reunited with them in 2008 and 2016), and three times as a solo artist. Regarding Mudcrutch, Petty is likely the only artist to reach the top ten with his first band AFTER first doing so with two subsequent groups.
6. Despite its widespread recognition as Petty’s best song, “American Girl” got very little love on mainstream pop radio. The song never charted during its original release in 1976/77. Then in 1994 upon its re-release, it crawled to No. 109 on a chart that only boasts 100 positions (in other words, it never made it!).
7. Petty reached the top ten only three times on the Billboard Hot 100: “Don’t Do Me Like That” (No. 10, 1980), “Free Fallin'” (No. 7, 1990) and his biggest chart hit, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” his duet with Stevie Nicks which turned out to be her biggest single – away from Fleetwood Mac – as well (No. 3 for six weeks, 1981). Ironically, “Stop Draggin'” was born from Petty convincing Nicks that she needed a “single” for her début solo album Bella Donna.
8. By contrast, Petty was a god on the Billboard rock tracks chart, with more top-10 hits there than anyone else (28), ten of which made it all the way to No. 1. His No. 1 songs on that list include “The Waiting,” “You Got Lucky,” “Jammin’ Me,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “Free Fallin’,” “Learning To Fly,” “Out in the Cold,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
9. In addition to all those No. 1 Rock Tracks, he also had a bunch of No. 2 hits on that chart, seven in all, including: “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Handle With Care” (Traveling Wilburys), “End of the Line” (Traveling Wilburys), “She’s My Baby” (Traveling Wilburys), “King of the Hill” (Roger McGuinn of The Byrds) and “You Wreck Me.” The Traveling Wilburys and Roger McGuinn songs were not counted in his tally of 28 top tens, which – when they are factored in – takes his total to more than 30.
10. Petty was such an enduring artist, he actually shared top-10 album chart space with ’70s acts (Styx, The Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and Commodores); ’80s staples (Madonna, Wham!, Sade, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen); ’90s artists (Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Garth Brooks, Green Day, Nirvana and TLC); ’00s acts (Nickelback, Nelly Furtado, Pussycat Dolls and Gnarls Barkley) and today’s stars (Drake, Shawn Mendez, Sam Smith and Luke Bryant).
While all the above facts and trivia are noteworthy, Tom Petty likely gave little credence to chart facts and figures and whether his albums topped out at No. 1, No. 2 or even No. 3 for that matter. In fact, he was often quoted as chiding the very industry that made him famous, mostly because of its preoccupation with commercialism, radio manipulation and corporate profits.
But there’s no doubting his importance to the industry, one that clearly benefited from his contributions, just as his fans did.
For that reason we will always be grateful to him and will celebrate his legacy for years and decades to come.
To hear my special Spotify playlist featuring 46 of his greatest tunes, click here.
Rest In Peace Thomas Earl Petty (1950 – 2017)