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Tom Petty was an American music legend both as a solo artist as well as with such groups as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch, and the Traveling Wilburys, selling more than 80 million records worldwide with just the former two alone.
With such classics as “The Waiting,” “Learning to Fly,” and “American Girl,” and such accolades as an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and recognition as the MusiCares Person of the Year, Petty will forever go down in history as one of the best-selling artists of all time. While so many know the details of his famous career, we’ve found a few other facts about him that we think you’ll find both interesting and surprising.
Here are 25 wild Tom Petty facts that you never knew before.
1. He Dropped Out of High School
The kick-off to our wild Tom Petty facts list is a doozy, but when you know music is your path in life, you just know, and Tom Petty didn’t waste time with academics. He was 17 when he dropped out of high school to join his first band, Mudcrutch, a southern rock group.
When the band reunited in 2008, guitarist Tom Leadon said, “I keep waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and go, ‘Uh, Tom, this is a dream, and it’s time to wake up. What a wonderful turn of events this is.”
Related: 25 Famous School Dropouts
2. “The Boys of Summer” was Almost a Tom Petty Song
If it weren’t for the use of synthesizers, Tom Petty may have been the one to make “The Boys of Summer” famous. Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers guitarist, initially offered the song to Petty while working on a 1984 demo of the tune. When Petty turned it down, the song went to Don Henley, who earned a massive hit out of it. He’s probably glad Petty turned it down.
3. Elvis Inspired His Career
Tom Petty is no different from many musicians and nonmusicians alike when it comes to his love for the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. His obsession with music all started when he met Elvis Presley during the filming of one of the “Hound Dog” singer’s movies, when Petty was just 11 years old.
“He stepped out radiant as an angel. He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life,” Petty once recalled. “At 50 yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like. And he came walking right towards us.”
The meeting inspired a young Petty to start listening to Presley’s music. “That’s what kicked off my love of music. And I’d never thought much about rock ‘n’ roll until that moment.”
Related: How Did Elvis Die?
4. The Beatles Inspired Him, Too
While Elvis Presley was responsible for introducing Tom Petty to rock ‘n’ roll, the Beatles were the reason why he knew he wanted to be in a band one day. He realized that after watching the “Hey Jude” singers on The Ed Sullivan Show.
5. Full Moon Fever Almost Never Happened
Tom Petty’s 1989 album, Full Moon Fever, is arguably one of his best, with hits like “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Free Fallin’,” just to name a few. The crazy part is the album almost never happened because MCA thought it would prove a flop.
“When my record company rejected Full Moon Fever, I was hurt so bad,” Petty said in 2006, but he didn’t take it lying down. “I said, ‘I’m not buying this, there’s nothing wrong, I really like this record.’ And then I waited a while until the top regime at the record company changed. I came back, and I played them the same record, and they were overjoyed. It turned out to be a huge hit.”
Related: 42 Best Tom Petty Songs
6. He Wasn’t a Good Businessman
Tom Petty may have had a talent for music, but not for business. Throughout his life, he made a string of bad business deals. It all started when he signed away all publishing rights to his songs for a measly $10,000 at the beginning of his career. Then, a later legal battle led him to bankruptcy. Petty has admitted his lack of interest in the business side of things.
“I’m not usually as concerned with record company business as you might think. I like to devote my time and energy to being a musician. But sometimes there’s a communication breakdown, and when that happens, you just have to stand up for yourself.”
7. He Sued B.F. Goodrich in 1987
Tom Petty may not have been a keen businessman, but as he said, he knew when to stand up for himself. He sued B.F. Goodrich for $1 million after their TV commercial featured a song that was similar to his song “Mary’s New Car.”
8. He Made Sure His Music Was Accessible to Fans
Once again, Tom Petty proves that he has more interest in music than money. When his record label, MCA Records, wanted to sell his 1981 studio album, Hard Promises, for $9.98, Petty insisted that his fans pay a fairer price, lowering it to $8.98.
“If we don’t take a stand, one of these days, records are going to be $20,” Petty said at the time.
9. His Heroin Addiction Came from His Broken Marriage
It’s no secret that Tom Petty was like many other musicians, falling into drug addiction to cope with many different areas of life. In his case, it was the breakup of his 22-year marriage to Jane Benyo that led to his heroin addiction, that he was only able to overcome thanks to a therapist.
“They shoot this drug into you that literally drives the heroin out, and your body goes into spasms,” Petty once told biographer Warren Zanes. “It forces the detox process. When I woke up from that, I felt different. And I said to the nurse, ‘So, it went, OK?’ She says, ‘Yeah, it went OK.’ I said, ‘How long have I been asleep?’ She says, ‘Two days.’”
Related: 27 Musicians Who Overdosed
10. He Wanted Marijuana to Be Legal
Heroin wasn’t the only drug in Tom Petty’s life. His song “Don’t Pull Me Over,” which was released in 2010, was a protest song to legalize weed. He was also known to champion marijuana throughout his career, as on the chorus of one of his biggest songs, “You Don’t Know How it Feels.”
11. Tom Petty Made Regular Appearances on Saturday Night Live.
For fans of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Saturday Night Live, they received a treat quite a few times between 1979 and 2010. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers appeared on the sketch comedy eight times as musical guests.
12. He Almost Turned Dave Grohl into a Heartbreaker
Speaking of Tom Petty’s multiple Saturday Night Live appearances, after recruiting Dave Grohl to perform with them on “Honey Bee” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” during a 1994 appearance, the latter offered the drummer a full-time spot because he enjoyed having him play with them so much. Unfortunately for the fans who enjoyed it, too, Grohl turned it down so he could start the Foo Fighters.
Related: Dave Grohl’s Net Worth
13. An Arsonist Targeted Him
Tom Petty’s life wasn’t without its scary moments. On May 17, 1987, an arsonist decided to burn down Petty’s home, which destroyed the singer’s iconic grey top hat.
14. Tom Petty was on The Simpsons
Tom Petty embraced the comedy of The Simpsons. He had no qualms about voicing himself on a 2002 episode of the hit animated sitcom.
15. He also Voiced a Character on King of the Hill
Tom Petty didn’t just take on voice acting to play himself. He also knew how to bring a new character to life. From 2005 until 2009, he voiced Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt in 28 episodes of King of the Hill.
16. He was in a Kevin Costner Movie
Tom Petty didn’t just know how to act with his voice but with his entire being. He played the Bridge City Mayor in the 1997 film The Postman starring Kevin Costner.
17. Tom Petty Wasn’t His Only Name on Stage
Tom Petty was like many musicians, going by multiple names while on the stage. Over the years, his most popular stage names included Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr. and Muddy Wilbury.
18. Tom Petty Joining the Traveling Wilburys Wasn’t Planned
All it took was an accident of George Harrison leaving a guitar at Tom Petty’s house ahead of a recording session for the latter to round out the sound on “Handle with Care.” When Harrison went to retrieve the guitar before the session with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeffy Lynne, as legend goes, he asked Petty if he wanted to join.
We’re not just grateful for getting “Handle with Care” out of it but the whole album.
19. Tom Petty was the Third Traveling Wilbury to Pass Away
It’s always sad when a beloved group starts losing its members, and Tom Petty became the third of the five. His 2017 came after Roy Orbison’s in 1988 and George Harrison’s in 2001.
Bob Dylan and Jeffy Lynne are still alive.
Related: How Did Tom Petty Die?
20. Don Felder Taught Him Guitar
Tom Petty knew what it meant to learn from the best. He took guitar lessons from none other than Don Felder of the Eagles. It just so happened that before the latter joined the legendary band, he taught guitar lessons in Gainesville, Florida, where he and Petty both grew up. That’s undoubtedly one of the wild Tom Petty facts that is doubly crazy.
Related: 10 Best Eagles Songs of All Time
21. Tom Petty was Not a Fan of Televised Singing Competitions
He said in a 2014 interview, “If they had tried to offer my generation, someone that had won a game show, it would’ve been hysterical, you would’ve been laughed out of the room. We were suspicious of people that had hit records; it was that different a time.”
22. Petty Had a Lot of Odd Jobs
Tom Petty may have been playing music since he was young, but he still had to make ends meet until his career ramped up. As a high school dropout, he didn’t have many options.
One of his jobs included working as a groundskeeper at the University of Florida, where he reportedly planted an Ogeechee lime tree. While he said he doesn’t recall it, the university sure does, and it has been affectionately named the “Tom Petty tree.”
23. Tom Petty is a Doctor
Tom Petty is an example of an artist who received several posthumous honors, and one of those was an honorary doctorate degree in music from the University of Florida, received in December 2021.
University Provost Joseph Glover said of the decision Petty is “widely considered among the most distinctive and influential musicians over the past 50 years. His presence remains significant, as seen by abundant radio airplay and the popularity of events such as the Tom Petty birthday bash held in Gainesville. On the UF campus, Petty’s famous ‘I Won’t Back Down’ has become a mantra at athletic events, and I personally have heard President [Kent] Fuchs sing it.”
24. He Predicted His Final Tour
As our wild Tom Petty facts list comes to an end, here are a couple that will pull at your heartstrings. Although the world didn’t think so, Petty somehow knew his final tour would, in fact, be his last tour, though not for the same reason.
Before the Heartbreakers’ 40th-anniversary tour officially kicked off, Petty said, “I’m thinking it may be the last trip around the country. It’s very likely we’ll keep playing, but will we take 50 shows in one tour? I don’t think so. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one.”
25. Petty was Satisfied with His Career
Part of the reason Tom Petty is a legend is because of the uphill battles he had to overcome, and he knew the legacy he left behind.
“As you’re coming up, you’re recognized song for song or album for album. What’s changed these days is that the man who approaches me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work – the soundtrack to his life, as a lot of them say. And that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s all an artist can ask.”
Which of these 25 wild Tom Petty facts were new to you?
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