Tom Petty, architect of enduring rock songs, dies at 66

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene

(This story was originally posted on Oct. 3, 2017)

For a guy as unfussy as Tom Petty, the drama surrounding his death Monday probably would have made the Florida-born rocker give one of his wry, sideways grins and shake his head.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with the distinctively nasal voice, perpetually lank hair and rock songs as solid as concrete was initially declared dead early Monday afternoon by the Los Angeles Police Department. Shortly after reports of his demise circulated, the police department retracted their statement.

Petty was rushed to UCLA-Santa Monica Medical Center in the early hours of Monday after being found unconscious in his Malibu home. He had suffered a massive heart attack and no brain activity was detected. The singer-guitarist was taken off life support.

A statement from Tony Dimitriades, longtime manager of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, released just after midnight Tuesday announced that Petty died “peacefully” at 11:40 p.m. EST on Oct. 2, “surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.”

Petty would have turned 67 on Oct. 20.

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With his Gainesville, Fla.-bred band, The Heartbreakers, Petty crafted some of rock’s most enduring anthems – “American Girl,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Refugee,” “The
Waiting,” “Free Fallin’” and “Learning to Fly” just a smattering of their memorable output.

The band’s 13th studio effort, “Hypnotic Eye,” arrived in 2014.

His visited Atlanta – both solo and with the Heartbreakers – regularly throughout his career, from a 1978 gig at the Fox Theatre to his final appearance at Philips Arena in April for the band’s 40th anniversary tour (which just wrapped on Sept. 25 in Hollywood, Calif.).

At that jubilant Philips Arena concert, a sharply dressed Petty promised to deliver a show containing “no artificial sweetener” – a testament to the deceptively simple pop-rockers that solidified his standing as a rock stalwart.

Before the show, Peter Conlon, president of Live Nation Atlanta, which presented the concert, said he passed Petty backstage.

“He looked great, and I told him that. He had a great tour, a great show. Such a talented guy…it’s an unexpected great loss of an incredible talent,” Conlon said.

In June 2016, Tom Petty came to Atlanta with his original band, Mudcrutch. Photo: Melissa Ruggieri/AJC

In June 2016, Petty also swung through Atlanta with Mudcrutch, the band he founded in Gainesville in 1970 with guitarist Tom Leadon.

Throughout that show, Petty was a gracious host, a guy who smiled often, shared stories about the origins of Mudcrutch and looked genuinely thrilled to be with his old mates (which included members of the Heartbreakers).

While the demons were certainly there – his 2015 book, “Petty: The Biography,” detailed abuse from his father and the surprising revelation that he spiraled into heroin abuse in the 1990s – Petty undoubtedly reclaimed a sense of happiness on stage.

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