Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers celebrated a 40th anniversary tour, joined by Joe Walsh as a supporting act on the bill, concluding late last month in Los Angeles, where sadly, Tom Petty passed away this month. We look back at Tom Petty’s career and a tender flip side.
By Warren Kurtz
Flip side: Alright For Now
A side: Runnin’ Down a Dream
Top 100 debut: July 29, 1989
Peak position: 23
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Born in Gainesville, Florida, Tom Petty first became interested in music after visiting the movie set of “Follow That Dream” in nearby Ocala in the summer of 1961, at the age of 10, and became amazed at seeing Elvis Presley up close.
His first band was Mudcrutch, in the early ‘70s, which included future members of the Heartbreakers. Their local single “Up in Mississippi” and its flip side “Cause is Understood” received local radio airplay. In the mid-‘70s the group signed with the small Shelter records label, known for Leon Russell and the Dwight Twilley Band, and released the single “Depot Street” with “Wild Eyes” as its flip side. By then the group relocated to Los Angeles. Mudcrutch broke up and within a year Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were formed.
The first single from the Heartbreakers’ debut album brought them their first Top 40 single, “Breakdown,” in early 1978. By the end of the decade they were in the Top 10 with “Don’t Do Me Like That.”
In the ‘80s, the Heartbreakers had eight Top 40 singles including “Refugee,” “The Waiting” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Their highest charting single happened when they joined forces with Stevie Nicks for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” They also recorded a live version of “Needles and Pins” with her in the middle of the decade.
In 1989, Tom Petty’s solo album “Full Moon Fever” brought three singles to the Top 40. On Memorial Day weekend, “I Won’t Back Down” debuted, including on backing vocal and acoustic guitar, George Harrison, who joined Tom Petty in the Traveling Wilburys along with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. In late summer, the second Top 40 single was the electric guitar driven “Runnin’ Down a Dream” where Tom Petty paid tribute to Del Shannon’s 1961 hit with the line, “Me and Del were singin’ ‘little runaway.’”
The flip side of “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” also from the “Full Moon Fever” album was the tender lullaby “Alright for Now.” The first verse ended with the phrase “if not for you,” the title of a song Bob Dylan included on his 1970 album “New Morning” and George Harrison covered a month later on his “All Things Must Pass Album.”
Near the end of the year, the third single from “Full Moon Fever” gave Tom Petty his last Top 10 hit, “Free Fallin’.”
In the ‘90s, the Heartbreakers achieved two more Top 40 hits including “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Tom Petty, as a solo performer, charted with “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
In 2008, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed at the Super Bowl and opened with “American Girl.” Since then, there was a Mudcrutch reunion, and two Mudcrutch albums were released along with a brief tour.
Joe Walsh’s drummer, and fellow Barnstorm member, Joe Vitale spent a lot of time with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers this summer on their final tour. He told Goldmine, “Tom Petty was a real star, more than just a rock star. He was kind, gentle, soulful and by all sense of the word talented. He will be sorely missed.” Joe Vitale concluded his thoughts, direct to Tom Petty, “You were one of the good ones. R.I.P. my good friend.”
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, on WVCR.com as part of “Moments to Remember.”