Tom Petty, Standard-Bearer for Classic Rock, Dies at Age 66

Tom Petty’s laconic Florida drawl and laid-back persona have never camouflaged his sharp intellect and penetrating intuition. Meeting Elvis Presley at age ten, and seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, pointed Petty (b. 1950) toward an escape route from his abusive upbringing at the hands of his father, so he left home to follow a winding highway on his way to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The singer-guitarist’s early compositions cut deep, circling around an ineffable absence at the heart of American life, and audiences quickly identified. Petty moved ace six-stringer Mike Campbell (b.1950), keyboard crackerjack Benmont Tench (b. 1953), bassist Ron Blair (b. 1958), and drum behemoth Stan Lynch (b. 1955) to Hollywood to chase the rock-and-roll dream as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Their third LP, 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, shot “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Refugee” up the charts, making the band standard-bearers for a new species of rock rooted in 1950s Americana—blues, country, folk, and even garage rock and pop.

Petty and the Heartbreakers didn’t follow the currents of the New Wave, and neither did southern rock define them. Through shifting lineups, solo endeavors, and his 1980s stint with the Traveling Wilburys—George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne—Petty carved out a unique place in American rock, and he did it with a knowing smile and a quiet laugh. 

The above text is excerpted from Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen by Bill Bentley, a new release from Smithsonian BooksThe rarely seen photos in the book, as well as in this article, were submitted by noteworthy music photographers as well as rock enthusiasts from around the world.