In Jonathan Demme’s "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), a young woman soon to be abducted by murderer Buffalo Bill is driving along, rocking out to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "American Girl." The choice of music is not incidental on the filmmaker’s part: There are few musicians more relatable, more capable of creating empathy, than Tom Petty. With a sound that’s a visionary mix of ringing heartland guitars and wistful depictions of youth and lust, the shaggy-haired singer-songwriter conjures up America in all its dreamy but quotidian singularity.
Petty caught the rock 'n' roll bug when Elvis Presley visited his hometown in 1961. By the early '70s, he'd formed a band that played six nights a week in a cinder-block strip club. Mudcrutch eventually cut a single but disbanded soon afterward. Petty, along with Mudcrutch lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, then formed the Heartbreakers, and their late '70s albums, including their eponymous debut and "You’re Gonna Get It!," brought them critical and moderate radio success. With the platinum-selling "Damn the Torpedoes" in 1979, Petty and his band solidified a style now synonymous with classic rock. With three Grammy wins and well over a dozen nominations, Petty's FM staples include "Breakdown," "I Need to Know," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Here Comes My Girl," "I Won’t Back Down," "Learning to Fly" and many others.
The Heartbreakers experienced shifts in personnel throughout their 12 studio albums, nearly all of which reached gold, platinum or double-platinum status, but Petty, Campbell and Tench have always made up the core of the group. Other notable members include bassist Howie Epstein, who died from a heroin overdose in 2003, current bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone and former drummer Stan Lynch.
The '80s ushered in many auspicious tours and collaborations for Petty, including jaunts with the Grateful Dead, a duet with Stevie Nicks and a working rapport with Bob Dylan, his co-writer in the tune "Jammin’ Me" and future band mate in the rock supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. In 1989, Petty released his first official solo album, though it was heavy with Wilbury and Heartbreaker appearances. "Full Moon Fever" yielded some of Petty's most sustaining work, including the gorgeous, Los Angeles-set "Free Fallin'."
In 2002, Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In addition to playing a small role in Kevin Costner’s sci-fi film "The Postman," Petty has lent his voice to "The Simpsons," where he played himself, butting heads with Homer at a rock 'n' roll fantasy camp. He also voiced Lucky, a recurring character on the animated series "King of the Hill." In 2007, director Peter Bogdanovich filmed an exhaustive documentary of the band, "Runnin' Down a Dream."
Mudcrutch reunited in 2008 with a debut album and a six-night sold-out run at the Troubadour, a step up from the Florida roadhouse of their youth. In June 2010, Petty and the Heartbreakers released “Mojo,” their first studio set in eight years.
Petty died Oct. 2, 2017, of cardiac arrest at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. He was 66.