Heartland rocker, Tom Petty dies at 66

Tom Petty, the Southern-accented rocker whose classic melodies and dark storytelling created 40 years of hit songs, died Monday of cardiac arrest, his family said. He was 66. Petty, who sold 80 million records, passed away Monday evening surrounded by loved ones after a confusing day in which several media outlets reported and then retracted premature news of his death.

“On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty,” a family statement said. Early on Monday, Petty suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu, exactly a week after he triumphantly put on what would be his career-capping concert.

The rocker had wrapped up a tour celebrating 40 years of his band The Heart breakers with three sold-out shows at the iconic Hollywood Bowl. He closed the encore with one of his earliest and best-known songs “American Girl,” which tells of an ambitious girl “raised on promises” but now contemplating suicide, set to electric guitar harmonies from the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.

The song was one of many by Petty about struggling to overcome long odds. “I Won’t Back Down,” perhaps his best-known song, took on a second life as a US patriotic anthem after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The singer and guitarist recognizable for his shoulder-length blonde hair delivered his vocals in short punches that showed an underlying bitterness, such as on “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” or with a wistfulness as on “Free Falling’,” a breakup story that ends in loneliness for all.

The rocker’s characters small-town Americans full of aspirations but running into a wall of setbacks reflected the hardscrabble early life of Petty. His grandfather was a logger from Georgia rumored to have fled south to Florida after axing a man to death in an argument. Petty was born in Gainesville in northern Florida to a belligerently drunk father who sold wholesale tobacco and candy.

Petty recalled that his father, intoxicated and unimpressed by his son’s passion for music, once smashed up the boy’s record collection. The future rocker said he told him, “Dad, if you’ll just leave me alone, I’ll be a millionaire by the time I’m 35.” And his remark proved prophetic.

The three-time Grammy winner was steadfast on artistic control and earned a reputation for battling with the music industry most memorably with the 1981 album “Hard Promises” after he was angered by his label’s plan to price it higher than usual.

More recently, English singer Sam Smith agreed to credit Petty as a songwriter on his worldwide hit ballad “Stay With Me” due to the similarities coincidental, by all accounts in the chorus to the worldwide hit “I Won’t Back Down.”

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