What a Heartbreaker

A few stories about the late, legendary Tom Petty.

Tom Petty

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ breakthrough hit was the classic “American Girl.” While mixing the final cut in a studio late one night in 1976, Petty thought it was missing something and asked guitarist Dwight Twilley what he thought. Twilley said the song was good, but that the epic, song-ending guitar riff by Mike Campbell should be used throughout the song, not just at the end. That was the solution to fix the song. So Petty called the band back to the studio — in the middle of the night — to completely re-record “American Girl.”

In addition to churning out hits, Petty did a little acting. He co-starred in the Kevin Costner movie The Postman as the mayor of a post-apocalyptic city. His character was said to be famous before the end of the world, implying that the character actually is Tom Petty. A couple of decades earlier, Petty was offered the chance to star in a classic rock movie, but he turned it down. Rock n Roll High School wound up being a film about Ramones-obsessed teenagers, but the movie was first offered to Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Van Halen, and Devo.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had a huge hit in 1981 with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a collaboration with Stevie Nicks. Nicks also inspired a different Heartbreakers song. Petty went to a party at Nicks’ house in 1985, and to avoid the debauchery, Petty went to sleep in an empty room. In the morning, he awoke to Nicks standing at the foot of his bed, twirling in a Victorian dress. Suddenly, Nicks’ ex-boyfriend, Eagles guitar Joe Walsh, entered the room, and Nicks shouted, “Don’t come around here no more!” That inspired Petty to write “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”

Petty’s other major role: voicing the character of Lucky on the last few seasons of King of the Hill. Writer John Altschuler created the character, so-named because he won a big settlement after he slipped in a pool of urine at a Costco. When describing what the hard-living character should look like to the show’s other writers, Altschuler said he resembled “Tom Petty without the success.” That emboldened the show to pursue the real Petty to voice the character. The rock star enthusiastically signed on, and he did such a good job that the intended one-time role became a regular one.

Petty was a part of the 1980s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys; he performed under the alias “Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr.” Petty was the youngest member of the group, which included ‘50s and ‘60s legends like Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison. And the whole thing came together because of a guitar at Petty’s house. In 1988, Harrison was in Los Angeles to record a B-side for a single off of his latest album, and contacted that album’s producer, Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra. Lynne was working with Orbison, and he wanted to play on the song, but Harrison couldn’t record it without a certain guitar, which Petty was borrowing. The group picked up the guitar and Petty and wound up recording a whole album (not just a single) at Dylan’s home studio.