Tom Petty's first posthumous collection was called An American Treasure, and it's hard to argue with that description. For more than four decades - from 1976's debut album with backing band The Heartbreakers all the way up to his sudden passing in 2017 - Petty perfected the no-frills rock and roll that generations dream of hearing. He collaborated with legends like members of The Beatles and Bob Dylan but never lost his regular-guy persona, becoming a favorite to millions in the process.
"As you're coming up, you're recognized song for song or album for album," Petty told Esquire in 2006. "What's changed these days is that the man who approaches me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work—the soundtrack to his life, as a lot of them say. And that's a wonderful feeling. It's all an artist can ask."
True to Petty's observation, it's hard to name just a few songs that define his legend - but here are 10 to get you started.
"American Girl" (1977)
The last track on Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers' self-titled debut - recorded on the bicentennial of the United States of America - never made the charts in his home country and dented the bottom of the British Top 40 a year after its release. No matter: the riffs of this song has outlasted any music chart, living forever wherever friends sing karaoke or scream its lyrics down the highway with the windows rolled down.
"Don't Do Me Like That" (1979)
Petty wrote this song for his previous band, Mudcrutch (who didn't release an album until 2008!), but was convinced to keep it for himself during the sessions to third album Damn the Torpedoes. The advice paid off: "Don't Do Me Like That" became Petty's first Top 10 hit in America, and helped propel the album it came from to No. 2 on the Billboard 200.
Though Petty was a prolific songwriter, getting a track right could be tough. "We must have recorded that 100 times," Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell said of "Refugee." "I remember being so frustrated with it one day that - I think this is the only time I ever did this - I just left the studio and went out of town for two days. I just couldn't take the pressure anymore." But the hard work paid off: "Refugee" followed "Don't Do Me Like That" into the upper reaches of the charts, settling at No. 15.
"Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" (with Stevie Nicks) (1981)
Read More: July 1981: Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty Release "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"
"The Waiting" (1981)
This catchy number was the lead single to Petty's Hard Promises, infamous for the behind-the-scenes drama between Petty and his label over a proposed increase in pricing that the singer successfully challenged. It's also notable for being the third-ever No. 1 single on Billboard's then-new Rock Albums and Top Tracks chart (now known as the Mainstream Rock chart) - one of 10 Petty tracks which topped that list.
"You Got Lucky" (1982)
After several years of straightforward rock, "You Got Lucky" from 1982's Long After Dark, marked the first time synthesizers were used on a Heartbreakers record. "We had to get a guy in to show us how to turn it on and get any kind of noise out of it at all," keyboardist Benmont Tench recalled in the notes to the box set Playback. Petty cited the "spaghetti Western" style of Ennio Morricone as an influence on the song's guitar tone.
"Don't Come Around Here No More" (1985)
Reportedly inspired by a falling out between Stevie Nicks and Joe Walsh of the Eagles, Nicks later revealed that Petty offered the song to her after writing it during a session for her album Rock a Little. "It was five in the morning, and I was really tired. So I said, ‘I’m going to go. I’m leaving you guys, and I’ll be back tomorrow,’" she recounted in a 2015 biography of Petty. "When I got back the next day...the whole song was written. And not only was it written, it was spectacular. Dave was standing there saying to me, ‘Well, it’s terrific, and now you can go out…and you can sing it.’ Tom had done a great vocal, a great vocal. I just looked at them and said, ‘I’m going to top that? Really?'"
"Free Fallin'" (1989)
After a successful side venture in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, Petty was rubbing shoulders with musical legends, all of whom ended up on his own albums. Bob Dylan co-wrote a song on 1987's Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), and George Harrison, Roy Orbison (whose posthumous smash "You Got It" was co-written by Petty) and Jeff Lynne all contributed to his first "solo" album, Full Moon Fever. Bizarrely, his longtime label MCA initially rejected the album, which would become one of his greatest successes thanks to Top 10 smash "Free Fallin'" and follow-ups like "I Won't Back Down" and "Runnin' Down a Dream."
Read More: April 1989: Tom Petty Goes Solo with 'Full Moon Fever'
"Mary Jane's Last Dance" (1993)
Petty bade farewell to MCA with a bestselling greatest hits album in 1993. Lead single "Mary Jane's Last Dance" featured a popular music video that featured Kim Basinger as an exquisite corpse. "I did it for one reason - I did it because of Tom Petty," she later reflected to Billboard. The song's resonance was deeply felt in 2006, when fans noted similarities between this track and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Dani California," also produced by Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin.
"You Don't Know How It Feels" (1994)
Petty's second solo album Wildflowers was inspired by the collapse of his first marriage and a struggle with drug addiction. The result was one of his most beloved works - treasured especially by Petty himself. He spent many of his final years restoring the record to its original double album length; the results of that journey can finally be experienced on Wildflowers and All the Rest, released in October 2020.
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