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Legendary Rocker Tom Petty Dies at 66

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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers seen at KAABOO 2017 at the Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds, Sept. 17, 2017, in San Diego, California.

U.S. rock legend Tom Petty has died after cardiac arrest at his Malibu, California, home. He was 66.

Petty's family said he was taken to the hospital early Monday, but he could not be revived. They said he died Monday evening "surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends."

Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, in 1950, and he credits his musical awakening to a chance meeting with Elvis Presley in 1961. The "King of Rock and Roll" was working on a movie nearby and after the two were introduced, a young Petty told his family he was going to be a rock star.

Anti-rock star

But Tom Petty never really saw himself as a rock star, not in the way rock stars are thought of. As a frontman, Petty was no David Lee Roth, or Axl Rose, or Mick Jagger. There was never that larger-than-life swagger and attitude to boot. At times Petty's voice sometimes seemed strained, and quavering, like it was difficult for him to get the notes out.

But that didn't matter because Petty was able, with a little help from his friends, to stand behind his music.

On the cover of his third album, "Damn the Torpedoes," Petty is standing behind his signature red Rickenbacker, on his second, "You're Gonna Get It," he's barely visible, shadowed in blue light surrounded by the Heartbreakers, the extraordinary musicians who made up his band.

FILE - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performs at The Hangout Festival on May 18, 2013.
FILE - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performs at The Hangout Festival on May 18, 2013.

Tom Petty was never just Tom Petty, not without Mike Campbell on lead guitar, Benmont Tench on keyboards, Ron Blair on bass, and Stan Lynch on drums, the four who made up the original Heartbreakers. The lineup has changed a bit, but Tench and Campbell remained Petty's constant musical companions.

It's hard to get a feel for the American iconic songwriter on his first album, eponymously titled Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty was 26, but on this album, he and his crew are playing around with the band they would become. There are some straight blues numbers ("Hometown Blues" and "Anything That's Rock and Roll"). There's some rhythm and blues and alt-country in there as well.

But way down there at the bottom of the record is the song that forecasts the iconic songwriter that Petty was becoming: "American Girl" is the last track on the album about "... an American girl, raised on promises." This is a song of longing, and heartbreak and hope, which is at once evocative, and indicative of where this band was heading.

On his third album "Damn the Torpedoes," Petty cements his role as the anti-front man. His songs are about girls, but from the perspective of a a down-on-his-luck guy. The songs show that he needs and adores the women in his life, but is generally terrified and a bit resigned to the pain they will cause him.

"Don't Do Me Like That," for instance, "Even the Losers," and the flawless "Here Comes My Girl," where Petty tells us the tale of the woman "standing right by my side." It's a nearly perfect song — the jangly guitars, the anxious verses, and the soaring triumphant chorus — the sound of a songwriter hitting his stride.

Tom Petty.
Tom Petty.

All told, the Heartbreakers released 13 different albums, Petty released three solo albums, played with the supergroup The Traveling Wilbury's, and he also reunited with his first band Mudcrutch for some tour dates around the U.S.

And somewhere along the way he flew into the stratosphere of American songwriters inhabited by people like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Carole King and Stevie Nicks, American musicians who captured day-to-day life, rather than rock and roll excess.

On his last studio release, Petty channels the anger of a generation left behind in "American Dream Plan B."

"Well, my mama so sad, Daddy’s just mad," he sings, "Cause I ain't gonna have the chance he had..." managing to capture the frustration of the American dream deferred in 17 simple words.

Petty wrapped his most recent tour last week at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. In December, Petty told Rolling Stone magazine that he thought this would be the group's last tour together. He said, "It's very likely we'll keep playing, but will we take on 50 shows in one tour? I don't think so. I'd be lying if I didn't say I was thinking this might be the last big one."

Petty leaves behind his wife, Dana York Epperson, a stepson, Dylan, and two daughters, Adria and AnnaKim, from a previous marriage.

"It’s shocking, crushing news," Petty's friend and Traveling Wilburys bandmate Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine in a statement. "I thought the world of Tom. He was great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him."

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