News of Petty’s death came via a statement posted on his official Facebook page by longtime manager Tony Dimitriades.
“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,” Dimitriades wrote.
“He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40pm PST surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.”
The sudden death came as a shock to many, not just because of his relatively young age, but also because Petty was onstage with his band the Heartbreakers just days earlier at the Hollywood Bowl as part of a massive world tour that was, according to Rolling Stone, set to be his last major tour with the band.
A seminal name in the rock ‘n’ roll scene since shortly after he loaded up a van and moved his first band, Mudcrutch, from Florida to Los Angeles in 1975, Petty is widely regarded as one of the greatest modern American songwriters.
Petty’s adoration for music began early, as he dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to focus solely on music. Petty joined guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench in Mudcrutch, a popular Florida band at the time. The band broke up shortly after moving to the West Coast, but Petty had already secured a solo recording contract by then on Leon Russell’s label, Shelter Records.
Petty had no interest in recording solo, however, and shortly thereafter reunited with Campbell and Tench, along with bass player Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch, to form the band that would cement Petty’s name in history as one of the most indelible figures in American music, the Heartbreakers.
The band’s first self-titled album didn’t chart stateside but, according to Biography, all that changed following a successful European tour in England with Nils Lofgren, which put the record on the U.K. charts. The band decided to rerelease their first single, Breakdown, and this time it hit number 40 on the charts. As Biography points out, the album also contained one of Petty’s best loved songs, American Girl, but the song didn’t chart until its rerelease two decades later.
The band returned to the studio in 1978 to record its second album, You’re Gonna Get It!, which fared better, charting at No. 23. But it was the band’s third album, Damn The Torpedoes (released under its new MCA label) that hit No. 2 upon its 1979 release, and included classic singles in Petty’s repertoire like Don’t Do Me Like That, and Refugee. From there, it was off to the races.
Petty had up-and-down success throughout the next few decades, though he never failed to resonate in the American consciousness for long. His incredible career included tours with megastars like Bob Dylan, as well as a side project, the Traveling Wilburys, with fellow musical legends Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne.
Shortly after his stint with the Wilburys, Petty recorded his first solo album, the incredibly successful Full Moon Fever, which included well-worn radio gold in singles like I Won’t Back Down, Runnin’ Down a Dream, and perhaps Petty’s most famous tune, Free Fallin’.
Never failing to reunite with his Heartbreaker bandmates in between solo stints, Petty found lightning in a bottle once again with his 1994 solo album, Wildflowers, which included a new onslaught of radio-friendly instant classics like You Don’t Know How It Feels, and You Wreck Me, effectively introducing the rock superstar to an entire new generation of hungry listeners. It was around that time, in 1996, that Petty and his wife parted ways after 22 years. He was remarried a few years later in 2001 to longtime girlfriend Dana York, whom he credited with helping him get off drugs.
Personal battles aside, Petty was never out of the musical spotlight for long, continuously reaffirming his position as one of the most important and ubiquitous names in rock across multiple generations. He toured often, embarking on countless sold-out world tours (along with a 2008 Super Bowl halftime performance), DJ’d a radio show on Sirius XM, and returned to the studio occasionally to churn out more hits.
Petty left behind a legacy as one of the most memorable songwriters in rock. His songs have left an immeasurable impact on the American consciousness, rediscovered over and over by each generation thanks to his classic melodies, his instantly recognizable nasally voice, and his contagious love for all things music.
Petty is survived by his wife, two daughters, and a step son.
Update: Updated with confirmation of Petty’s death.