Yet Petty is everywhere. Wildflowers, his second solo effort, is double-platinum. His distinctively quirky videos are a constant presence on VH-1 and MTV. And he's in the middle of a 47-city concert trek that brings him and his Heartbreakers to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
Petty's amassed sales of more than 40 million over 19 years, with 13 albums as a soloist and as a member of two different groups. But he's never ingrained himself into the pop culture the way he might have. There's just something, well, unglamorous about Tom Petty and his music. He's just so damned normal.
Petty does not have a publicized drug addiction that requires periodic visits to the Betty Ford clinic. He's never been involved in any romances or liaisons that would land him on the cover of the Enquirer. He doesn't punch out the paparazzi (he does do walls, though, but that's for later).
All Petty has done is record a bushel of songs that almost define classic American rock. From "American Girl" to "Even the Losers" to "Free Fallin'," he's created jukebox staples and bar band standards. Elegantly simple in their structure, Petty's songs are pared to the essentials and little else: bright guitars, full-throated organ lines, driving bass and drums, all looped around a catchy melody and a memorable refrain. Petty puts his songs together like a craftsman. Use the right tool for the right job, and the rest is easy.
His workman-like approach may also explain why fame sticks so poorly to Petty. Craftsmen tend to be ego-less. Their merit lies in the worth of their product. And the popularity of his songs shows how well people like his work. So he has to hold his last name for a while. He may not even notice. "Music," Petty has said, "runs my life."
It's little surprise that Petty's life reads like a good rock and roll story. One-quarter Cherokee, he was born into a working-class family in Gainesville, Florida, 42 years ago. Raised in a cinder-block house ("Hot as hell; no air conditioning"), Petty amused himself by playing in the local sewer, which proved to be a fertile environment for crustaceans. "We'd make bamboo spears and try to nail these crawfish," he once told Newsweek. "I remember my mom: 'Jesus, he's been in the sewer all day.'"
Small game hunting soon gave way to music. Petty started joining bands at 14, and two years later, he found the Byrds. The California sound, and California, soon beckoned. "I thought what a wonderful place it must be, to have the Byrds there. And then I learned that oh, you mean that's where they make movies, too? What a wonderful place."
By 1974, Petty had switched coasts and was in the process of forming the Heartbreakers. Oddly, the band -- co-writer and guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Stan Lynch (bassist Howie Epstein joined the Heartbreakers in 1982, replacing Ron Blair) -- all hailed from the Gainesville area, but never played together as the Heartbreakers until they moved to California.
Though Petty is consistently pigeonholed as a Southern rocker -- and with an album entitled Southern Accents he obviously has no problem with the categorization -- he fits much better in the tradition that also spawned the Beach Boys, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Unlike the Allman Brothers, Little Feat or even Lynyrd Skynyrd, Petty's music has always been squarely on the beat. The boogie-woogie/swamp rock territory mapped out as Southern rock has never gripped Petty as much as the lyricism associated with West Coast bands. Petty has always felt more comfortable as a 16-bar rocker instead of a 12-bar, blues-based artist. A solid decade ahead of his time, he chose to work the kind of material that R.E.M. and other Southern rock bands turned to in the '80s.
Petty's breakthrough occurred a short two years after his move. In 1976, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was released to mild acclaim. Although American audiences were lukewarm to the album, Petty grew popular in England. The overseas success of the unknown Americans created some buzz, and the release of "American Girl" and the Top 40 hit "Breakdown" established Petty and the Heartbreakers as a major band in 1977.
Petty returned to the studios and released You're Gonna Get It in 1978. Though it lacked the impact of his debut, that sophomore effort spawned two hits, "Listen to Her Heart" and "I Need to Know," and showed that he and the Heartbreakers were not a flash-in-the-pan. And unlike their first album, You're Gonna Get It went gold.
It was in 1979 that Petty conquered America with Damn the Torpedoes. A monster of an album, it was Petty's first platinum effort and its singles ruled radio. "Refugee," "Here Comes My Girl" and "Even the Losers" -- the first three tracks on the album -- were played constantly, as was "Don't Do Me Like That." Whatever doubts critics may have had on the longevity of the group were dashed. In the space of three years, Petty had produced one good album, one very good album and one album that makes most everyone's "best rock albums of all-time" list. The Rolling Stone Album Guide calls Damn the Torpedoes a "near masterpiece."
Petty entered the go-go '80s with a decidedly blue-collar move. MCA, his label, wanted to raise the price of his new album from $8.98 to $9.98 to milk the popularity resulting from Torpedoes. Petty didn't want to. MCA didn't care, and a highly public fight ensued. Petty eventually prevailed, and Hard Promises -- with "The Waiting," "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)" and his duet with Stevie Nicks on "The Insider" -- was released in 1981. That same year saw Petty's highest charting single to date -- "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," a duet with Nicks that peaked at No. 3 (he's never had a No. 1 pop single) -- and the first of his eight Grammy nominations.
Pop tastes changed at this time, as punk grew and splintered into amorphous post-punk. Petty's naturalistic style of songwriting fell out of favor, though he continued to produce tight rock albums. Long After Dark, released in 1982, contained "You Got Lucky," and 1985's Southern Accents, produced in part by the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, featured "Don't Come Around Here No More."
The mid-'80s were simply a rough period for Petty. Frustrated at the pace with which he was writing Southern Accents, he punched out a wall and shattered his left hand, further delaying the completion of the album. In 1987, he lost his house to an arsonist's fire. He has since rebuilt on the site, but the arsonist has never been caught.
Musically, Petty was looking elsewhere. He toured with Bob Dylan in 1986-87 and joined him in writing "Jammin' Me" for the aptly named Let Me Up (I've Had Enough). Petty then put the Heartbreakers on hiatus, and, in 1989, recorded a solo album, Full Moon Fever, enlisting Jeff Lynne, formerly of ELO, as producer and co-writer. The album sold more than three million copies on the strength of such songs as "I Won't Back Down," "Runnin' Down a Dream" and the massively successful "Free Fallin'."
Lynne, Dylan and Petty also joined up with George Harrison and Roy Orbison to become the Traveling Wilburys. What began as a quirky, informal project became highly popular, and both of the band's albums, 1988's The Traveling Wilburys and 1990's Volume Three, went platinum.
Petty regrouped the Heartbreakers in 1991 for Into the Great Wide Open, with Lynne again as producer, and off of it came the hits "Learning To Fly" and "Into the Great Wide Open."
His attention then turned to a greatest hits package, released two years ago and still on the charts. Petty included two new singles, "Something in the Air" and "Mary Jane's Last Dance," both produced with Rick Rubin, whose credits range from L.L. Cool J and the Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash.
Rubin joined Petty again for this year's Wildflowers, which has already gone double-platinum. Though technically a solo project, Petty is joined by all the Heartbreakers save Stan Lynch, who has left the group. Steve Ferrone replaced him, and is now touring with Petty.
The remarkable stability of the Heartbreakers is what you'd expect from Tom Petty. Although this band was formed when Gerald Ford was president, they've aged together well -- and remained good friends, too. Petty's solo ventures no doubt allow him greater creative freedom, but it's telling that he prefers to record with his bandmates, instead of using anonymous studio musicians.
With or without the Heartbreakers, Petty is a band kind of guy. Unlike first-name Bruce, full-name Tom Petty is still hanging around with the people he first started playing with.
Which is what normal people do -- make friends and keep them. And with his friends, Petty gets to make a living doing what he likes best, playing rock and roll. As he told USA Today, "I'm just grateful I have an audience because I'm sure not ready to quit."
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play to a capacity crowd at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on Tuesday, April 18. The Jayhawks open. Call 363-3300 for info.