Tom Petty

Tom Petty performs in 2006 at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. He died Monday night at age 66. 

The Associated Press

Tom Petty was, to me, the classic rock ‘n’ roller who led one of the great American bands, the Heartbreakers, a name made poignant with Petty’s shocking passing Monday night.

Like Bruce Springsteen, with whom he was a contemporary and every bit his Southern equal, Petty drew on the '50s and '60s foundations that came before him -- his rock 'n'' roll shimmered and shook like the Byrds, attacked and swung like the Rolling Stones and was filled with melodies and hooks a la the Beatles.

Across it all, rockers fast and slow and ballads, was Petty’s reedy, nasal voice with the twang of a native Floridian. He sang of lovers and losers, of an “American Girl” here, “Free Fallin’” for one from Reseda there and defiantly proclaiming “I Won’t Back Down.”

Petty was a classic in another way. An abused kid who met Elvis Presley when he was 11, Petty pursued music as his escape from Gainesville, putting together bands in high school, then moving to Los Angeles to “make it,” which he did -- despite a bumpy ride with record labels and royalty payments.

Those experiences made Petty one of the great commentators on the music biz with songs like “Into The Great Wide Open,” “The Last DJ” and, of course, his cover of the Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star.”

That’s just what Petty was -- but he was a star who was in it for the music, not necessarily the money -- and for the friendships that his success was able to create, like those with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne that created The Traveling Wilburys, a true, if unlikely, supergroup.

While he put out a few “solo” albums, it’s impossible to do an appreciation of Petty without talking about the Heartbreakers, and particularly keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell, who were members of Mudcrutch, the Florida band that moved to California in the early '70s.

Campbell, essentially Petty’s musical partner, was particularly key to the Petty sound, with his guitar, intertwining with that of Petty’s, and his co-writing, arranging and producing.

Petty was a fixture on the charts, with hits in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. He saw the last album with the Heartbreakers, 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye,” also hit No. 1. Petty rode the changes in the music industry with the coolness and style he brought to the music.

I’m not sure how many times I saw Petty and the Heartbreakers live -- at least seven that I can recall. In part, that’s because Petty always had great openers, like the Georgia Satellites and the Replacements. When they were with him, I’d travel as far as Los Angeles to see them.

Regardless of where and when, Petty and the band were never less than stellar live, playing song after song without succumbing to the stretched noodling "concert versions" that infect “classic rock” bands -- that and the heavy blues influence being the difference, in my mind, between classic rock and Petty’s more enduring classic rock ‘n’ roll.

Among the most memorable shows I caught was in July 1986 at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver, where Petty and the Heartbreakers were Bob Dylan’s backing band and created one of the best of the two dozen or so Dylan shows I’ve seen.

More memories of Petty shows come from Omaha, both at the Civic Auditorium and what is now the CenturyLink Center. But Petty, in 40 years, never played Lincoln.

That was to change in 2014 when a Petty concert was announced for Pinnacle Bank Arena, then canceled three weeks later -- before tickets went on sale -- for “scheduling issues.” The Lincoln show and one set for Kansas City were moved to Red Rocks, one of Petty’s best markets.

I didn’t have to do much to listen to some Petty music Monday evening. My old “Pack Up the Plantation: Live!” record had been on the turntable this weekend and hadn’t made it back to its place on my wall of albums.

So it was playing when the notifications that Petty had died came onto my phone. That deepened the sadness of his passing. But “The Waiting,” “Breakdown” and “American Girl” were somehow uplifting, a confirmation that Petty’s classic rock ‘n’ roll will always endure.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.

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