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Little-Known Facts About Tom Petty’s Biggest Hits

Photo Credit: Richard E. Aaron/Getty Images

Tom Petty was a massively influential songwriter and performer whose loss will be sorely felt by the music industry and millions of fans for years to come. Today we’re remembering the musician’s legacy by reflecting on his catalog of hits and sharing behind-the-scenes stories that you may not have heard about your favorite songs.


Free Fallin’

Tom Petty’s highest-charting solo single, “Free Fallin’”, was written fairly quickly one night while hanging out and playing the keyboard with writing partner Jeff Lynne. Talking to Billboard in 2016 he shared that the iconic chorus initially was intended just to make Lynne laugh; “…really just to amuse Jeff, honestly, I just sang that first verse. Then he starts laughing. Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word, ‘freefalling’.” Petty finished the song idea that night and the pair went in to record the soon-to-be hit single the next day.



Stop Dragging My Heart Around

Originally written by Tom Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell as a Tom Petty and the Heartbreaks song, Stevie Nicks was later brought in to sing on it and the song went on to be released as the first single from her debut solo album, Bella Donna. “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” maintained six consecutive weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at No. 3, making it Petty’s highest charting single. The hit duet was also the 25th music video to be played on the premiere of MTV in 1981.



Mary Jane’s Last Dance

In the super strange music video directed by Keir McFarlane, Petty plays a mortician who takes home a corpse (played by Kim Basinger), dresses her in a wedding gown and dances with her before dumping the body in the ocean. The eerily dark subject matter of the video is slightly familiar to Petty, who actually worked briefly as a grave digger in his hometown of Gainesville , Florida before pursuing a career in music.



American Girl

“American Girl” didn’t take off immediately as a hit but gained popularity as time went on and is today one of the group’s most popular tracks. Due to references made throughout the song, fan interpretations of the lyrics call upon a Gainesville urban myth about a girl in the 60’s who experimented with drugs for the first time in her University of Florida dorm and, thinking that she could fly, tragically leapt out of the window to her death. Petty has since denied these interpretations, instead referencing inspiration he drew from living next to a freeway and the echoes of ocean waves that the cars tend to mimic.



I Wont Back Down

Written again by Petty and Jeff Lynne, “I Wont Back Down” was the first single from his debut solo album and topped Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart for a total of five weeks. Tom Petty teamed up with George Harrison to record the song, who can be heard singing and playing guitar on the track alongside Ringo Starr on drums. Petty spoke about the recording process with Mojo magazine in 2010, sharing that he actually had a horrible cold on the day of recording and Harrison saved the day by boiling up a ginger root for Petty to inhale the steam and open up his sinuses. 


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