Rock Legend Tom Petty Dead at 66 After Massive Cardiac Arrest
The singer died Monday after suffering a heart attack the previous day
Petty’s longtime manager released a statement to PEOPLE, saying, “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. 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 8:40p.m. PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends.”
Petty, the hitmaker behind rock classics like “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’,” was found unconscious and not breathing in his Malibu home, TMZ initially reported. Law enforcement officials told the outlet that the music legend was rushed to UCLA Santa Monica Hospital where he was put on life support and his pulse returned. Later the decision was reportedly made to remove him from life support after it was found that he was lacking brain activity.
Los Angeles County Fire Department officials confirmed to PEOPLE that they were dispatched to the Malibu home of an unconscious male early Monday morning and transported him to a local hospital. The Blast confirmed a 66-year-old man was transported from an address matching Petty’s.
One of Petty’s daughters, Kimberly Violette Petty, was active on her Instagram Monday, sharing photos of her father, until finally confirming his death with a simple caption, “RIP💜.”
Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Petty — who recently wrapped a 40th anniversary North American tour — dropped out of high school to pursue music with his band Mudcrutch, which included future Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers members Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench.
Petty’s first albums were rowdy enough to be shoehorned in with the emerging crop of punk and new wave bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but despite the Heartbreakers’ bar-band swagger, Petty’s sensibilities were equally folksy and country-inflected. The band initially broke through in England, where their success provided a push for the group’s self-titled debut; essential Petty cuts like “Breakdown” and “American Girl” became radio hits.
Damn the Torpedoes was his breakthrough in 1979, with “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee” both becoming Top 40 hits (Torpedoes peaked at number two on the Billboard 200 albums chart). Two years later, Hard Promises provided another hit with “The Waiting,” and Petty achieved still another with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a duet with Stevie Nicks.
Petty’s uncluttered songwriting and low-key appeal helped him weather a surprising number of shifts in the ’80s, including the rise of MTV. After spending three years working on Southern Accents with Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, he was able to make a splash on MTV with the Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” in 1985.
Petty and the Heartbreakers spent 1986 touring with Bob Dylan, who, though at that time long out of his period of country-tinged, jangly folk-rock that was his clearest link to Petty’s sound, was a clear influence on Petty. The two men became friends, joining forces in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, which also featured George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne.
Petty started a commercial run in 1989 that propelled his career through larger shifts in the music landscape, like grunge’s rapid ascent. Produced by Lynne and featuring the support of most of the Heartbreakers (though it was billed as a solo album), Full Moon Fever was Petty’s Everest: It reached number three on the U.S. charts, went triple platinum, and spawned the hit singles “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and “Free Fallin’,” which reached number seven.
Just two years later, Into the Great Wide Open had a hit with its single of the same name, and then in 1994, Wildflowers went triple platinum and and hit number eight, spurred by the hit singles “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “You Wreck Me,” and “It’s Good to Be King.” Despite his commercial success, Petty revealed in the 2015 biography of his life by Warren Zanes that he’d developed a heroin addiction in the ’90s, which peaked in 1997 after his divorce and firing of the Heartbreakers’ longtime drummer, Stan Lynch.
Petty gradually aged into an affable elder statesman of rock music, though he kept a rebellious streak: 2002’s The Last DJ was a caustic indictment of the music industry. He continued touring steadily with the Heartbreakers and then in 2008, a revived Mudcrutch; his thirteenth and most recent album, Hypnotic Eye, became the first ever Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album to ever top the charts.
He was married to Jane Benyo for 22 years before the duo split in 1996. Petty shared two daughters with Benyo — Adria, a film director, and AnnaKim Violette, an artist.
In 2001, he wed Dana York Epperson, whom he met in 1991 when she attended his concert.
Before kicking off his 40th anniversary tour with the Heartbreakers earlier this year, Petty — who took home three Grammys and received 18 total nominations over his lengthy career — told Rolling Stone it would likely be his “last big one.”
“I’m thinking it may be the last trip around the country,” he told the outlet. “We’re all on the backside of our sixties. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can. I don’t want to spend my life on the road.”
- Additional reporting by LINDSAY KIMBLE