Tom Petty—’American Girl’: Take it Easy, Baby

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The front cover of the single’s picture sleeve

It was the second single from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1976 self-titled debut. When “American Girl” was released on February 4, 1977 on Shelter Records, it barely got any notice from Top 40 radio programmers and failed to chart on that format.

Over the years, as the audience for Petty’s music widened exponentially, the appreciation for “American Girl,” with its now-familiar jangly guitar riff courtesy of Petty and the band’s Mike Campbell, became enormous and it’s long been a classic rock favorite. Of all the great tunes in the Petty canon, decades later, “American Girl” can be looked at as a perfect song.

The song’s protagonist is unnamed, simply referred to multiple times as “she.” In the second verse, Petty writes:

It was kind of cold that night
She stood alone on the balcony
She could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441
Like waves crashin’ on the beach

Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform the song on The Midnight Special in 1978

“441” refers to a portion of U.S. Route 441 that runs through Gainesville, Fla., Petty’s hometown. On Oct. 30, 2017, less than four weeks after Petty’s death, Florida State Senator Keith Perry filed a bill to have a portion of U.S. 441–known locally as NW 13th Street–re-named Tom Petty Memorial Highway after the city’s native son. While Perry’s heart was in the right place, it appears that he didn’t do his research. The road already has a name in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a designation awarded in 1998.

The backlash was swift and Perry was hoping to amend his original bill to re-name a section of Southwest 34th Street that features a now-prominent Petty memorial that fans painted on a wall overlooking a stretch of that road.

The local ABC TV affiliate WCJB reported on Feb. 23, 2018, that the bill had been put on hold. The station noted: “while we wait to find out if ‘Tom Petty Memorial Highway’ will become a reality at some point, Perry is still open to ideas on ways to make this tribute bigger and better.”

Gainesville’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs departments organized a survey for residents to vote on alternative ways to honor the city’s native son. On April 21, 2018, the public’s top choices were an annual concert, statue or park.

Finally, in August 2019, the Florida Historical Marker Council announced that a two-side marker would be erected in the “Duckpond” neighborhood where Petty grew up.

Petty’s daughter AnnaKim poses at the sign in Tom Petty Park at the 2018 ceremony

The city of Gainesville celebrated its native son with a birthday bash in October 2018, with a variety of performers that included Tom Leadon, who played with Petty in their early band, Mudcrutch, as well as the reformed edition. (It hass since become an annual event.)

“I’m really blessed that I was a teenager when Gainesville was full of talented musicians,” Leadon told the Gainesville Sun. “Don Felder taught me my first solo scales. He and my brother Bernie taught me how to play guitar. Tom Petty was the closest friend I ever had. He was a brother to me.”

Fans have analyzed the song and have tried to connect the lyrics “if she had to die” and “one desperate moment” with the girl on the balcony. Over the years, the nearby University of Florida has had a series of suicides. Petty repeatedly denied any connection.

This ad for the album appeared 15 months after its 1976 release

The song’s lyrics include the bawdy lyrics:

Take it easy baby
Make it last all night

Though “American Girl” failed to connect with Top 40 radio programmers, Petty would ultimately earn 11 Top 20 U.S. pop sings. (1979’s “Don’t Do Me Like That” was the first, reaching #10; 1994’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels” was the last, at #13. (Rock radio embraced him: he had no less than 31 that reached the format’s Top 10.)

It took a while, but the Heartbreakers’ debut album, released on November 9, 1976, eventually reached #55 on the Billboard chart in ’78, and ultimately was certified Gold.

Related: Meet Jon Scott, who doggedly worked to get Petty’s early records played on the radio

Not surprisingly, Petty and the Heartbreakers chose to perform “American Girl” at their 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

Related: Roger McGuinn talks about recording “American Girl,” written by a then-unknown songwriter

Take it easy, baby…

Petty’s recordings are available in the U.S. here and in the U.K. here.

Greg Brodsky

6 Comments so far

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  1. TP67
    #1 TP67 6 November, 2017, 16:10

    Actually the lyric is “if she had to die tryin’ she / had one little promise she was gonna keep.” It’s a great song for the same reasons Petty was a great artist .. it takes the general (a young American female hoping for a “little more to life somewhere else”) and combines it with the specific (“out on 441 like waves crashin’ on the beach.) Also notable because it really only has two verses and no chorus. Tom said they were “trying to do Bo Diddley” .. but that’s selling it short. Agreed .. almost the perfect rock song.

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  2. Bomber
    #2 Bomber 29 September, 2018, 17:02

    The single did nothing but one day Tom said ‘They’re playing it in Boston’ WBCN was with TPATHB from the start.

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  3. Bob Sled
    #3 Bob Sled 18 May, 2019, 11:26

    I noticed in the Midnight Special vid that the band logo on Stan Lynch’s bass drum Is covered except for “Heartbreakers” – anyone know what the story is there?

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  4. John Rose
    #4 John Rose 27 February, 2020, 20:46

    Legend has it that when Roger McGuinn’s agent played him “American Girl” Roger’s reaction was, “when did I record that?” He eventually would do a version for his 1978 solo album Thunderbyrd, twisting the song a bit by taking the “chunk-chunk-chunk” middle 8 from the Heartbreakers version and using that as the intro.

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  5. JoeCon
    #5 JoeCon 10 November, 2021, 07:15

    “ Well she was an American girl
    Raised on promises …”
    Great start to a song and it only got better from there!

    Reply this comment
  6. 122intheshade
    #6 122intheshade 18 February, 2024, 16:29

    Spend most of the afternoon yesterday listening to old “Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure” shows on Sirius/XM.

    What a fun show. Tom played anything and everything. Old blues, to Fats and Little Richard. He ended one show with “I’m gonna dance on out of here now” and played “Pony Time”. Gotta love it.

    Glad they’re still making those available.

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