October 20, 1950: Tom Petty Born

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Tom Petty of Mudcrutch, June 10, 2016 at NYC's Webster Hall (Photo: Greg Brodsky)

Tom Petty of Mudcrutch, June 10, 2016 at NYC’s Webster Hall (Photo: © Greg Brodsky)

Thomas Earl Petty was born on October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida. By age 10, young Tom Petty‘s future was determined.

In the summer of 1961, Petty’s Aunt Evelyn took young Tom and his cousins to the set of the Elvis Presley film Follow That Dream in nearby Ocala to meet the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. His Uncle Earl was in the film developing business and would often work with movie productions that came to the area.

“He stepped out [of his car] radiant as an angel,” Petty recalled of Presley’s arrival on set. “He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life. And he came walking right towards us.” He doesn’t recall what Presley said when he was introduced to him. “I was just too dumbfounded.” Later that day Tom told his aunt and cousins that he was going to be a rock star. He later traded his Wham-O slingshot to a friend for some Elvis 45s, which he started listening to nonstop.

Three years later Petty saw the U.S. TV debut of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “The minute I saw [that], there was the way out. There was the way to do it. You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. It was something I identified with. I had never been hugely into sports… I had been a big fan of Elvis. But I really saw in The Beatles that here’s something I could do.” Petty wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.

Three future rock ‘n’ roll stars in the Gainesville (Fla.) High School yearbook

An early Petty guitar teacher was fellow Gainesville resident Don Felder, who went on to play with the Eagles. Tom formed a band called The Epics with his friends Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench that evolved into Mudcrutch. They became popular in the Florida Panhandle area, made some recordings and released some records, but weren’t able to break out beyond the region. So in 1974, Petty and his band drove cross-country to Los Angeles in search of a record deal and rock ‘n’ roll success.

Related: Our interview with Petty biographer Warren Zanes

“We fell in love with L.A. within an hour of being there,” Petty told author Paul Zollo in the 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty. “We just thought this is heaven. We said, ‘Look, everywhere there’s people making a living playing music. This is the place.'” Petty eventually won a deal with Shelter Records, and two years later Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut.

Related: We talked to a label insider about Petty’s early recordings with the Heartbreakers

Watch the band perform “American Girl” on the late night variety show Fridays on June 6, 1980

Watch pal Stevie Nicks and the Heartbreakers singing “Happy Birthday” to Petty in 2006

Petty’s Twitter account shared this on October 20, 2017

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  1. Uncle Les
    #1 Uncle Les 23 October, 2017, 22:48

    According to my eyes, I see three: Tom Petty, Don Felder & Stephen Stills…wow!!…in one FL high school

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