Tom Petty is a legendary American rocker, and this Thursday (June 9), he’s about to get the recognition he’s earned and deserves when he is inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Tom Petty will be joined in the 2016 induction ceremony with fellow artists Marvin Gaye, Chip Taylor, Elvis Costello, Nick Jonas, and more. Performers and presenters at the 2016 Songwriter Hall Of Fame induction ceremony with include Jennifer Hudson, Sister Sledge, and The B-52’s, among others.
This week, Billboard published an interview with the legendary Tom Petty to honor his lifetime of achievement. During the sit-down, Tom Petty discussed the origins of his most successful (highest charting) solo hit, “Free Fallin’.” According to Petty, despite the serious-sounding nature of the song, it actually has a pretty funny backstory. You’ll never look at the Tom Petty hit the same way again.
First, check it out.
According to Tom Petty, he’s less of a rock star than a dude with mad observational skills. He doesn’t think that his ability to write some of the most memorable and iconic songs of the last decades is something he learned, either, but rather something he was born with.
Petty says that “Free Fallin’,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100 solo chart, was created pretty much by accident, that it all started with sitting around with Jeff Lynne, the founder and sole original member of Electric Light Orchestra. Tom Petty says that he and Lynne were sitting, toying with the idea of writing a song, when Petty “hit on the main riff, the intro of the song” pretty much by happenstance and fiddling. Lynne reportedly told Tom that the riff was “good,” but that he had “one chord too many.”
Tom Petty says that was when he dropped the excess riff and sang the first verse. As the story goes, Jeff Lynne just started laughing and whispered the words “free falling.”
The rest is rock and roll history.
“So I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast.”
Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’ ” was, in the artist’s own words, created because of a laugh.
Tom says that he didn’t really know the girl depicted in the song. Rather, he incorporated characters into the song’s story-line that he saw every day driving back and forth between the valley and Beverly Hills. According to Petty, the song and the video for “Free Fallin’ ” were just “kind of how I saw it.”
Tom Petty says that his success with “Free Fallin’ ” was very lucky, because it came about so fast. He says the song was recorded in one day and within the next day or two, the tracks were mixed in studio. While Tom Petty’s most successful solo single was being polished, the prolific songwriter wrote “I Won’t Back Down,” also in the company of friend and fellow songwriter Jeff Lynne. According to Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down” was recorded within a day or two of “Free Fallin’ ” being completed.
“To me, personally, a song is only as good as what kind of record I can make of it. I’m writing it to make a record, so it really is all about the record and then if they find life beyond that, great.”
Tom Petty calls his abilities to write songs “kind of mystical and magical.” He says that he doesn’t have a formula to make great music and write great lyrics, but that the process just comes naturally and easily to him. It’s not something he really works for, but something he was born with.
“Maybe because my mother read a lot to me when I was a young guy.”
Wherever his talent comes from and whomever is his muse, Tom Petty says that he feels like he’s still got a lot of that “mystical and magical” stuff inside, and that he’s far from done with his songwriting.
[Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images]