1. He Had A Troubled Family Life
Getty Images / Allan Tannenbaum / Contributor
In his 2016 biography, Petty: The Biography, Tom revealed that, though he was close with his mother and his younger brother, he endured abuse from his father starting at a very young age.
The book recalls a particularly painful memory:
I remember it first happening when I was probably 4 […] when my father got home later, he came in, took a belt and beat the living sh*t out of me. He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes. I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that. Five years old. I remember it so well. My mother and my grandmother laid me in my bed, stripped me, and they took cotton and alcohol, cleaning these big welts all over my body.
2. He Met Elvis As A Child
In a 2006 interview with Esquire magazine, Tom revealed that his childhood wasn’t always so bleak, like when his uncle introduced him to “the King.”
Apparently, Elvis wasn’t in a chatty mood. Tom claimed he merely “grunted my way,” but he was still impressed and inspired to follow in the rock icon’s blue suede footsteps.
“Elvis really did look — he looked sort of not real, as if he were glowing. He was astounding, even spiritual,” Tom said.
3. He Struggled With His Level Of Fame
At the peak of his career, while touring for Damn the Torpedoes in 1980, Tom was crushed by the loss of his mother. He was being followed by chaotic fans and media throughout the tour, but took a break to visit her one last time at the hospital.
He was relieved to find a much calmer environment at the hospital, but it was soured as soon as he walked into his mom’s room. A nurse had apparently thought covering her with magazine clippings of Tom would be a nice gesture. Tom admitted in his biography that he instead felt hurt by the surreal experience.
“Even this moment, even this, someone had to corrupt with some reaction to fame, or whatever this was,” he wrote.
4. His Record Company Rejected His Solo Album
Although Full Moon Fever would go on to be Tom’s most successful album with perhaps his most iconic tune, “Free Fallin’,” the record company wasn’t keen on it at first.
The 1989 release eventually went platinum five times over, but he had to bide his time for the heads of the record company to switch over before it could see the light of day.
While he waited, Tom secretly struck a deal with Warner Bros. before making the official move a couple years later.
5. His First Marriage Was Rocky
Tom married Jane Benyo in 1974, and the pair remained together for 22 tumultuous years. The couple had two daughters before separating. Despite the bouts of tension between them, Tom still admitted to being “very much in love” with Jane in a 1991 interview with Rolling Stone.
He married his second wife, Donna York, in 2001 and shared what he believed to be the key to their successful union with Esquire: “You need to have each other’s back; you have to be a kind of team going through life. That’s beautiful — to have that kind of friendship. You’re going to need it when you get old.”
6. He Lost His Iconic Top Hat To A Fire
In the 1980s, Tom’s California home was struck by an arsonist. The fire destroyed everything, sparing only his basement recording studio.
According to Ultimate Classic Rock, the family had just sat down to breakfast when they noticed the smell of smoke. Tom tried to stop the flames, but they lost nearly all of their belongings — including his trademark top hat.
7. He Went By Stage Names At The Height Of His Career
In the late ’80s, Tom joined fellow musicians George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison to form a supergroup called the Traveling Wilburys.
They each adopted pseudonyms as members of the fictional Wilbury clan for the two albums they recorded together.
For Volume One, he was known as Charlie T. Wilbury Jr., but switched to Muddy Wilbury for Volume Three (which was actually the cheeky band’s second volume).
8. Sam Smith Gave Him A Belated Songwriting Credit
The English crooner made his international break here in the US with his hit ballad, “Stay with Me,” in 2014. The song also happens to sound an awful lot like Tom’s “I Won’t Back Down,” which was released in 1989.
In fact, the two songs sound so much alike that a judge ordered Sam to give Tom and co-writer Jeff Lynne 12.5% writing credit on the album, according to reports from The Sun.
Sam maintained it was a total coincidence, while Rolling Stone reported Tom saying he had “no hard feelings, these things happen.”
9. He Fought A Nasty Addiction
In his biography, Tom admitted to battling a heartbreaking heroin addiction back in the 1990s. He was afraid to talk about the troubling time before, not just out of shame but also out of fear that he might inspire someone to think they could dabble in the drug and come out the other side like him, too. Tom made sure to clear up that misconception.
“You start losing your soul… It’s an ugly f***ing thing. Really ugly,” he said. “I fear that if I talk about it, people will think, ‘Well, I could do it and get off.’ But you can’t. Very few people do.”
10. He Dipped His Toes In The Acting World
His music is featured in hundreds of productions, but Tom also made his own appearance in a couple of projects. He made his acting debut with a small role in 1987’s Made in Heaven and co-starred with Kevin Costner in 1997’s The Postman.
Tom worked more extensively as a voice actor in 28 episodes of King of the Hill.
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