Tom Petty

Oct 5, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

There's no hard science behind us, merely observation - but it seems that many of the great performers of popular music are not the ones with the great singing voices.

It's not an iron-clad rule. There was nothing Freddie Mercury couldn't do vocally. Steven Tyler commands a marvelous vocal instrument. Robert Plant could tackle just about anything a vocal music performance required. Michael Jackson had no weaknesses.

But a lot of these superstars probably couldn't have made all-state choir in high school. Think of Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan. Bono. Mick Jagger. Johnny Cash. Joe Cocker. Eddie Vedder.

But there's more to it than that. What rock and roll music taught the world, among many other things, was that you didn't have to be have a great voice to be a great singer.

Tom Petty illustrated the point. His voice wasn't powerful. It didn't have much vocal range. Heck, it wasn't even particularly pleasant. Bing Crosby he wasn't.

But he was one of the greats. An all timer. The Mad Hatter. A Hall of Famer who died Monday at age 66.

In the half page retrospective we are publishing this weekend in the Sunday Diversions section, Petty is quoted from past interview saying "I think it's really important that you believe in yourself, first of all. It's a very hard to thing to come by. But when you get it, it's invaluable."

That's just what he did in creating one of the most instantly recognizable and unforgettable sounds in rock music. No one else sounded like Tom Petty, and Tom Petty sounded like no one else. He had no illusions about what he could and could not do as a singer. He strained at high notes that Daryl Hall would have rolled out effortlessly. But Tom Petty, like all the other great singers who couldn't sing great, paired himself with the right song, the right range, and, especially in Petty's case, one of the most fantastic back up bands ever to hit the rock and roll stage.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers turned out a lot of hits, and many more songs that weren't quite hits but deserved to be. He stayed on top for decades. The record sales are 80 million and counting. The sell-out concert tours would have continued for as long as Petty wanted them to.

He had a heart attack on Monday, at home, apparently by himself. By the time others found him, it was too late to help. Listeners who had him in their ears and minds since the 1970s should not have been astonished to hear that he was 66 years old, but the nature of rock and roll music keeps our favorite performers forever young. Tom Petty was no kid, but he still sounded like his long ago self when he performed.

"I was a mild-mannered boy who was interested in the arts," he remembered of his childhood, when his gruff father could not identify with a son like that. Millions of other people could, however, and they made Tom Petty an unusual and distinctive music star. He held up his part of the bargain with strength and faith to the end.

So long, Tom Petty. You're free fallin' now. You're into the great wide open.

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