Tom Petty dead at 66: Stories behind 7 of his most famous songs

PHOTO: Musician Tom Petty performs. PlayPhoto by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
WATCH Aug. 12, 1991: Tom Petty on his new song 'Learning to Fly'

Tom Petty has died at the age of 66, after going into cardiac arrest and being found at his home in Malibu, Calif.

Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, were currently on their 40th anniversary tour, and had just played the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in September.

Tony Dimitriades, longtime manager of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, released a statement late Monday on behalf of Petty's family saying the rocker had died. There were erroneous reports he had passed earlier in the day.

After four decades in the music industry, Petty recorded more than a dozen studio albums -- the latest being "Hypnotic Eye" in 2014. With so many Billboard Top 100 hits, it’s difficult to come up with a greatest hits list, but here are seven of the most notable songs in his acclaimed repertoire.

'Free Fallin'

1989's "Free Fallin" appeared on Petty's debut solo album, "Full Moon Fever," and peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Originally, Petty began singing the song's first verse ("She's a good girl, loves her mama Loves Jesus and America too") just to make Jeff Lynne laugh, Billboard reported. "With 'Free Fallin'' I was very lucky, because it came very quickly and we recorded that song in a day," he said.

However, the singer once told Esquire that the song's popularity dulled it a bit for him, personally. "Maybe it would be one of my favorites if it hadn't become this huge anthem," he said, "but I'm grateful that people like it."

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“Don't Come Around Here No More”

This 1985 hit -- widely known for its creative music video -- reached No. 2 on the Billboard Rock Tracks list.

In an excerpt of Petty's 2015 memoir obtained by Billboard, it was reported that the song was written for Stevie Nicks by Petty, producer Jimmy Iovine and former Eurythmics member Dave Stewart.

"It was five in the morning, and I was really tired. So I said, 'I'm going to go. I'm leaving you guys, and I'll be back tomorrow.' I left, and when I got back the next day, at something like 3 p.m., the whole song was written. And not only was it written; it was spectacular," Nicks said. "Dave was standing there saying to me, 'Well, there it is! It's really, really good.' And they go to me, 'Well, it's terrific, and now you can go out ... and you can sing it.' Tom had done a great vocal, a great vocal. I just looked at them and said, 'I'm going to top that? Really?' I got up, thanked Dave, thanked Tom, fired Jimmy, and left."

“Mary Jane's Last Dance”

This 1993 song actually first appeared on the band's "Greatest Hits" album. Once again, their track hit the Billboard top 100, this time rising to No. 14. The song, he told David Letterman, was about a girl from Indiana.

Petty once told ABC News that the song's success came as a surprise to him. "I really didn't know, you know, I did that in the middle of… I was working on another album, and they needed another track for the “Greatest Hits,” an extra track, and I did that," he said. "Voila!"

“I Won't Back Down”

Another hit off "Full Moon Fever," this jam reached No. 12 on the overall top 100, and topped the rock charts.

The song also has a famous music video, which features Lynne and George Harrison, who were in the band the Traveling Wilburys with Petty, along with former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. Petty said that the Beatles' performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" inspired him to go into music.

"I had been a fan up to that point. But this was the thing that made me want to play music. You saw that it could be done," he said, according to Grammys.com. "There could be a self-contained unit that wrote, recorded and sang songs. And it looked like they were having an awful lot of fun doing it."

“American Girl”

The 1977 song, one of Petty's firsts, didn't tear up the charts in any way, but it's one of the more popular songs from the group. It's also been featured in a variety of films long after its release, like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "The Silence of the Lambs."

According to Snopes, Petty debunked an urban myth that the song was about a suicide at the University of Florida, which is located in his hometown of Gainesville. "The song has nothing to do with that. But that story really gets around… And that’s happened with a lot of songs. But really extremely in that song. They’ve really got the whole story. I’ve even seen magazine articles about that story. Is it true or isn’t it true? They could have just called me and found out it wasn’t true!" he reportedly said in the book "Conversations with Tom Petty."

The singer added that he doesn't remember writing the song, but he believed he was living by the freeway at the time. "I remember thinking that that sounded like the ocean to me," he said. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by. I think that must have inspired the lyric."

'Don't Do Me Like That'

Heartbreakers keycoardist Benmont Tench once said they originally cut the song with their band Mudcrutch, but the album never came out. Tench went on to pitch the song to J. Geils Band's Peter Wolf before mentioning it to Iovine, who loved it. The song went on to become one of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' first big hits.

”Learning to Fly”

In 1991, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their album "Into the Great Wide Open," which included the single "Learning to Fly." In an interview with ABC News, Petty said that he and Lynne tried to write a song about overcoming adversity.

"I don't say that I can fly -- I'm learning. Also, we're expected to do a lot of things that we're not necessarily equipped for," he said. "Everyone has tragedy in their life. You can lay down and let the tragedy overwhelm you, or you can fly above it and I think that's sort of what I'm trying to say in that song."