Learning to Fly: Exploring Tom Petty’s Gainesville Roots

Fun fact: Tom Petty was once an “ACR” – an Alachua County Resident.

To some, the band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is just another “throwback” music group your parents listen to on road trips – but what you may not have known is that Tom Petty was born and raised right here in Gainesville, Florida. That’s right – this rock ‘n’ roll mastermind once roamed the halls of Gainesville High School, and though he was not a Gator himself, he grew up in the same Alachua County swamp we all know and love.

Professor David Carlson, who teaches Rock ‘n’ Roll and American Society at the University of Florida, said Tom Petty is one of eight Gainesville natives to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“There isn’t another city this size that has that kind of representation in the Hall of Fame,” Carlson said. “Gainesville was, by the time the mid-1960s came around, an amazingly fertile, musical town.”

Tom Petty was born in Gainesville to a lower-middle class family, and he started playing guitar around age 10, Carlson said. One of Petty’s first musical inspirations was Elvis Presley. In the summer of 1961, Petty’s uncle worked on the crew of Elvis’ movie, Follow That Dream, which was filmed in nearby Ocala. One day, Tom joined his uncle on set, witnessed Elvis’ arrival and knew he wanted to become a famous musician.

Petty was also inspired by The Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

“That was the cathartic moment for so many young musicians,” Carlson said.

Petty had a negative relationship with his father, who was less-than-thrilled to have a son interested in pursuing a career in the arts. This didn’t stop Petty from forming a number of bands in high school; the most successful of those groups was called Mudcrutch, which featured two members of what would become the Heartbreakers.

“Part of the great legend of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was that [Mudcrutch] rented a farm somewhere a little ways north of town and turned it into a commune – a hippie enclave – and they had a couple of weekend-long concerts,” Carlson said.

At one point, Tom Petty worked on the grounds crew at the University of Florida. Rumor has it that Petty based the lyrics of “American Girl” (specifically the excerpt “...she stood alone on her balcony / she could hear the cars roll by out on 441 / like waves crashin’ on the beach”) on a night when he supposedly witnessed a female student jumping off a balcony of Beaty Towers. However, Tom Petty denied this in the book Conversations with Tom Petty, saying he wrote the song in California. Though the lyrics line up in that 13th Street (next to Beaty Towers) is also known as U.S. Highway 441, Beaty Towers have narrow windows and lack balconies, making the incident highly unlikely.

Another urban legend claims Tom Petty planted an Ogeechee lime tree – now called the “Tom Petty Tree” – somewhere near the Phelps Laboratory when he worked on the grounds crew at UF.

Carlson said Petty dropped out of Gainesville High School at age 17 and, fueled by his deeply rooted dreams of making it big time as a musician, he and his band members piled into a van and headed toward “the great wide open” – a.k.a. Los Angeles, the Emerald City of the music industry.

One of the most fascinating details Carlson shared was the serendipitous story of how Tom Petty, upon arrival in LA in 1974, searched for record companies in a phone booth.

“When they got to LA, they were basically destitute, and they actually now had a really good demo tape they made along the way,” Carlson said. “Petty goes into an old-fashioned, free-standing phonebooth, finds a phonebook to look for record companies and sees a crumpled piece of paper on the floor. It is a list of record companies.”

He may not “come around here no more,” but Tom Petty’s legacy lives on through his musical career, which spans decades and tells the stories of his journey from Gainesville to LA and everywhere in-between.

It takes a special artist or group to create music that transcends generations. As a collegiette living in the chaos of the present but constantly dreaming (and worrying) about the future, Tom Petty’s timeless lyrics encourage me to always pursue my wildest ambitions, even amid fear and uncertainty – because “after all, it was a great big world.”

Cover photo courtesy of Darcy Schild.