Tom Petty: The Voice
Tom Petty has a shitty voice. It’s nasally. He shifts periodically in and out of a Southern drawl. Like Bob Dylan though and almost everyone after, it never mattered. Petty worshipped Elvis as a kid, and like The King, he didn’t just sing out—he hustled and worked every ounce of mojo he had out of it. Over his career, Petty stretched his limited pipes out to the brink (he lost his voice on tour in 1980 and had his tonsils removed) and then back again.
The Classic Albums documentary series (which is streaming on Netflix) did a segment on Damn The Torpedoes and spent a good chunk of time on “Don’t Do Me Like That.” There are a few clips on Youtube, including this one, where if you head to the 8-minute mark, you can hear Petty’s vocal harmonies isolated in the studio. Without the instrumentals, it ain’t pretty. But you can hear Petty churning out beads of sweat to make it work. He’s not even close to a decent rhythm and blues singer, but on “Don’t Do Me Like That,” he throws it all out there to deliver a fierce imitation—what Torpedoes producer Jimmy Iovine calls “a real sort of Wilson Pickett kind of vocal”—that hits you square in the gut. “Tom sang the shit out of it,” recalls Iovine. And he’s right. The shuffle, groove, and hook are irresistible.
All of Petty’s songs live and die by their chorus. Everything is built around that hook-laden delivery and its ensuing repetition. What’s particularly impressive is, since the choruses are always based around Tom’s lyrics and vocal melodies, he’s turned his voice—a technically inferior instrument—into his greatest asset and the most recognizable ingredient to his music. As much as I’ve dragged Tom’s voice down into the mud, I also absolutely love it. For a stadium-caliber rock ‘n’ roll legend, it has an incredibly quirky tone and character that sounds as if it was forced out the roof of your mouth, swallowed, and then spit out again. But it’s that simultaneously distinctive and anyone-could-sing-this quality to it that keeps anthemic numbers like “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’” grounded. If a contemporary pop country singer took a swing at either of those, the result would be a plate piled high with cheese.
"I’ve never heard him do a bad vocal," Iovine remarks earlier in the video. Iovine produced a handful of Bruce Springsteen’s best records along with Damn The Torpedoes, arguably Petty’s best, so I take Iovine at his word. Petty was not only driven and committed, the guy was unbelievably consistent. From 1976 through to 1999, he released 12 records with and without The Heartbreakers and another two with The Traveling Wilburys (not to mention the records he produced). There’s a few lesser records in that mix, but not one single flop. Even a weaker record like Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) contains flat-out remarkable tracks: the gorgeous acoustic-decorated “It’ll All Work Out” and the rollicking Rolling Stones-esque crowd pleaser “Jammin’ Me,” co-written with Dylan.
Petty’s trajectory is straight out of the American dream playbook. He came from nowhere and nothing, worked his ass off recording a demo, drove west until he hit the Pacific, and at the age of 23 had a record contract in his hands—all accomplished with one seriously nasal twang.