WASHINGTON — Tom Petty, a singer and guitarist who burst onto the scene during the 1970s as one of the most original, searching voices in rock and remained a major hitmaker for four decades, writing songs including ‘‘Free Fallin’,’’ ‘‘I Won’t Back Down,’’ and ‘‘American Girl,’’ died Monday at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 66.
Mr. Petty and his band released their self-titled debut in 1976 and soon drew comparisons to the bluesy, guitar-heavy rock of the Rolling Stones and the Byrds. Their music was unabashedly sentimental, seeming to speak to striving, everyday Americans no less than the songs of fellow rocker Bruce Springsteen, while featuring clever arrangements that intertwined the fretwork of Mr. Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell.
The group toured seemingly nonstop for decades, leading boisterous shows as recently as last week, when Mr. Petty concluded a nationwide tour that he said may well be his last. ‘‘I don’t want to spend my life on the road,’’ he told Rolling Stone.
Still, Mr. Petty seemed to treat rock as a religion, battling with his record label to prevent the cost of one of his albums from rising by $1 and exuding a sense of divine satisfaction while performing onstage. ‘‘I don’t think he thought there was a better way to live your life than in a rock band,’’ said rock historian and Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis. ‘‘You never get a sense that this guy was going through the motions at all. It was a matter of conviction for him.’’
Mr. Petty, the group’s leader and principal songwriter, was a musical craftsman who paired polished guitar riffs with lyrics that seemed lifted from barroom conversations in his home town of Gainesville, Fla. His 1978 single ‘‘Listen to Her Heart’’ begins, ‘‘You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine,’’ while ‘‘I Won’t Back Down’’ — the 1989 fist-pumper that he co-wrote with Jeff Lynne — starts this way: ‘‘Well, I won’t back down/ No, I won’t back down/You can stand me up at the gates of hell/ But I won’t back down.’’
It was simple, straightforward and catchy, with a hummable hook that helped Mr. Petty’s solo debut, ‘‘Full Moon Fever’’ (1989), sell millions of copies. His ‘‘Greatest Hits’’ record, a compilation that included the harmonica-driven single ‘‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance,’’ fared even better, sitting on the Top 200 albums chart for more than six years and briefly staking a claim to one of the 100 best-selling albums of all time.
Mr. Petty’s career was marked by personal problems that included a heroin addiction, a tumultuous marriage, and a 1987 house fire that burned everything but his basement recording studio. But he remained one of the most durable and distinctive presences in rock for decades, sporting a nasal voice and blond hair that fell to his shoulders.
His 1980s music videos, including an ‘‘Alice in Wonderland”-inspired video for ‘‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’’ (1985), in which Mr. Petty played a sunglasses-wearing Mad Hatter, introduced him to members of the MTV generation. And his recordings with the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup that formed in 1988 with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison (who died later that year), and Lynne, connected him with an earlier era of rock music.
Still, Mr. Petty remained an inscrutable presence to many fans. As one friend told biographer Warren Zanes, ‘‘He’s got tinted windows on his soul.’’
Thomas Earl Petty was born in Gainesville on Oct. 20, 1950, the son of an alcoholic insurance salesman who beat him relentlessly from the time he was 5. His body, he later said, was covered in welts. His revenge was a slingshot to the fin of his father’s 1955 Cadillac.
He escaped the pain of his family life through watching television and then through music. An encounter with rock star Elvis Presley, who was in town to shoot a scene from the 1962 Hollywood musical ‘‘Follow That Dream,’’ was a defining moment of his childhood. Through family connections — an uncle who had been hired to assist the film crew — he managed to get onto the film set and meet the star.
He soon became obsessed with the guitar, the instrument of his musical idol, and his school grades began to drop. He said he preferred the company of his guitar to dates.
Mr. Petty played in local rock bands, with musical dates often in topless bars, and left school at 17 to devote himself to the group Mudcrutch, which included two later foundational members of the Heartbreakers, keyboardist Benmont Tench and Campbell. He was, former bandmate Jim Lenahan told Zanes, ferociously ambitious, ‘‘really good at getting people to quit school and join his band.’’
Mudcrutch had a strong following in Florida, but Mr. Petty said he was determined to cast a wider mark, which meant writing his own music and hoping it would catch the attention of a record company in Los Angeles.
They signed with Shelter Records, but the band broke up over artistic and personal clashes. ‘‘We did the LA freakout,’’ Mr. Petty quipped. Not until 1975, at a demo session that included Tench, Campbell, drummer Stan Lynch, and bassist Ron Blair, did Mr. Petty suddenly find the chemistry just right.
Calling themselves Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, they released two major hits the next year, ‘‘American Girl’’ and ‘‘Breakdown,’’ which vaulted them to national attention.
Their style was a throwback in many ways, a rejection of arena rock bands like Led Zeppelin and the blues roots music of the Allman Brothers in favor of the feral sound of early Presley and Buddy Holly. When promoters and radio stations classified the group as a punk act, Mr. Petty fumed. He and his band were pure rockers.
“I thought the world of Tom,’’ Dylan told Rolling Stone Monday. “He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”