The Story Of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin"


Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty during The 19th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony - Rehearsal at Waldorf Astoria in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)

The music industry bursts with acrimonious stories but Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” bucks that trend. It was a smooth collaboration between Petty, producer Jeff Lynne, and guitarist Mike Campbell. Together the trio pumped out "I Won't Back Down" and "Runnin' Down A Dream,” along with “Free Fallin’” for his iconic Full Moon Fever album. Unbelievably, the original powers that be at MCA outright rejected that Hall of Fame album, claiming it lacked any hits! Eventually, smarter heads prevailed, and “Free Fallin’” became the third single in that murderer’s row of musical masterpieces. Here’s the history of “Free Fallin.’”

Jeff Lynne helped Petty find his style. the80sruled

Mulholland Drive

As Petty told VH1, a certain stretch of road provided much inspiration for the artist. "'I used to ride down Mulholland Drive and make up songs. Some of the songs were good, and some of the songs just wouldn't swing. I had this one: [sings] 'Mulholland Drive' and I never could get anywhere with that song.” Eventually, Petty found his creative push hanging out with Lynne and Campbell.

As the lead Heartbreaker remembered:

“One day with my friend Jeff Lynne and we were playing around on the keyboard. I hit this lick and he said, 'That's a good lick you got there,' and I played it again. So, just to make him laugh I started to make up words:

She's a good girl, loves her mama

Loves Jesus and America too

She's a good girl, crazy about Elvis...

And he goes, 'Good.' I said, 'What? What was good?'

'It's all good, just sing that.'"

Tom Petty and Bob Dylan during Bob Dylan and Tom Petty in Concert - July 22, 1986 at Poplar Creek Music Theater in Chicago, Illinois, United States. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Incredible Collaboration

According to Campbell, teamwork just flowed effortlessly. "That was an amazing time for me because it was mostly just the three of us - me and Tom and Jeff - working at my house. Sure enough, within five or six hours, the record would be done, and we'd just sit back and go, 'How the f-ck did you do that?'”

Apparently, that experience stood in stark comparison to how records usually rolled out as the guitarist detailed. “Everybody would set up to play and just laboriously run the song into the ground, and it usually got worse and worse from trying to get the groove and the spirit and trying to get a performance out of five guys at once.”

It was Lynne who really showed the Heartbreakers how to put an album together. “This guy walked in and he knew exactly how to put the pieces together, and he always had little tricks, like with the background vocals how he would slide them in and layer them, and little melodies here and there. Tom and I were soaking it up. Pretty amazing, a very exciting time, like going to musical college or something."

How Could You Miss On Tom Petty?

As we mentioned, the original heads at MCA felt Full Moon Fever put them to sleep. After learning of its rejection, an understandably distraught Petty went to a party with Lynne and George Harrison at the home of Mo Ostin who ran Warner Bros. Records. Eventually guitars came out and Petty unveiled "Free Fallin,'" which blew Ostin away. He probably nearly lost his mind when he learned MCA was rejecting it and guaranteed Petty that he would sign once his contract with MCA ran out.

The all-time musician joined up with a couple of nobodies known as Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan to keep himself busy while MCA left him adrift. Together, along with Lynne and Harrison, they formed the Traveling Wilburys while selling just a shade over 3 million copies with their original album. Eventually, someone at MCA realized their current executives must have suffered head injuries and cleaned house before making Full Moon Fever a reality.