Behind the band name: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers


Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

It’s a name as synonymous with American rock and roll as any. And it’s a name that, at first glance, seems simple enough and standard enough to fit, so to speak.

But the band’s name came at a time in American music history when things were a bit more psychedelic. The drug had taken full effect in the ’60s and early ’70s, so when Tom Petty and his musical team were looking for a name, there were plenty of quirks to choose from (more on that below).

Instead, however, the group landed on the simple but iconic name that has stuck for many decades. But how and where did all this crystallize?

That’s what we’re going to dive into here today. So let’s just do that.

Before the heartbreakers

Before Petty joined the band, which would become the Heartbreakers, the Florida-born artist had earlier bands called the Sundowners, The Epics and Mudcrutch.

In 1974, Mudcrutch signed with Shelter Records and moved from one sunny state to another, this time moving to Los Angeles, California from Florida. The band released a single, “Depot Street”, in 1975. It did not chart and the band later disbanded.

The Heartbreakers

A few years later, in 1976, Petty formed his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with Mike Campbell on lead guitar, Ron Blair on bass, Stan Lynch on drums and Benmont Tench on keyboards. Petty was the frontman, songwriter and rhythm guitarist.

The band made waves from their first outing, releasing a self-titled album. It didn’t do well at first in the US, but in the UK songs like “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” won them attention. Later, songs like “Breakdown” and “American Girl” caught the band’s attention even more.

Petty spoke of the band’s first gig in the UK, saying: “The audience got up and charged the stage and boogie their brains out. It was so rushed. Wow, we had never seen anything like it, man.

The band continued their self-titled debut with the 1978 album You will get it!, which was the band’s first gold record. It featured songs like “I Need to Know” and “Listen To Her Heart”. Some 25 years later, the band would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

Name theories

While the Heartbreakers seems pretty simple as a name at first glance, Petty went through several other options before landing on the rather timeless moniker.

At first, Petty thought of the King Bees. Other more dreamlike names were circulating, given that it was in the mid-1970s that the drug had its effect.

However, when the Heartbreakers were suggested to Petty, he liked it, even though he knew that wasn’t quite right for the music-loving, non-passionate group of musicians he had assembled. Some have speculated that it was stuck because Petty always thought his comrades would leave him and thus he would be “heartbroken” by them.

In the book, Conversations with Tom Pettythe artist said: “I just think it was the days of psychedelic names, like Chocolate Watchband and Strawberry Alarm Clock…So someone made it up one night, and we all thought it was a funny word, and we stuck with it.“

Sometimes it’s the names that make you smile that are right.

Photo by Robert Sebree


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