Tom Petty's On-Set Encounter With Elvis Set The Stage For The Classic Rocker's Legendary Career

Tom Petty was an iconic rock star who first achieved fame with his band, the Heartbreakers (which was formed from the ashes of his previous band, Mudcrutch), before embarking on a successful solo career. During his time with the Heartbreakers, Petty scored such hits as "American Girl," "Refugee," "Break Down," and "Freefallin.'" Throughout his career, he collaborated with top music acts including Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, and George Harrison. He and his band were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

But before Petty secured his place in rock 'n' roll history, he was born in Gainesville, Florida, on October 20, 1950. As stated in Biography, he didn't have the easiest home life growing up due to an abusive father, but music was his life preserver, and he eventually picked up the bass to play with a local band, the Epics, when he was 17 years old. Petty's love of music only grew, and he soon dropped out of school to play with Mudcrutch, which would someday turn into the Heartbreakers.


Tom Petty's rough home life may have contributed to his turn to music, but there's an even more impactful event that pushed him to pick up an instrument, and it happened when he was only 10 years old. At the time, his uncle just started working on the set of Elvis Presley's film, "Follow That Dream," and took the young Petty to the set in Ocala, Florida. Petty described his seeing Elvis in person to Rolling Stone, saying, "I remember his hair was so black that the sunshine was glowing off of it. Just a nod and a hello made your skin tingle. I was high for weeks. It lit a fever in me to get every record I could, and I really digested it. Elvis became the soundtrack of my early years."

As stated in Far Out Magazine, it was hard for any young person at the time to not be influenced by the music of the King of Rock 'n' Roll. But because Petty got to actually see Elvis in person, the influence he got from that encounter was clearly far more powerful than, say, simply hearing "Blue Suede Shoes" on the radio for the first time.

Elvis' lasting influence

According to Gainesville Downtown, the young Tom Petty knew Elvis Presley more as a movie star than as a rock star, but his childhood friend Keith Harben made sure to introduce him to the King's songs. Harben recalls that after Petty saw Elvis, "he was so excited about it, and I said, 'Well, you know, Tom, I have some old records that my older sister had left me — a little rack of vinyl RCA 45 RPMs of all Elvis.' There had to be 20 of them on that little rack."

Gainesville Downtown states that Harben lent his Elvis records to Petty, who listened to them endlessly. The two would even go to record shops to buy even more Elvis albums, as Petty had become practically obsessed with him and his music, prompting the young boy to try his hand at making music himself. 

Harben said, "Tom just got totally immersed in everything Elvis. Finally, he got a better stereo and started acquiring LP albums and was able to stack them on his turntable. He sat there and listened to them over and over until he acquired an acoustic guitar at some point and started somewhat teaching himself how to play." From then on, Petty was on the path to becoming a rock star just like his idol, and there was no looking back.