By Christopher Scapelliti Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images
Tom Petty’s 1989 hit “Free Fallin’” is a simple enough song. It contains just a handful of guitar chords that any beginner could easily handle.
As easy tunes go, it’s good for a laugh. And as it turns out, that’s exactly what Petty had in mind when he wrote it. He says he began writing the song spontaneously during sessions for his debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, as a way to make producer Jeff Lynne crack up.
“I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff, the intro of the song,” Petty told Billboard last year in an interview conducted prior to his induction in the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 9, 2016. “And I think Jeff said something like, ‘That’s a really good riff, but there’s one chord too many,’ so I think I cut it back a chord, and then, really just to amuse Jeff, I sang that first verse.
“Then he starts laughing.”
Petty may have been goofing around, but before he knew it, he was on his way to writing a hit, his first without his backing group, the Heartbreakers (though it does feature Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell). Lynne’s role quickly developed as Petty worked his way to the chorus.
“I got to the chorus of the song, and he leaned over to me and said the word freefalling,” Petty recalls. “And I went to sing that, and he said, ‘No, take your voice up and see how that feels.’
“So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast.”
Petty continued to work on the song on his own in the studio after Lynne departed. By the next day’s session, “Free Fallin’” was finished and ready to be recorded.
“I played him the song and he was like, ‘Wow, you did that last night?’” Petty says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘We’ve got to go cut this,’ and we just took off to Mike Campbell’s studio where we knew we could get in and get it done that day. So we went in and made the record that day.”
The song was so good that it was chosen to lead off Full Moon Fever. It also went on to become Petty’s biggest hit, reaching Number Seven on Billboard’s Hot 100.