This Thursday night, the Songwriters Hall of Fame will induct its 2016 honorees, including Tom Petty, at a New York City ceremony. In advance of receiving the honor, Petty chatted with Billboard about his songwriting career, including how he put together his highest-charting solo hit, “Free Fallin’,” which peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989.
The 65-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer says he was sitting around trying to write a tune with collaborator Jeff Lynne and, after coming up with a riff, he started singing what became the song’s first verse “really just to amuse Jeff.”
Petty explains that when he got to the verse, Lynne said the word “freefalling” to him, then asked Tom to try and sing it in a higher octave. Petty tells Billboard that when he tried, he wasn’t able to sing the whole word in one breath, so he sang “free” then “freefalling.”
“We both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good,” says Tom. “It was that fast.”
Petty says that he was able to finish writing the last verse of “Free Fallin'” later that night, and the following day he and Lynne brought the tune to Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell‘s studio and recorded it.
Tom tells Billboard that just a few days later, he and Lynne wrote another of his big hits, “I Won’t Back Down,” in a little vocal booth while they were mixing “Free Fallin’.”
Petty admits that songwriting always has come naturally to him, although he can’t explain why or how he does it.
“Songs are kind of mystical and magical, there’s not a formula that brings them around,” he notes. “Sometimes I sit down and wonder if I’ve ever done it before. It’s just something I was born with, mostly.”
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