Tom Petty on the origins of 'Free Fallin'': 'I didn't know the girl'
Tom Petty wrote countless memorable songs, many of them chronicling a litany of women who came to vivid life in his lyrics — “American Girl,” Mary Jane of “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” and the various “girls” and “babes” who populate his songs.
Perhaps none loom so large as the “good girl who loves her mama” at the heart of “Free Fallin’,” Petty’s highest-charting solo single released in 1989.
“I don’t know the girl in ‘Free Fallin’,” Petty, who died Monday after suffering a heart attack, revealed in an interview with Billboard ahead of his 2016 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Explaining the song’s origins and the inspiration for its characters, he said he was inspired by his daily drive to the music studio and everyone he saw along Ventura Boulevard on his way. “I tried to grab a little bit of these characters on the road and it was kind of how I saw it. It’s pretty true of that time and that era, I remember. … The skateboarders and the shoppers and the young kids in the trendiest possible clothes and the auto-tellers and the drive-thru banks. It’s a scene, it’s a never-ending scene.”
In the same interview, he also revealed that he originally came up with the song’s signature chord riff and opening lyrics as a way of amusing Electric Light Orchestra’sJeff Lynne. “Jeff Lynne and I were sitting around with the idea of writing a song and I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff, the intro of the song, 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, honestly, I just sang that first verse. Then he starts laughing,” he said. “Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word, ‘freefalling.’ 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 said he finished the song that same night and he and Lynne recorded it immediately the next day.
Read the full story on Billboard.