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Tom Petty had his roots in Florida, and he never let go

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at Wrigley Field Thursday, June 29, 2017, in Chicago.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at Wrigley Field Thursday, June 29, 2017, in Chicago. TNS

Tom Petty went all rock star on us, but the music icon was very much a Florida guy.

The musician, who died Monday at age 66 after suffering a massive heart attack, was born in Gainesville.

Before he was a household name as the lead singer for The Heartbreakers, Petty was your (above) average wannabe rocker.

In 2014, as Gainesville’s iconic Lipham Music store was closing, owner Buster Lipham reminisced about the skinny blond guy who used to hang around his shop in the ’60s. Back then, the rocker was known as “Tommy” Petty, Lipham told The Gainesville Sun.

Petty had fond memories of the record store, he told author Paul Zollo in his 2005 book, “Conversations with Tom Petty” (Omnibus Press, 2007).

“That store was kind of the hub of everything,” Petty said. “That was where all the musicians went and hung out, and they had this great inventory of instruments and amplifiers. People would come from all over North Central Florida to go to Lipham’s. You’d see the Allman Brothers in there. You’d see everybody. And their gear.”

And in a short story in William McKeen’s 2012 book, “Homegrown in Florida,” Petty talked about his first brush with fame, thanks to an uncle who worked in the movie business.

He recalled a day back when he was 11 when his aunt brought him to Ocala to see Elvis Presley, who was shooting the 1962 movie “Follow that Dream” there.

Tom Petty, a staple of rock radio through decades with his band the Heartbreakers, has died at 66. Mr. Petty wrote pithy, hardheaded songs that gave 1960s roots a contemporary polish.

“I didn’t know a lot about Elvis Presley,” the “Free Fallin” singer remembered in the story. “He was known to me as a fellow who wiggled. But I couldn’t really put together in my head who Elvis was exactly. I knew he was a rock’n’roll star. And I’d never thought much about rock’n’roll until that moment.”

The young man was starstruck by The King, whose presence left him speechless.

“He stepped out, radiant as an angel. He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life. At fifty yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like. And he came walking right toward us. And his hair was so black, I remember that it shined blue when the sunlight hit it.”

Though his last days were spent in Malibu, California, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer never forgot where he came from.

In September 2006, Petty and the Heartbreakers celebrated a leg of the band’s 30th anniversary tour at the University of Florida homecoming.

“Thank you so much, man,” he said in a pre-concert press conference. “Just incredible. Everywhere I look around here, there are a lot of memories.”

In an interview with NPR that same year, Petty discussed growing up in Gainesville with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air.”

“I was in the redneck, hillbilly part,” he said. “I wasn’t part of the academic circle, but it’s an interesting place because you can meet almost any kind of person from many walks of life because of the university. But it’s really surrounded by this kind of very rural kind of people that are — you know, they’re farmers or tractor drivers or just all kinds of — game wardens, you name it. So it’s an interesting blend.

His family wasn’t involved in the college, though.

“They were more of just your ‘white trash’ kind of family,” Petty continued. “And so I have that kind of background, but I always kind of aspired to be something else, and I made a lot of different friends over the years that were passing through.”

On Tuesday, a mural was painted reading, “Love you always, Gainesville No. 1 Son, Thanks, Tommy” featuring a heart with an arrow.

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