Tom Petty biographer reflects on losing a "great American songwriter"

Rock legend Tom Petty, best known as frontman for the Heartbreakers, died Monday night after he suffered cardiac arrest at age 66. His manager said in a statement: "He died peacefully...surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends." Petty gained fame as the voice behind iconic hits like "Free Fallin'," "American Girl" and "I Won't Back Down." 

Writer and musician Warren Zanes conducted extensive and candid interviews with Petty for his book, "Petty: The Biography." Zanes told "CBS This Morning" he first met the singer along with his own band as a teenager and was a rabid fan of Petty.  

"From the first record on we were committed to Tom Petty and just made it our business to find this guy and he was kind enough eventually to reach out," Zanes recalled. "We were doing a run at the Roxie in L.A. And he called me in my room at 3:00 in the morning and we went out to his house."

Petty rose to fame in the 1970s with his band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but the singer was also a successful solo artist who left his mark on a generation.

"I think we've lost one of the great American songwriters and one of the great American band leaders. And it's that combination of the material that he wrote and how he brought it to his band that makes him singular. And to me he's up there with the Buddy Hollys and the Hank Williamses of the world," Zanes said. "I always got the sense that he was a restless spirit who wasn't going to be overly satisfied with his own work for too long." 

Petty's music made an indelible mark on American pop culture, frequently appearing in the soundtracks of movies and TV.

"He just wrote these kind of songs that many people could just see themselves in them," Zanes said. "He was a guy who was real about this rock 'n' roll thing and that attracted people. He never sold himself. He just attracted people." 

In the biography, Petty spoke candidly to Zanes about the abuse he suffered as a child and his struggles with heroin addiction.

"I think music was the saving grace. I think music was the safe place in a turbulent situation, you know, growing up is turbulent but if you're growing up in an abusive home it's all the more turbulent," Zanes said. "He talked about it as if it was still close to him," Zanes said. 

Over his career, Petty released three solo albums and 13 albums with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He was also part of the 1980s group the Traveling Wilburys comprised of heavy-hitters Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne. Despite his high profile, Zanes said Petty "stuck to himself."

"You didn't see him out at the parties. But people knocked on his door. I mean, this is a guy when he was very young he met Elvis Presley but then he's asked to join a band with a Beatle and Bob Dylan. He worked with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. The history of popular music knocked on his door. That's the kind of guy he was. So when I say he attracted people, he didn't just attract people, he attracted the best," Zanes said.