Tom Petty has such an amazing and deep catalog of hit songs, but “Free Fallin” is arguably his most popular song. “Free Fallin” is Petty’s longest-charting song and it peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in January 1990. The song is ranked #177 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It also turns out that Tom Petty wrote the song in one night and he was propelled into writing the song by trying to make Jeff Lynne laugh. Lynne was a producer as well as the lead singer of Electric Light Orchestra and co-founded the supergroup Traveling Wilburys with Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison.
In this 2016 Billboard interview, Petty revealed how “Free Fallin” was written because he was trying to amuse 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. 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. He had to go somewhere, and I wrote the last verse and kind of just polished the rest of the song and when I saw him the next day I played him the song and he was like, ‘Wow, you did that last night?’ 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.”
Incredible how a classic rock song came to be because a music legend was trying to make another music legend laugh.