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Petty was born October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida, the first of two sons of Kitty (Katherine) Petty, a local tax office worker, and Earl Petty, who worked in a grocery store. He had a brother, Bruce, who was seven years younger. His interest in rock and roll music began at age ten when he met Elvis Presley. In the summer of 1961, his uncle was working on the set of Presley’s film Follow That Dream, in nearby Ocala, and invited Petty to watch the shoot. He instantly became a Presley fan, and when he returned that Saturday, he was greeted by his friend Keith Harben, and soon traded his Wham-O slingshot for a collection of Elvis 45s. Of that meeting with Presley, Petty said, “Elvis glowed. ”
In a 2006 interview, Petty said he knew he wanted to be in a band the moment he saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show—and it’s true of thousands of guys—there was the way out. There was the way to do it. You get your friends and you’re a self-contained unit. And you make the music. And it looked like so much fun. It was something I identified with. I had never been hugely into sports. . . . I had been a big fan of Elvis. But I really saw in the Beatles that here’s something I could do. I knew I could do it. It wasn’t long before there were groups springing up in garages all over the place. ” He dropped out of high school at age 17 to play bass with his newly formed band.