From the day his name first appeared on a record to the day he died, George Harrison was destined to forever be associated with one band and one band only – The Beatles. However, Harrison didn’t actually help to form the band. He accepted an offer from Paul McCartney to try out, and he was conscripted as the band’s lead guitarist. Throughout his entire tenure, Harrison struggled to have his artistic voice heard, especially in the band’s final years.
Harrison’s experiences during the last days of The Beatles put him off forming his own band, like McCartney’s Wings or John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, after the Fab Four broke up in 1970. But by the late ’80s, Harrison began to envision a new group, one made up of friends who were easy to hang out with and featured full contributions from all involved. No power struggles, no tension – just good times and good music.
Harrison got the opportunity when he began working with Jeff Lynne on Harrison’s comeback LP Cloud Nine. Lynne represented the first piece of the puzzle, and each of them picked who they would want in the group. Harrison wanted Bob Dylan, while Lynne wanted Roy Orbison, with whom Lynne was recording Mystery Girl at the time. Harrison and Lynne also befriended Tom Petty, who backed up Dylan with the Heartbreakers during Dylan’s 1987 ‘Temples in Flames’ tour.
It all came together when Harrison was contractually obligated to record a B-side for the European single of Cloud Nine‘s ‘This is Love’. Harrison, Lynne, and Orbison decided to record the song impromptu, and asked Dylan if they could use his home studio. Realising he didn’t have a particular guitar he wanted, Harrison went to Petty’s house to retrieve it. While there, Harrison invited Petty along, and the Traveling Wilburys were born.
In the months following Harrison’s death in 2002, Petty gave an interview to Rolling Stone where he remembered his friend and talked of the special place the Wilburys had in his heart. “George absolutely adored the Wilburys,” Petty said. “That was his baby from the beginning, and he went at it with such great enthusiasm. The rest of his life, he considered himself a Wilbury… His enthusiasm was very contagious in a recording session, in a writing session. He just had unbridled enthusiasm.”
“George’s idea of a band was that everybody hung,” Petty continued. “From what he told me, the Beatles were that way. They were very, very tight. He really wanted the Traveling Wilburys to be like that. Like, ‘If we’re going to the party, we’re all going.’ I’m so glad I got to be in a band with him. He taught me so much.”
According to Petty, the idea of reforming the Wilburys was never far from Harrison’s mind, even during his final days. “The last time he came over here, which wasn’t that long ago, he was playing the guitar and singing, singing me new songs that he had written, which were just so beautiful,” Petty said. “I said, ‘I wish you would just put a mic up, and let’s tape you just like this.’ He didn’t want to do it — ‘Maybe later.’”
Unfortunately Harrison never got the opportunity, and 15 years after Harrison’s death, Petty followed into the great wide open. But their legacies live on, not just with their killer solo tracks, but also with the great work put to tape during their time in the Traveling Wilburys.