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In the late 1980s, George Harrison put together The Traveling Wilburys, a band that included Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. The famous artists wanted a chance to make music for fun. After recording their first album, Orbison died. The band mourned the loss, but Harrison also shared some dark words with Petty.

Tom Petty and George Harrison wear jackets and walk outdoors at night.
Tom Petty and George Harrison | SGranitz/WireImage

George Harrison and Tom Petty were close friends

Petty became a musician because of The Beatles, so Harrison’s offer to play in The Traveling Wilburys thrilled him. To Petty’s surprise, the two men also became fast friends

“I was surprised he liked me that much,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “He was immediately a hangout pal. That was awkward. I’d tell him, ‘How do we deal with this? You’re a Beatle.’ He’d be like, ‘Yeah, whatever. That was a long time ago.'”

Petty said that he hadn’t realized how much he needed a figure like Harrison in his life.

“That’s the thing I needed in my life, the older-brother figure I never had,” he said. “And it was someone who had been through such an extraordinary thing in rock & roll. When I needed to talk to somebody, I could phone him, and he would have a pretty fresh outlook on it.”

The former Beatle called the Heartbreaker’s frontman after Roy Orbison’s death

Orbison died of a heart attack in 1988. In the documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Petty explained that his management called him to inform him of the loss. Soon after, a call came in from Harrison.

“The next call was George, and I don’t even know if I should say what he said to me, but I will anyway,” Petty said. “When I came to the phone, he said, ‘Aren’t you glad it’s not you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah I am.'”


Tom Petty Said George Harrison Was Painfully Honest: ‘He Said Everything That Crossed His Mind’

Despite the darkness of this comment, Harrison also noted that Orbison’s memory would stay alive through his music.

“He said, ‘It’ll be OK, it’ll be OK, he’s still around. Just listen,'” Petty explained. “That was all he had to say about it.”

The band made no move to replace Orbison on their album after his death.

Tom Petty said he was lucky to have known George Harrison

In 2001, Harrison died of cancer. While reflecting on their relationship, Petty expressed his luck in knowing the other man.

“It’s the only time in my life, really, that I had been that close to somebody — outside of like my mom dying or something,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 2002, per The Petty Archives. “I loved him so much, and if he had never played a note, I would have been so blessed to have him in my life. And then over the weekend, it really comes home to you that, oh, wow, the whole world feels this way. They all knew him in their way, and they are mourning him as well. It was very hard, because there’s a duality to it. I mourn for my friend, and then I also am a huge fan just like everyone else. I’m just blessed by God to have known him.”

He also gave a message to fans mourning the loss of the musician.

“I would assure all his fans that George was just really as beautiful as they pictured him,” Petty said. “And maybe more.”