Tom Petty Said George Harrison Loved The Traveling Wilburys Because He Didn’t Have to Be the Frontman

George Harrison formed The Traveling Wilburys by accident, but he always wanted it to happen. The former Beatle always dreamed of working with his friends in some capacity. He was happy to show up at their homes with some beer and tons of ukuleles and jam late into the night.

George said the supergroup wouldn’t have happened if they had planned it. He might have accidentally founded the supergroup, but The Traveling Wilburys had no frontman.

George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty of The Traveling Wilburys performing together in 1990.
George Harrison and his Traveling Wilburys bandmates Bob Dylan and Tom Petty | KMazur/WireImage

George Harrison formed The Traveling Wilburys by accident

In 1988, shortly after releasing his 1987 album Cloud Nine, George’s record company told him they needed another song for a European 12-inch single.

That night, he told the story to Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. George asked Lynne for help, but Lynne didn’t know where to get a studio and engineer so quickly. Orbison told the guys to call him when they found a recording studio. He wanted to watch them.

Then, George remembered that Bob Dylan had a studio in his garage and called him to see if they could use it. Dylan agreed. George then went to Tom Petty’s house to pick up his guitar. Petty wanted to join the group after he heard what was happening.

They all arrived at Dylan’s garage, and George and Lynne started writing the song. George began to think it was silly having all the guys there but not on the record. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment having all five of them in one studio. So they all joined in.

Looking around Dylan’s garage, George saw a box that said, “Handle With Care.” So, they formed the lyrics around that phrase. When they finished recording, George knew “Handle With Care” was too good for a European 12-inch. He kept hold of it until he decided to get everyone to record a whole album.

They reconvened in May and recorded The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1.

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Tom Petty said George Harrison loved The Traveling Wilburys because he didn’t have to be the frontman

Petty knew that George loved The Traveling Wilburys. He recognized that the supergroup was George’s dream. Petty often had George over for those late-night ukulele jam sessions, so he also knew how much George loved jamming with his friends.

“The thing I guess that would be hardest for people to understand is what good friends we were,” Petty said in a video about the making of the band’s debut album. “It really had very little to do with combining a bunch of famous people.

“It was a bunch of friends that just happened to be really good at making music. None of this would have happened without him. It was George’s band. It was always George’s band. And it was a dream he had for a long time.”

In a special edition of Rolling Stone called “Remembering George,” Petty recalled George’s enthusiasm and happiness having all his friends jamming and recording together.

“George’s idea of a band was that everybody hung,” Petty said. “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.”

George also loved that he wasn’t The Traveling Wilburys’ frontman. They were all equals.

Petty told Rolling Stone, “I think George [Harrison]’s move — I’m sure of it, really — had to do with the fact that he just didn’t want to be the guy up front, no matter that he had a Number One album at the time. He never wanted that. And the Wilburys gave him a way around it. I think I often feel the same way.”

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Petty said George considered himself a Wilbury for the rest of his life

The Heartbreakers frontman said that George really loved The Traveling Wilburys. George considered himself a Wilbury for the rest of his life.

“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.”

Petty said George was never far from music, but releasing music and performing was another thing. That’s what was appealing about the Traveling Wilburys. He didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want. George didn’t have to be the supergroup’s frontman. He didn’t even have to record and release an album with his friends either.

“Every time George had a joint and a few beers he would start talking about touring. I think once or twice we even had serious talks about it, but nobody would really commit to it. We never thought we were gonna run out of time,” Petty said.

Thankfully, though, George and the rest of the musicians decided to release their music.

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