Tom Petty Said It Was Intimidating Singing With Roy Orbison in The Traveling Wilburys

In 1988, fate brought George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison together to make music. They called their accidental supergroup The Traveling Wilburys after George’s slang term for accidents in the studio. None of it would have happened if they’d planned it. They all had the times of their lives.

However, with such enormous talent in one band, it was hard to mistake each member’s strengths, including Orbison’s powerhouse voice. Petty said it was intimidating singing next to him.

Tom Petty performing at Universal Amphitheater in 1987.
Tom Petty | Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

The Traveling Wilburys happened by accident

George formed The Traveling Wilburys by accident. After recording his 1987 album, Cloud Nine, Europe wanted an extra song for a 12-inch single.

So, he had to record a new song quickly. That night, he told the story to Lynne and Orbison. George asked Lynne for help, and Orbison told the guys to call him when they found a recording studio. He wanted to watch them.

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

When they all arrived at Dylan’s garage, 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 the song was too good for a European 12-inch. He kept hold of it until he decided to get everyone to record a whole album.

Somehow, all five musicians were available in May 1988. They gave themselves nine days to record The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. It was magical for everyone.

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Tom Petty was intimidated singing with Roy Orbison

The Traveling Wilburys had five legends. That’s a lot of talent in one band. However, none of their egos got in the way of their music. The point of the supergroup was so that the five friends could come together as equals and make tunes.

In a video about the making of The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, Petty said, “The thing I guess that would be hardest for people to understand is what good friends we were. 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.”

Still, it was intimidating for Petty to sing with Orbison, one of the best singers. Before the supergroup reconvened to record their first album, Petty said, “Every time we’d start thinking about it, ‘Wow, Roy Orbison’s in the band!'”

On recording with Orbison, Petty said, “Sometimes we’d sing the same song just to see who sounded good or this key fits somebody. That was a lot of fun. George would kinda audition us, which could be really intimidating. Roy Orbison would sing the song, and then they’d send you out to sing it. It was like, ‘Well, damn, that’s really intimidating.'”

Petty used to tell Orbison that he was the best singer in the world. Orbison always replied, “Yeah.”

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Petty and Orbison loved recording with The Traveling Wilburys

Orbison loved working with the guys just as much as they loved working with him.

“We did it for music; that’s what it was all about,” Orbison said. “There wasn’t a lot of deciding what to do. Not a lot of time spent planning out anything. So we just wrote the best songs that we could write and sang them as best we could.

“I put all I had into the project, but the other guys had visions of what I should sound like or what I should sing and things like that. So, we didn’t question each other, we just went right ahead.”

Petty loved the whole experience too. However, Orbison suddenly died in late 1988. Petty said Orbison knew he went out on top.

“The last conversation I had with him was a couple of days before he died, on the phone, and he was just so thrilled that the Wilburys had gone platinum, and he was just, ‘Isn’t it great? It’s great!'” Petty said.

“We all felt that Roy was a real special part of the group, and it was just our ace in the hole to have that voice come in. And he was so nice, and it was so painful when he died.”

George was one of the first people to call Petty after Orbison died. In his own way, George reassured Petty that Orbison would be OK.

Petty explained in Martin Scorsese’s documentaryGeorge Harrison: Living in the Material World, “When I came to the phone, he said, ‘Aren’t you glad it’s not you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I am, you know.’ He said, ‘He’ll be OK. He’ll be OK. He’s still around. So just listen. He’s still around.’ That was all he had to say about it.”

George said the supergroup didn’t even think of replacing Orbison and that he would have wanted them to carry on. The supergroup dedicated The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 to Orbison.

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