The Truth About Tom Petty's Friendship With George Harrison

Rock and roll's leading heartbreaker, Tom Petty, and the quietest Beatle, George Harrison, famously collaborated with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra), and Roy Orbison to form the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, but Petty's friendship with Harrison actually goes much deeper than just making music. The two forged a deep, lasting friendship from the moment they first met, almost like brothers.

Petty's biographer Warren Zane told the Washington Post that "no matter how corny it might sound, they were kind of falling in love with each other." According to an excerpt from Zane's biography, Petty actually had Harrison to thank for being on stage with the other musicians he'd idolized as a younger man. Tom was there "at a Beatle's request," he wrote.

Rock and Roll Detective tells the story of how the legendary supergroup was formed by "an organic happy accident" when, after picking up a guitar he'd left at Petty's house one day, George found that he had a whole court of rock and roll royalty gathered in Bob Dylan's garage studio and decided to take advantage. Harrison was also partly responsible for the name of the supergroup. As told in Far Out Magazine, George called the band's studio equipment their "Wilburys," so when it came time to pick a name, Lynne suggested "The Traveling Wilburys" and the other guys loved it. They all took names in the Wilbury family: Tom was Muddy Wilbury, and George was Spike. 

Harrison's friendship had a huge influence on Petty

In August 2014, NPR's Melissa Block spoke with Petty about his friendship with Harrison, who died of lung cancer in 2001. The two apparently hit it off right from the start. "Strangely enough, we got along very well right away. He was the kind of person that, when he came across a good thing or the potential for a friend, he really was aggressive about it," Petty told Block. And from there, the rest is rock and roll history.

"We became very good friends, really, for decades," Petty said. He didn't like to talk about it too much, he said, because "people might see it as boasting or something." (Well, wouldn't you brag about being buddies with a Beatle?) Petty said that being friends with Harrison "was like having an older brother that had a lot of experience in the music business, someone who I could go to with my troubles and questions."

But, surprisingly, Petty said that the biggest influence Harrison had on him wasn't musical, but rather spiritual: "He gave me a way of understanding a higher power without it being stupid, or having tons of rules and books to read." Still, their friendship was so deep that Petty wasn't even able to pick a single memory of George Harrison that stood out in his mind. "I have thousands, you know. Thousands and thousands. We'd be here all day talking about George."

Petty inducted Harrison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Petty had the honor of inducting Harrison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, honoring George's solo career. (The Beatles were inducted in 1988 by Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones.) Cosmic magazine reported how Petty remembered his old friend and bandmate fondly: "George was a man who really lived every minute of his life. He really filled a room. He was a very upbeat person. He had a very keen sense of humor. A very keen sense of spirit. He was never preachy, he led by example."

As you might expect, the thing that Petty spoke most about when saluting his old friend was love. He mentioned Harrison's love of guitars and rock and roll. Petty namechecked Carl Perkins and Little Richard (who Harrison himself namechecked back in 1988). "And he loved [his son and wife] Dhani and Olivia," Petty added. "And he loved to stay up all night long and play the ukulele 'til dawn."

The Heartbreaker then asked the audience to join him in a final salute to Harrison by saying one last Hare Krishna for the most mystical of Beatles. Afterwards, former Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, along with Steve Winwood, Prince, and others, joined Petty for a legendary rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" to give Harrison a proper welcome into the hall of rock greatness, capping off a friendship unique in the history of rock and roll.