Dubbed the fourth greatest album producer in music history by The Washington Times, Jeff Lynne enjoyed unparalleled success at two distinct junctures in his career: first as the leader and chief architect of the prog-turned-pop band Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) in the 1970s, and later as the producer and co-songwriter on some of the most acclaimed rock albums of the 1990s and beyond, including George Harrison's Cloud Nine (1987), Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever (1988) and his efforts with the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Lynne's initial efforts with ELO were massive, sprawling pop epics like "Livin' Thing," "Mr. Blue Sky" and "Turn to Stone," which merged polished, multi-layered vocals and instruments with sweeping orchestra movements and a heavy affinity for disco rhythms. When ELO ran its course in the mid-1980s, Lynne settled into an extraordinary string of hits as producer-songwriter for Harrison, Petty, Wilburys bandmate Roy Orbison and as the lucky producer of the 1995 single "Free as a Bird," which served as the closest thing to an actual Beatles reunion by pairing the three surviving members with a 1977 John Lennon vocal track. Lynne's warm, effervescent work as a producer generated record sales in the millions, as well as several Grammys, but most served as proof positive of his exceptional ability to yield both chart hits and relevancy from established artists whose careers had been eclipsed by the changing tastes in pop and rock.
Born in Birmingham, England on Dec. 30, 1947, Jeffrey Lynne began his musical career as a teenager in a variety of local bands, including the Andicaps (formerly the Handicaps and Rockin' Hellcats) and the Chads before joining the Nightriders, which soon changed its name to the Idle Race. Their curious blend of Beatles-esque pop and eclectic production with a heavy guitar sound led to widespread critical praise and a contract with Liberty Records, brokered by former member Roy Wood who had gone on to success with his new group, The Move. However, their singles, which included the quirky "Imposters of Life's Magazine" (1967), were plagued by poor promotion and underwhelming sales, which prompted Lynne to accept an offer from Wood to join The Move. Both men shared an interest in expanding the union of rock-n-roll with classical orchestration as set forth by the Beatles in the later stages of their career. Their first joint effort in this direction was "10538 Overture," a guitar-heavy Lynne composition intended as a B-side for a Move single. When Wood added layers of overdubbed cello lines to the song, the track spurred its creators to transition from the Move to a new band, a more pop-oriented act they dubbed the Electric Light Orchestra.
Their eponymous debut earned a Top 10 hit with "Overture," which was quickly followed by their entry into the American market with a cover of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," from their second album, ELO 2 (1973). Wood quit the group during the recording of their sophomore effort to form a new band, Wizzard, prompting speculation in the U.K. media that ELO would fold without his direction. However, Lynne stepped up to become the band's guiding creative force and architect of its greatest hits. After a string of modestly-received albums, Lynne struck upon a formula that transformed the band's sound from progressive rock to pure pop-rock anchored by highly polished production, multilayered vocals, a full studio orchestra and an unmistakable adherence to the rhythms of the disco movement. Their first success in this direction was their 1975 album Face the Music, which reached platinum sales status on the strength of the Top 10 single "Evil Woman" and a Top 20 follow-up, "Strange Magic. Though the band had found success in America, their fortunes in the U.K. had steadily declined after the departure of Roy Wood. However, that situation was reversed with the release of A New World Record (1976), a Top 10 album on both sides of the Atlantic as well as numerous markets around the world, thanks to the Top 10 single "Telephone Line" and a trio of global Top 20 hits including "Livin' Thing" and a remake of the Move's "Do Ya." Lynne also released his first effort as a solo artist, the 1977 single "Doin' That Crazy Thing," but the song failed to chart.
By 1978, ELO was among the most popular pop-rock acts in the world, with albums like the double LP Out of the Blue (1977) and Discovery (1979) landing consistently in the Top 10 in both the U.S. and U.K. markets. Critics frequently hammered Lynne's ornate creations for their confectionary nature, deriding hit singles like "Turn to Stone" and "Don't Bring Me Down" as irresistible but essentially hollow pop tunes, a stance that was cemented by the band's participation in the 1980 soundtrack for "Xanadu," a much-pilloried feature film fantasy starring Olivia Newton-John as a Greek muse who came to life in order to aid an aspiring artist. Though the film was a financial bust, the soundtrack, which featured five songs by ELO, including the Top 20 hits "I'm Alive" and "All Over the World," was an unqualified success. The movie's profile was elevated to cult status in the decades that followed, and served as the basis for a Tony-nominated Broadway musical of the same name in 2007, which featured ELO's songs from the film, as well as "Strange Magic" and "Evil Woman." Lynne soon followed with the ambitious science fiction-themed concept album Time (1981), which found him returning to the band's progressive rock roots while also incorporating elements of New Wave. Despite the sea change in sound, the album shot to No. 1 on the U.K. charts, though its performance in America was decidedly less stellar, with the album only reaching No. 16 on the Billboard 200.
The release of Time also signaled the beginning of Lynne's gradual transition from performer to full-time producer. ELO did not tour behind Time, which raised speculation that the group was in the process of disbanding. Though hotly denied by its members, drummer and co-founding member Bev Bevan was playing with Black Sabbath and bassist Kelly Groucutt had left the band. Lynne was facing his own struggles with their label, CBS, which blocked his initial plan to release their 1983 album Secret Messages as a double LP. The record was later whittled down to a single album, which failed to generate the same level of success as its predecessor. Lynne spent much of the next two years working as producer for Rockpile's Dave Edmunds, co-writing his Top 40 pop hit "Slippin' Away" and overseeing its follow-up album, Riff Raff (1984). These efforts established Lynne's signature sound as a producer, which favored acoustic instruments and more organic textures, as opposed to the dense and elaborate sonic landscapes of ELO's material. Meanwhile, the band itself closed out its stellar run with Balance of Power (1986), a contractually-obligated release that rose no higher than No. 49 on the Billboard 200, though its lead single, "Calling America," was a top 20 pop hit. After completing a handful of charity performances, Lynne's participation in ELO came to a close in 1986.
That same year, Lynne teamed with George Harrison to produce Cloud Nine (1987), an exceptional collection of pop-rock tracks that revived the former Beatle's recording career. Harrison had not released a record for over a half-decade prior to his collaboration with Lynne, but the merging of their sensibilities produced one of the biggest hits of Harrison's efforts as a solo artist. The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard 200 thanks to a string of ebullient singles, including the chart-topping "Got My Mind Set on You," as well as an affectionate tribute to Harrison's past in "When We Was Fab." During this period, Lynne was also working with rockabilly pioneer Roy Orbison on what would become his comeback album, Mystery Girl (1988), which featured Harrison and Tom Petty on backing vocals. While recording a B-side for the single "This Is Love" with rockabilly pioneer Ray Orbison, Harrison and Lynne struck upon the idea of also bringing Bob Dylan and Petty into the fold for the song. The result was "Handle with Care," the first single from the impromptu supergroup who dubbed themselves the Traveling Wilburys after a slang phrase used by Harrison for recording errors caused by equipment during the making of Cloud Nine: when confronted with the mistakes, Harrison said, "We'll bury them in the mix," which led to the term "Wilbury" to refer to such instances.
With the encouragement of their label, Warner Bros., the quintet recorded Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988), a collection of solo songs and group efforts featuring each of the band members. The Grammy-winning album shot to No. 3 on the U.S. charts while spawning two Top 5 singles in "Handle" and "End of the Line." Plans to record a second album as well as a tour behind the record were cut short with the death of Orbison, who passed away shortly before the release of Mystery Girl in December of 1988. A second volume, ironically titled Vol. 3, was released to somewhat lesser acclaim in 1990. Between Wilbury assignments, Lynne also produced the Grammy-nominated Full Moon Fever (1989), a solo effort by Tom Petty that marked his commercial peak as a performer, selling over five million copies on the strength of five Top 5 mainstream rock singles, including the chart-topping "Won't Back Down," "Runnin' Down a Dream" and "Free Fallin'." In addition to these incredibly popular albums, Lynne contributed songs to albums by Agnetha Faltskog of ABBA and Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson for his self-titled solo debut in 1988.
Lynne finally released his first solo album, Armchair Theatre (1990), which failed to match his efforts for his Wilburys compatriots. More successful was his first turn as producer for Petty and the Heartbreakers with Into the Great Wide Open (1991), which generated two No. 1 singles on the mainstream rock charts, including "Learning to Fly," which spent six weeks at the top spot. Producing and writing assignments for Aerosmith, Joe Cocker, Tom Jones and Bonnie Tyler kept him busy for the majority of the early '90s, but all were overshadowed by his work as the lucky co-producer of "Free As a Bird" (1994), a single for the Beatles' Anthology 1 (1995) that featured all three surviving members of the group recording over a demo vocal track by the late John Lennon. The single, which brought Lynne's fascination for and debt to the Beatles full circle, reached No. 8 on the Billboard 100, while also netting a 1997 Grammy for Best Pop Performance. After receiving the Ivor Novello Award for outstanding contributions to British music, Lynne subsequently worked on McCartney's Grammy-nominated Flaming Pie (1997) album and Harrison's final album, Brainwashed (2002), which was completed and released after his death in 2001.
In 2000, Lynne returned to ELO after a lengthy legal dispute with Bev Bevans and other former members, which had toured as ELO II since 1989. A new album, Zoom (2001), was credited to the group, but featured only Lynne playing the majority of the music, save for a contribution to one track by original keyboardist Richard Tandy, who was subsequently tapped for a world tour featuring Lynne and an all-new lineup. But after recording a TV special for PBS, the tour was scrapped due to a variety of unspecified reasons, while the album itself generated no chart hits. Lynne then contributed to the Concert for George memorial at London's Royal Albert Hall, singing three Harrison solo songs, including "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth) while also producing the Surround Sound mix for the concert DVD, which received a Grammy nomination in 2003. Three years later, he reunited with Petty for Highway Companion (2006), a Top 5 record on the Billboard 200, shortly before receiving the Golden Note Award for outstanding career milestones from the music publishing organization ASCAP. Lynne then returned to the producer's board in 2012 with Analog Man, a solo effort by Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. The year was also marked by the release of Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra (2012), which curiously featured no original recordings by the group, but rather all new versions of their biggest hits recorded by and performed almost entirely by Lynne. The album, which also featured a new single, "Point of No Return," reached No. 29 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart, but languished below No. 100 on the pop albums chart. The year was capped by the release of his second solo album, Long Wave (2012), a collection of '50s and '60s rock songs and pop standards that reached No. 7 on the U.K. albums chart.
By Paul Gaita