‘Handle With Care’ was the debut single by The Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup formed in 1988 by George Harrison.
The song was originally to have been the b-side of Harrison’s single ‘This Is Love’. Over dinner in Los Angeles in April 1988, Harrison discussed ideas with Jeff Lynne, the producer of Cloud Nine who was then working on Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl album.
I’d just made a record called Cloud Nine. In Europe you know they make those 12″ singles and they usually like to have an extra song on the record. So they asked me for an extra song. I didn’t have one already recorded, so I thought the easiest thing to do is just go in the studio the next day and write a song quickly, record it, and mix it, give it to them. So that night I had dinner with Jeff Lynne, who was having dinner with Roy Orbison. We all had dinner together. And I said, well tomorrow I’m going to go and find a studio and go in some place, make up a tune, and make this record. So I said to Jeff, ‘Do you want to come and help?’ And he said ‘Yeah, OK, but the problem is, where are we gonna find a studio and an engineer so quickly?’ So Roy Orbison was there. He said, ‘Oh, well if you do something call me, I’d like to come along and watch.’ So then I thought, well, Bob Dylan had a little studio in his garage, so I called him and said, ‘Do you mind if we come along tomorrow?’ He said no, come along, that’s OK.
Tom Petty also, I had to go to his house to pick up my guitar. He said, ‘Oh good, I’ll come. I was wondering what I was going to do tomorrow.’ So the next morning I started to write a song and I thought, ‘Well if Roy Orbison’s going to come, it’s silly to have him sitting there. He’s a better singer than everybody. I’ll write a little part for Roy to sing.’ And Jeff thought that was a bit cheeky.
Anyway, we got to Bob’s house and Jeff and I finished the song off, the music to it. We didn’t write the words at that point. And then we wrote the lyrics, and I’ve said that story many times. To try and think of what the song lyrics would be, you need a title or some idea. And I saw a box in the garage of Dylan’s house, it said ‘Handle with care’. So we wrote the lyrics around that, and as I had the part for Roy I thought I might as well get Bob and Tom and Jeff, everybody singing the middle part.
So we made the record, we mixed it, I took it to the record company and they said, ‘Oh it’s too good to just give to Europe on an extended play, because it’s not going to sell Cloud Nine records, it’s not on the album. They didn’t want it to be imported to America, and for it to have no value. So I just kept the tape in my pocket, I kept playing it, and I thought, well the only thing I can think of doing is, if we did that one song in one day, what we need is nine days with Bob and Roy, everybody, and we make an album. So that’s what I did. I asked them to: ‘Let’s make an album’.
‘Handle With Care’ was released as a single on 17 October 1988. The 7″ vinyl b-side was another album track, ‘Margarita’. It was the Traveling Wilburys’ most successful single.
There were also 10″ and 12″ vinyl versions, which contained ‘Handle With Care’ (Extended Version), which extended the length from 3:20 to 5:14. It also contained ‘Margarita’.
A CD single was also released in the US, which contained the LP version, ‘Margarita’, and the Extended Version. Outside the US, the CD single contained just the first two tracks.
‘Handle With Care’ was a top 10 hit in Australia, Belgium, Canada, and New Zealand. In the US it peaked at number 21 on the single chart, and in the US it peaked at 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and 39 on the Cash Box Top 100.
The video for ‘Handle With Care’ was directed by David Leland in October 1988 at a former brewery new Union Station in Los Angeles.
It was the final video to feature Roy Orbison, who died on 6 December.