‘If You Belonged To Me’ is the third song on Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3.
The song was primarily written and sung by Bob Dylan.
At that point we were just making what we call guide vocals. We just write the words and you just have a go to see if the words fit and, you know… It’s like a warm up thing. So that was Boo’s warm up guide vocal track, but we liked it so much that, y’know, even though he did a different track… a different take the next day we sort of wanted to keep that one ’cause it just seemed right.
BBC Radio 1, 25 October 1990
At one point during the sessions for that album, they wrote and recorded seven tracks in a single day. It was a Thursday, and they laid down four acoustic guitars and Jim Keltner’s drums. When it came to ‘If You Belonged To Me’, Bob had an idea for the lyrics and George said, ‘Well, just go and sing it.’ So, that’s what he did, singing this perfect, absolutely amazing vocal; like you’d expect a superstar to do. When he came back into the control room, Jeff was pretty impressed and George was just drooling. However, he made the mistake of complementing Bob in some extreme way, Bob put that in the back pocket of his mind, and the next day he came and said, ‘I want to have another go at that song.’ George said, ‘Fine,’ while looking at me as if to say, ‘Keep the one we’ve already got. Don’t lose it, whatever you do.’
Bob then went out to the studio and sang the song again, and we could hardly understand one word – I think the melody perhaps drifted into three notes, eventually. It was just a blur. We were all shocked and stunned, and Jeff said, ‘Well, obviously we’ve got to use the other one.’ George was nervously going, ‘Let’s see what Bob has to say,’ and when Bob came back into the control room he said, ‘That’s the one we’re using.’ It was then up to George to convince Jeff that ‘Bob is right because Bob knows best. The reason we don’t like it so much is because we don’t understand. It’ll grow on you, you’ll get it eventually and you’ll love it.’ Well, Jeff never did love it. He hated it. And Tom was wise enough to stay out of it. He just said, ‘Whatever works.’
Now fast-forward to when we were back in England, mixing that song, and Bob was in town. Jeff was tearing his hair out because he hated the thing: ‘Has it got to be on the record? Maybe we don’t need this one.’ When Bob came in, George said, ‘Have a listen. See what you think of the mix.’ When we played it to him, he said, ‘Yeah, that’s all right.’ Then Bob put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Hey, Richard, do you like this?’ I said, ‘You know what, Bob, I prefer the first vocal you did.’ Panic was written all over George’s face and Jeff’s expression was like ‘Oh, my God, what’s going to happen now?’ Bob said, ‘You do? Why?’ George didn’t say a thing, but I could just feel him trying to tell me ‘Shut your mouth, Richard.’ In my blissful ignorance, I replied, ‘The first one you did sounds like you. The second one, I just don’t get it.’ I know Jeff was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I wish I could have said that,’ because he’d tell me as much afterwards. But then Bob turned around, looked at George and said, ‘We’ll use the other one.’
That was all to teach George a lesson. I think he felt that George needed to stop adoring him and just treat him like an equal, because he gave me the impression that he considered George to be a worthy talent. Meanwhile, I got away with it because, instead of jumping on me for interfering, Jeff was like ‘That’s great. Don’t say anything. Put that vocal on, let’s do the mix again and get it done. Burn the other one!’
Sound On Sound, February 2014