Jeff Lynne was born in Birmingham, England, in 1947, and began his career in music playing guitar in local bands before forming Electric Light Orchestra in the early 1970s. After achieving minor success in the first half of the decade, ELO exploded onto the scene, producing nearly thirty Top 40 hits before disbanding in 1986. At that point, Lynne embarked on an equally successful career as a producer, collaborating with musicians including George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Brian Wilson, as well as becoming one of the founding members of Grammy Award–winning supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. In recent years, Lynne has continued to work as a producer, while also releasing new albums under the Electric Light Orchestra name.
On the Move
Born in Birmingham, England, on December 30, 1947, Jeff Lynne developed an early passion for music. By his teens he had established a reputation as an exceptional guitar player and was very much in demand in the local scene, playing in several other groups before joining the Nightriders in 1966. Lynne quickly emerged as the frontman of the band, who changed its name to Idle Race and released The Birthday Party in 1968 and a self-titled album in 1969, which was also Lynne’s debut as a producer. However, when neither made much of an impact, Lynne left Idle Race to join another popular Birmingham act, the Move, whose members included former Idle Race guitarist Roy Wood.
While the Move enjoyed some chart success in the UK, Lynne and Wood had already begun to conceive of a new project that would allow them to indulge their shared love of classical music within a pop/rock framework. Named the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), the group’s first few albums—released in the early 1970s—did reasonably well, but only hinted at the overwhelming success that awaited Lynne and his mates in the second half of the decade.
Mr. Blue Sky
After the band’s first album, Wood left ELO, leaving Lynne as both its primary songwriter and its producer. Their first taste of success came with their fourth album, 1974’s Eldorado, which reached No. 16 in the U.S. However, things began to heat up the following year with Face the Music, which stayed in the Top 10 for most of the year, went platinum and spawned the hit singles “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic.” But this was only the beginning for Lynne and ELO, who for the remainder of the decade produced hit after hit: A New World Record (1976) went platinum and reached No. 5, with smash singles “Livin’ Thing” “Telephone Line” and “Do Ya”; the double album Out of the Blue (1977) also reached No. 5 and went multi-platinum, with the singles “Sweet Talkin Woman” and “Mr. Blue Sky” reaching the Top 40; and they closed out 70s with the 1979 disco-heavy Discovery, which featured perhaps their best-known track, “Don’t Bring Me Down,” which at No. 4 on the U.S. charts gave them their biggest hit to date.
With the new decade came new projects for Lynne, whose hit-making ways led to him co-writing and co-producing the soundtrack of John Farrar’s 1980 film Xanadu starring Olivia Newton-John. Although the movie was more or less a failure, the soundtrack was immensely popular, reaching the Top 10 in the U.S. and U.K. Although the song “Magic”—which reached No. 1 on the charts—was not written by Lynne, the Lynne/ELO tracks “I’m Alive,” “All Over the World” and “Xanadu” all made the Top 20.
Over the next few years, ELO released three more albums: the 1981 sci-fi concept album Time (No. 1 U.K.; No. 16 U.S.), 1983’s Secret Messages (No. 4 U.K.; No. 36 U.S.) and the 1986 album Balance of Power (No. 9 U.K.; No. 49 U.S.), after which Electric Light Orchestra officially disbanded, having recorded nearly thirty Top 40 singles while simultaneously earning the frustrating distinction of never having had a No. 1 hit.
Producing and The Traveling Wilburys
By the time ELO had disbanded, however, Lynne’s reputation as a songwriter and producer would lead to an array of impressive high-profile and award-winning collaborations with some of music’s biggest stars. In 1987 he was tapped to produce former Beatle George Harrison’s comeback album Cloud Nine, which included the Top 20 singles “I Got My Mind Set on You,” “Cloud Nine,” “When We Was Fab” and “This Is Love,” which was co-written by Lynne.
Lynne’s association with Harrison in turn led to the founding of Grammy Award–winning supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, who released two albums, in 1988 and 1990. Between those two projects, Lynne also produced the track “Let It Shine” on Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson's self-titled solo album (1988) and worked with Orbison on his final album, Mystery Girl (1989), as well as contributed to Randy Newman’s 1988 album Land of Dreams.
But it was Lynne’s collaborations with fellow Wilbury Tom Petty that would lead to his most successful work as a producer to date, including the 1989 album Full Moon Fever and the 1991 follow-up Into the Great Wide Open. Co-produced by Lynne and Petty, they featured the hit singles “I Won’t Back Down,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” “Learning to Fly” and “Free Fallin’,” all of which were also co-written by Lynne and are among the highlights of Petty’s illustrious career.
Past and Present
After these fruitful years of collaboration, in 1990 Lynne released his first solo album, Armchair Theatre, before returning to production work. His most notable efforts from this era were on the Beatles long-awaited Anthology series, for which Lynne was recruited to help George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr craft their new recordings of John Lennon’s “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” Shortly thereafter, Lynne was chosen by McCartney to produce his 1997 album Flaming Pie as well.
After winning a legal battle to retain the rights to the Electric Light Orchestra name, Lynne kicked off the new millennium by releasing a new ELO album titled Zoom. He also began work on George Harrison’s album Brainwashed, going on to complete the recordings following Harrison’s death in 2001. In 2006 he teamed up again with Petty for Highway Companion, which Lynne again co-produced, as well as performed on many of the tracks, and three years later he produced several songs for Regina Spektor’s album Far (2009), which climbed to No. 3 on the charts.
In recent years, much of Lynne’s work has been a return to the past. In 2012, the 40th anniversary of ELO’s inception, he released the album Mr. Blue Sky, which featured his re-recordings of ELO songs and was accompanied by a documentary of the same name. He also released the cover album Long Wave in 2012, before returning to work on a new ELO album, 2015’s Alone in the Universe.
Jeff Lynne has been married twice and has two daughters. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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