Wildly famous artists work together all the time. Some of the biggest hits of the past decade were produced by a band or artist featuring another equally popular musician (think “Empire State of Mind” by Jay Z feat. Alicia Keys, or Usher’s “Yeah!” feat. Little Jon and Ludacris). But prior to the mid-’60s, this kind of collaboration was just not done, especially for musicians still in their original bands. All that changed once artists started realizing their own independence, creating new projects separate from the managers and A&R men who would have once controlled their career trajectory.
Enter the supergroup. Classic rock supergroups often came on the scene with a huge burst of energy, with many flaming out just as fast; even those who remained active long after their debut tended to make the biggest impact at the beginning of the collaboration. Some supergroups became powerhouses, breaking records and leading musical movements. Others, however, never got off the ground, no matter how much potential lay in the collective talent of their members. Here are four classic rock supergroups that changed the way we think of artist collaboration — and one that never was, but potentially could have been, great.
Cream is the first true supergroup, and what a supergroup it was. In 1966, The Yardbirds’ Eric Clapton was known as one of the best guitarists in Britain, but was virtually unknown elsewhere. That changed pretty quickly when he got together with Ginger Baker of the Graham Bond Organization and singer/bassist Jack Bruce to form Cream. Cream was massively popular; the first group to ever have a double album go platinum (1968’s Wheels of Fire), and one of the giants of the psychedelic rock movement alongside the great Jimi Hendrix. Cream went out in a blaze of glory shortly after Wheels of Fire‘s release, but they left a giant legacy.
2) Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young)
Around the time Cream was making rock history, a similar supergroup was revolutionizing the folk-rock sound. David Crosby had been fired from the Byrds in 1967 and Stephen Stills was just coming off the breakup of Buffalo Springfield. The two band-less musicians started playing together, soon to be joined by Graham Nash, who was getting progressively frustrated with his band, the Hollies. It was a match made in vocal heaven. They soon discovered they could create mind-blowingly unique harmonies, and they quickly released their debut album, Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969). It was an instant success and will be forever associated with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
Shortly after, the trio added Neil Young to their lineup; their much-anticipated second album, Deja Vu (1970), reached #1 on the North American pop charts. Young has been in and out of the group over the years, and the band, with varying lineups, has toured and recorded and toured sporadically ever since, though never again with the impact of their first entry on the scene. But their initial contribution is not to be forgotten; CSN was the first band to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, as both a group and as solo artists, a distinction the Beatles only reached in 2014.
3) Bad Company
Bad Company was the product of Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke from the band Free, joined by Mick Ralphs (Mott the Hoople), and Boz Burrell (King Crimson). The first band to sign with Led Zeppelin’s new label Swan Song, their self-titled debut album was released in 1974 and went five-times platinum, spawning guitar-heavy hard rock hits like “Can’t Get Enough” and “Rock Steady.” They were a powerhouse in the mid-’70s, recording four albums and touring stadiums worldwide.
The band lost steam after a few years, taking a hiatus in 1977 and officially disbanding after releasing a poorly received album in 1982. They got back together in 1986 to record and tour sporadically with a number of personnel changes, but as with CSN, nothing matched their initial burst of creativity; 1974–1977 was their true supergroup era.
4) The Traveling Wilburys
The supergroup phenomenon fizzled out at the end of the ’70s. They still existed, but few achieved the excitement generated around Cream or CSNY. But it made an unexpected comeback with unlikely partnership that became the Traveling Wilburys. George Harrison, having just finished his Cloud Nine album, needed to record something to go on the B-side of his “That is Love” single. So he got a few of his buddies together to play around with his new song, “Handle with Care.” Those buddies just happened to be Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison.
The collaboration was unusual and unexpected, spanning generations and genres. And it was magical. What was planned as a one-off B-side to a George Harrison single became an entity unto itself. The group gave themselves a name (“Wilbury” being a nickname for the audio editing equipment that “will bury” recording mistakes) and acquired pseudonyms. Their first album, The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, was a huge hit, going gold and platinum around the world and winning the 1990 GRAMMY for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Sadly, Roy Orbison — whose unique warbling vocals gave the Wilburys a distinctive sound — passed away shortly after Vol. 1 was released. The Wilburys recorded a second album without him (oddly called Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 3, undoubtedly a George Harrison joke), but the magic wasn’t quite there without “The Big O.”
And now, the supergroup that never was: “A Toot and a Snore in ’74”
It could only happen by accident. John Lennon, out in LA on his “Lost Weekend” (the 18 drug-infused months in the ’70s when he was living apart from Yoko), was producing Harry Nilsson’s latest album. Paul and Linda McCartney happened to stop by, as did Stevie Wonder. Together with studio musicians Jesse Ed Davis and Bobby Keys, the group embarked on a cocaine-fueled jam session, the last time Lennon and McCartney recorded together. The result is, frankly, awful; not much more than a drunken, druggy bash — in fact, one of the first things we hear is John Lennon asking Stevie Wonder if he wants “a snort.” But imagine what could have happened if these guys got serious and formed a real supergroup?