It’s astounding to think that The Travelling Wilburys were a real entity and not just one that a music lover has concocted in their wildest imagination. Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison did really join forces and, somewhat predictably, the results were incredible.
It’s almost unbelievable that five of the biggest legends of modern music would join forces to form a fully-functioning supergroup. One that would become an unstoppable unit in their own right, which, remarkably all occurred naturally.
Their formation was the definition of a happy accident that originated from George Harrison being asked by Warner Bros. to come up with an original B-side for ‘This Is Love’, a song that appeared on his Cloud Nine album.
The time was mid-1988 when Harrison got the call about the B-side, he was working at Bob Dylan’s studio along with the album’s co-writer Jeff Lynne and their friends Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. Harrison had the genius idea to use the tools that were right in front of him for the new material.
A couple of days later and George arrived at Warner’s A&R offices to play them ‘Handle With Care’. Years later Mo Ostin, who was chairman at the label, would write about the team’s reaction to the track Harrison had presented. He recalled: “Our reaction was immediate. This was a song we knew could not be wasted on some B-side. Roy Orbison’s vocal was tremendous. I really loved the beautiful guitar figure that George played. The guys had really nailed it. Lenny and I stumbled over each others’ words, asking, ‘Can’t we somehow turn this into an album?’ (I also had a suspicion that perhaps George had been hungering for another band experience.)”
Ostin continued: “We urged him on. George felt the spontaneity of it, felt its driving force. He always had great instincts. Being as smart as he was he had a remarkable ability to pull people together. Think about The Concert For Bangladesh — only George Harrison could have made that happen.”
The other four members couldn’t refuse the temptation of working alongside the former Beatles man and alas The Travelling Wilburys were born. The group chose not to use their five names and instead have a real band name which originated from Harrison calling the studio equipment their ‘Wilburys’. They were then called The Trembling Wilburys but Jeff Lynne tweaked it slightly and they adopted the name ‘The Travelling Wilburys’, which stuck.
The collaboration was born out of a love of music. They enjoyed working with each other and there was no leader in the pack—even though George was the mastermind behind the project, he certainly wasn’t authoritarian. Each of the five members wrote, sang and produced for the band, which was a welcomed creative escape for them to try out different avenues that they perhaps would be unable to do with their solo careers.
The band members would adopt comical pseudonyms as half-brothers from a fictional Wilbury family of travelling musicians which helped build this world which was a welcome distraction for them as much as it was the listener.
They would then record their debut album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1., which was accompanied with footage of the creative process that was later edited by Harrison into a promotional film for Warner Bros. staff, titled Whatever Wilbury Wilbury. The album was largely recorded primarily over just a ten-day period in May 1988 in order to allow for Dylan’s limited availability before he began his appropriately titled Never Ending Tour.
Following Roy Orbison’s tragic death after suffering a heart attack in December 1988, the band were on pause for the foreseeable future. In March 1990, Harrison, Lynne, Petty and Dylan would reunite once more to work on their sophomore album, a record they intentionally misnumbered Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3. The material arrived as a dedication to Orbison, as ‘Lefty Wilbury’ which was the pseudonym that Orbison had used in 1988 in honour of his hero Lefty Frizzell.
The band would never tour as had been anticipated or work on a third record but the work they did produce is a piece of art that is still there for us to devour today, a record that remains the sound of five of the world’s most iconic musicians living in the moment.