By Elford Alley
When it comes to supergroups, we know the drill: the output is sparse, the music usually falls well below expectations, and the clashing egos cause the group to implode very quickly. (See: Velvet Revolver, Audioslave, Zwan and Asia.)
So, a supergroup with a lineup that included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty should have been a complete disaster. Instead, as the Traveling Wilburys they released two platinum-selling albums of great music, ending only due to the passing of Roy Orbison in 1988.
As to why they didn’t go the route of so many SuperHeavys and Chickenfoots, it’s simply because the band was an accident. They weren’t cooked up as a cheap gimmick to make money or revive forgotten careers; they were all in the right place at the right time. That place being Bob Dylan’s house.
While hanging out with the other Wilburys, George Harrison mentioned he needed a B-side for his single “This Is Love” from the 1987 album Cloud Nine, so they recorded “Handle With Care.” Harrison’s Dark Horse/Warner Bros. label felt the song was too good to languish as a B-side on the album that included "When We Was Fab" and “Got My Mind Set On You."
Record executive Mo Ostin said, “George played us 'Handle With Care.' 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 [Waronker] and I stumbled over each others' words, asking, 'Can't we somehow turn this into an album?'"
Each member took a pseudonym - Nelson Wilbury (George Harrison), Otis Wilbury (Jeff Lynne), Lefty Wilbury (Roy Orbison), Charlie T. Wilbury Jr. (Tom Petty) and Lucky Wilbury (Bob Dylan) - touting themselves as the family band the Traveling Wilburys, sons of the fictional troubador Charles Truscott Wilbury, Sr. They released Volume One in 1988 and it was a major hit.
According to Tom Petty, the band briefly considered touring: “I think it would work, if we wanted to do it. I don't think we ever considered it, really. There were a lot of nights when the conversation would roll around to that. But I don't think anybody ever took it seriously. I think it would ruin it in a way. Then you're obligated to be responsible and it's not in the character of that group. It would make it very formal and that would be the wrong spirit.”
When Roy Orbison died, they considered bringing rock legend Del Shannon into the mix; unfortunately, he too passed away. The group released their second album, Volume Three, and called it a day.
Despite winning multiple awards and being a huge seller, the Traveling Wilbury’s sparse catalogue was out of print until 2007 when George Harrison’s son Dhani was brought in as “Ayrton Wilbury” to record some overdubs for a digitally remastered rerelease.
The Traveling Wilburys’ rerelease debuted at number one on the UK charts, and number nine in the U.S.
This only shows that their music is far from the end of the line.
(Elford Alley has had plays produced and read across the United States and his sketch comedy featured in several shows in Chicago. His articles have appeared in cracked.com. He currently resides in Dallas with his wife and daughter.)