Traveling Wilburys

Delainey Root, MVC writer

The Traveling Wilburys was a British-American supergroup, a musical group with members already having success in other bands or solo careers, consisting of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. Though only around from 1988 to 1991, they were a successful band.

The Traveling Wilburys began when Warner Bros. Records’ International Department requested that George Harrison record a B-side for “This is Love” from his newly released album “Cloud Nine.” Harrison had been spending a lot of time with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbinson and Tom Petty in Dylan’s studio; therefore, the idea of recording a song with his group of friends for his B-side track came to him. The group recorded “Handle With Care,” and Harrison brought it to Warner Bros. Records’ record executive, Mo Ostin. 

Ostin explained, “Our [Ostin and A&R head Lenny Waronker] 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.” 

The frontmen of the group decided not to use their own names. The name originated from Harrison and Lynne calling studio equipment “wilburys.” They started out with the title “The Trembling Wilburys,” but when Lynne suggested the “Traveling Wilburys” everyone agreed and they changed it. The band was introduced to the public on Bob Coburn’s radio show Rockline in 1988.

They created their debut album, “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1,” over ten days during May 1988, because they had to work around Dylan’s preparation for his “Never Ending” Tour and Orbison’s tour schedule. The ten sessions were held at Dave Stewart’s house. They sat in the kitchen and played acoustic guitars, and the basic tracks were recorded there. They normally recorded vocals after dinner in a different room. 

Harrison successfully kept an ego-free environment by having every person in the band sing, write and produce songs. Harrison was quoted in a video about the making of the Traveling Wilburys, “From my point of view, I just tried to preserve our relationship. I worked so hard to make sure that all the guys who were in the band, and consequently on record and film, that their friendship wasn’t abused. Just to preserve our friendship – that was the underlying contribution, I think, that I was trying to do.” 

It also helped that all the men were friends who respected and admired each other. The members held a special admiration for Orbison especially due to his status as an early rock-n-roll icon. 

“Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” was released to the public on October 18, 1988. In the credits, the group listed themselves under pseudonyms and pretended to be half-brothers, sons of the also fictitious Charles Truscott Wilbury, Sr. The album became a commercial and critical success. 

On December 6, 1988, Orbison died of a heart attack. In the music video for their second single, “End of the Line,” the band played tribute to their friend and bandmate. The video showed Orbison’s guitar in a rocking chair as his vocals played in the background. The band members were incredibly upset at the loss of their band member in the midst of the bands overwhelming success of their first album. After the loss of an important member, the press began to speculate that Del Shannon or Roger McQuinn would take Orbison’s place, but the band never even began to search for a new member. 

In March of 1990, the remaining members reunited to work on their second album, “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3.” During the time they were working on their next album, they released a single called “Nobody’s Child” for Olivia Harrison’s Romanian Angel Appeal charity project. The time and length of recording sessions were once again determined by Dylan’s prolific touring schedule and limited availability. On the album, Dylan and Petty took positions as the lead singer in a majority of the tracks and Harrison took over the production and was the prominent lead guitarist. 

“Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3” was released on October 29, 1990. The album was dedicated to “Lefty Wilbury” Orbison’s pseudonym. The album was still a success, but less so than their first album. The second album sold 1,244,956 copies compared to 4,399,903 copies sold for “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1.”

When deciding whether to continue the band, the choice was handed to Harrison even though all the other members were ecstatic at the thought of continuing the group. Harrison was shaky on the idea of touring, but Petty recalled begging him to reconsider for the money touring would earn them. 

Harrison said during his 1991 tour of Japan, “That would be something I would like to experience. I’ve always played around in my own mind what a Wilburys tour could be. Would each person do a solo set and then do Wilburys at the end, or would we all go right from the beginning to end and make everything Wilburys? It’s an intriguing thought. We could have a great band up there and the four of us could plate acoustic if we wanted to. We could all sing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and Bob could sing ‘Something.’ Or we could just sing individual songs and make them Wilburys tunes, as if we’d recorded them that way. Whatever it was, we could do it.” 

They never ended up going on a tour, and Petty said, “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.” 

“The New Rolling Stones Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll,” said that the Traveling Wilburys were the “ultimate supergroup” because of Dylan, Harrison and Orbison being so influential; however, they were also called “the antithesis of a supergroup due to the humor the group possessed and the pseudonyms of the group.

 Petty also agreed that the humor had a factor in the group’s success. He told Paul Zollo, a music journalist, “We wanted to make something good in a world that seemed to get uglier and uglier and meaner and meaner… And I’m really proud that I was part of it. Because I do think that it brought a little sunshine into the world.” 

Overall, the band was successful in bringing the careers of Dylan, Orbison and Petty back into the public for many who had stopped listening to their music over the years. Their first album had two incredibly successful singles and achieved triple-platinum certification for sales in the United States. It was also nominated for several awards and won the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. 

In 2007, the Traveling Wilburys Collection was released. The box set had both albums on CD, bonus tracks, a 25-minute documentary called “The True History of the Traveling Wilburys,” and a few music videos.  The release of the box set debuted at number one in the UK and topped charts across the world. It reached number nine on the US Billboard Hot 200 and sold 500,000 copies worldwide in the first three weeks after its release. 

The Traveling Wilburys was a super band of very famous singers and bandmates. Every person in the group was friends and they tried to bring humor and light into the sometimes draining entertainment industry. Although they only stayed as a group for a few years, they enjoyed their time and brought the light of the Traveling Wilburys into the homes of millions of fans.