Every young man has had the fantasy of playing in a band with his friends, but that dream becoming a reality has never been more impressive than when George Harrison gathered some pals for a recording session and ended up forming the supergroup Traveling Wilburys.
In 1987, Harrison released Cloud Nine, his first album in five years. It was a success and there came a time when he needed to record a B-Side for “This Is Love,” the album’s third single. As the story goes, Harrison was in Los Angeles and got in touch with his friend Jeff Lynne, former Electric Light Orchestra leader, who co-produced Cloud Nine with him. Lynne was working with Roy Orbison on what would be his last album, the posthumously released Mystery Girl, and Orbison volunteered to take part. The only studio they could book time in belonged to Bob Dylan, who agreed to sit in, and when Harrison went to pick up his guitar from Tom Petty’s home, Petty tagged along.
Harrison explained what happened in the studio. “And so everybody was there and I thought, I'm not gonna just sing it myself, I've got Roy Orbison standing there. I'm gonna write a bit for Roy to sing. And then, as it progressed, then I started doing the vocals and I just thought I might as well push it a bit and get Tom and Bob to sing the bridge.” The song they created was “Handle With Care.”
This impressive roster of talent and history was a music executive’s dream, and the song was a very catchy number, so it wasn’t surprising when Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker of Warner Bros. Records heard it, they realized they had much more than a B-Side. The musicians had so much fun together, they all agreed to create an album. They called themselves Traveling Wilburys, the word “wilbury” being an inside joke between Harrison and Lynne regarding accidents in the studio. Most likely for legal reasons because there is no way anyone would not recognize their voices, they didn’t use their real names and posed as a fictitious group of brothers, using the pseudonyms: Nelson (Harrison), Otis (Lynne), Lucky (Dylan), Lefty (Orbison) and Charlie T. Jnr (Petty).
Released in October 1988, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was received well, reaching #3 on the U.S. charts and earning a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (album). It is simple and straightforward, a good collection of songs mostly about love, longing, and loss. The vocals alternate between songs from one lead and sharing leads. In some of the choruses it’s sometimes hard to tell who of the band is there.
Dylan’s “Dirty World” is a fun, sexy romp that plays with car metaphors while “Congratulations” goes to the other extreme, as the narrator is left “alone in my bed.” Jeff Lynne’s up-tempo “Rattled” would have been a perfect song for Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis. Orbison’s “Not Alone Any More” finds him still with an amazing voice, and easily stacks up with any of the classics from his career. Petty’s “Last Night” is funny tale about the trouble women can cause set to island rhythms. Dylan’s odd New Jersey tale about “Tweeter and The Monkey Man” sounds like a Bruce Springsteen spoof, playful not mean, but Petty has denied that in interviews.
Vol. 1 doesn’t rise to the level of the band members’ individual accomplishments, but that’s an unrealistic expectation, which also may explain the Wilbury names. There is a little too much studio polish applied, but it is a pleasant listening experience. Orbison died six weeks after the album’s release. In the video for “End of the Line,” his picture and a rocking chair with a guitar are shown during his parts.
In October 1990, the band returned as a quartet with Vol. 3. Vol 2 is considered to be Tom Petty’s solo album, Full Moon Fever, which featured everyone in the band except for Dylan. Possibly in acknowledgment of the new dynamic they would have, new Wilbury names were chosen to signify they were a different group: Spike (Harrison), Clayton (Lynne), Muddy (Petty) and Boo (Dylan).
The songs on Vol. 3 continued with similar stories, but the music’s palette expanded. “She’s My Baby” is a rockin’ group song that gets the album rollin’ with guitar work by Gary Moore. By the second song, “Inside Out,” you realize Orbison is unfortunately not going to be joining them as others take parts that would have sounded perfect for him.
Other than the fun, silly, dance number “Wilbury Twist,” the songs are forgettable, and it goes beyond the absence of Orbison. If this had been their first album, there wouldn’t have been another. Vol 3. is not an album anyone would select to listen to any of these artists; it’s for hardcore fans and completists.
Both Wilbury albums fell out of print in the mid-90s and are now being re-released as one complete set, The Traveling Wilburys Collection. Each album contains two bonus tracks. Vol. 1 includes “Maxine,” sung by Harrison, and “Like A Ship,” sung by Dylan. Lynne and Harrison’s son Dhani, credited as Ayrton Wilbury, provide additional vocals on both. Lynne adds a guitar solo on the former, as does Dhani on the latter. Vol. 3 has the previously released “Nobody’s Child” from the Romanian orphan benefit album of the same name, and a cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” which was the B-side to “She's My Baby” in the UK. It has been remixed with a new clavioline solo replacing the original guitar/harmonica tracks.
Shannon had been rumored to be Orbison’s replacement until his unfortunate suicide. Petty has denied this, saying “We never considered adding anyone else. That was just rumor and hype;” however the bootleg Traveling Wilburys Complete Collection lists “Del Shannon Sessions.” Drummer Jim Keltner who appeared on both albums and in videos is finally acknowledged as an extended member of the band with nickname “Buster Sidebury.”
The Traveling Wilburys Collection is available in four configurations:
* Standard Package — Features 2 CDs (Volumes 1 and 3) with bonus tracks, bonus DVD of content and a 16-page collectible book.
* Deluxe Edition Set — Linen-bound deluxe edition features 2 CDs (Volumes 1 and 3) with bonus tracks, bonus DVD, and a 40-page collectible book with photos, original liner notes, new liner notes and a uniquely numbered certificate of authenticity.
* Vinyl Edition — Features 2 vinyl releases of Volumes 1 and 3 with an additional 12-inch featuring bonus tracks, a collectible album-sized book, plus additional postcards/posters.
* Digital Edition Bundle — Features downloadable editions of both CDs (Volumes 1 and 3) with bonus tracks, video content and an interactive booklet.