Sometimes "happy" accidents occur. George Harrison was finishing his "Cloud Nine" album in '88 and needed one more track as a bonus for the European version. His producer, former E.L.O. leader, Jeff Lynne
was also working on Roy Orbison's "Mystery Girl" album and a Tom Petty
Harrison and Lynne were talking about the bonus song while Orbison was nearby. Getting wind of the project, Orbison offered to sing on the song. Sure, that'd be great.
Since this was only a bonus track, Harrison didn't want to spend a ton of money recording it. So the decision was made to use Bob Dylan's home studio. Harrison, Lynne and Orbison headed for Dylan's with Tom Petty in tow. Nobody quite remembers whether Petty was invited by Harrison or was
just tagging along like a kid brother.
In Dylan's studio, Harrison saw a box labeled "Handle With Care." In short order, he had a song composed based on that phrase and included a special vocal part for Orbison. Lynne, Petty and Dylan joined in with
Dylan's classic harmonica riding the fade out. The experience was so positive, Harrison later talked to Lynne about the five doing an album together.
Turned out, everyone was up for it.
The problem of what to call themselves was resolved fairly quickly. A "wilbury" was a term Harrison and Lynne used during the "Cloud Nine" sessions to describe a recording glitch. So each member adopted a
"Wilbury name" in part avoid being taken seriously as a supergroup.
They were having too much fun for that. Harrison proposed "trembling" but the ever-persuasive Dylan won out with "traveling." Since the band had five guitars, they used drummer Jim Keltner, sax player Jim Horn and percussionist Ray Cooper, among others, to fill things out.
The Traveling Wilburys recorded their debut album in ten days due to Orbison's touring schedule. Also, Petty and Lynne wrote and performed "You Got It" for Orbison's "Mystery Girl" CD. It turned out to be Orbison's last hit.
"Traveling Wilburys Vol. I" became a million seller. Sadly, Orbison passed away from a massive heart attack, while on tour, only weeks after the album's release. There was some talk of adding '60s Rocker Del Shannon to the line-up. Petty had worked on Shannon's recent album. But Shannon, suffering from depression, took his life.
The four remaining Wilburys recorded "Traveling Wilburys Vol. III." There is no "Vol. II." That's the joke. "III" was another million seller.
The songs "Handle With Care" and "End of the Line" makes "Traveling Wilburys Vol. I" the set to get. Like little league baseball, everybody gets a turn at bat to show what they can do. While Dylan and Petty are often indistinguishable and Lynne is non-descript, the album has a lighthearted joy to it. Orbison and Harrison excel.
Had these five joined forces a decade earlier, expectations would have exceeded reality, like most supergroups. But at this stage in their collective careers there's no need to prove anything, just have a good time.
"Vol. III" is a decent album but it lacks the debut's charm and camaraderie. Also, Orbison's vocals are sorely missed.
A legal snafu with Warner Records has taken both Wilbury albums out of circulation. However, they can be obtained through the Traveling Wilburys web site.