Traveling Wilburys: How did the all-star supergroup get together?

28 April 2023, 13:40 | Updated: 12 April 2024, 10:15

George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. How did they form a supergroup?
George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. How did they form a supergroup? Picture: Alamy

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

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Everyone loves a collaboration between major music icons.

And the idea of a supergroup whet's the appetite even more - a melting pot of styles and influences from beloved stars from across the music spectrum.

But during the 1980s a supergroup came into being which was more extraordinary than anyone could've imagined. The band? Well, the Traveling Wilburys of course.

The creative components of the band were so stellar, that Electric Light Orchestra's Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty were considered to be the junior members.

Given that Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and a bonafide Beatle in George Harrison made up the rest of the group, you can understand why.

Getting a band of music icons together in the same room at the same time sounds like a stretch of the imagination in itself.

There's scheduling conflicts, clashing egos to contend with, and that's before even knowing if there's a creative chemistry worth pursuing.

But the story of how the Traveling Wilburys came together was in fact quite organic, or cosmic if that's your perspective. But if anything, it was a stroke of dumb luck.

Ladies and gentlemen: the Traveling Wilburys.
Ladies and gentlemen: the Traveling Wilburys. Picture: Alberto Tolot/Concord Records

Before they all got in a room together, each member of the Traveling Wilburys were friends or at least connected in some varying degree of separation.

They've all achieved stardom and cultural significance on some levels, so had crossed paths previously and attended each other's shows.

But it was George Harrison who acted as the catalyst for their unique coming together, having been working on the follow-up album to Cloud Nine which re-ignited his solo career.

The former member of the Fab Four had already been working with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in the studio on each other's projects, but having handed his new record to the label, they required one more B-side to complete the album.

During a dinner with Lynne and Orbison he invited them both to contribute to a new song he was working on the off chance they'd agree. They did, and recorded in Bob Dylan's garage studio as it was too short notice to book a major studio.

The song was later dubbed 'Handle With Care', named after a label he saw in a box in Dylan's garage, and the record label went mad for it.

In fact, they thought the song was too good, so encouraged Harrison to continue recording with Roy and Jeff, who had also invited Tom Petty into the mix to workshop the track.

The Traveling Wilburys - Handle With Care (Official Video)

The opportunity to continue recording with fellow rock legends and peers wasn't wasted on George, who was incredibly eager to get Bob Dylan involved, who at the time was enduring his lowest point both creatively and commercially.

Though everyone was in awe of Dylan and his prestige, with Tom Petty later recalling that Harrison needed to clear the air on the first day of writing.

"We know that you're Bob Dylan and everything, but we're going to just treat you and talk to you like we would anybody else" Harrison said in front of the soon-to-be supergroup.

Dylan replied: "Well, great. Believe it or not, I'm in awe of you guys, and it's the same for me" and the mutual respect was vital to their chemistry.

They also bonded over their love 1950s rock 'n' roll and skiffle bands which inspired the name, Traveling Wilburys.

What particular enamoured Roy Orbison to George Harrison however, was his knack for impersonations, being able to reel off Monty Python skits at the drop of a hat, as George was friends with the British comedy troupe and even funded The Life Of Brian.

Led by the excitement about 'Handle With Care', the Traveling Wilburys were formed and recorded their first album together: Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1.

The vinyl cover for 'Handle With Care'.
The vinyl cover for 'Handle With Care'. Picture: Alamy

Recording sessions took place at the home studio of Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, who could've been a Wilbury himself had he not been focusing on writing the electronic duo's album We Too Are One.

The sessions went better than any of them expected, all contributing in equal measure and drawing inspiration from each artist's process of songwriting and recording.

Because it was George that brought the band together, he was appointed de facto bandleader and manager, saying: "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 that 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."

Not only was in a pleasant creative experience amongst friends, it was a miraculous creative venture that later rejuvenated the careers of both Bob Dylan and Tom Petty.

Unexpectedly to the rest of the group, Roy Orbison was ecstatic with the results which gave him his first hit record in some years.

The Traveling Wilburys - End Of The Line (Official Video)

Sadly they never toured as George Harrison wanted to avoid the trappings of a rock 'n' roll tour, despite warming to the idea at first.

Not long after the supergroup's album was released, Roy Orbison died of a heart attack at the age of 52 on 6th December 1988.

It left the remaining band members heartbroken, but relieved in so far as their friend and idol went out on a creative high point.

Jeff Lynne recalled: "I was devastated for ages ... Me and Roy had had plans to do much more together, and his voice was in really good shape. It was just so sad for that to happen."

Harrison, Dylan, Petty, and Lynne did reunite for a second album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3, two years later which bagged the supergroup a Grammy Award.

But they failed to reach the unmatched chemistry and camaraderie they achieved on their debut album together now they were one man down.

Despite not coming together again, the Wilburys look back on their time together fondly. They were a strange phenomenon given that acid house and hip-hop were the trending genres of the time, with author Alan Clayson later likening its release to "a Viking longship docking in a hovercraft terminal".

That was the beauty of the Traveling Wilburys though - they were just a group of mates having a good time. They just so happened to be music legends.

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