'Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1' at 30: Inside the Supergroup to End All Supergroups

Traveling Wilburys
Neal Preston

Traveling Wilburys

"A happy accident" was how Mo Ostin described the formation of the Traveling Wilburys, the beloved supergroup comprised of Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan whose debut LP The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was released 30 years ago (and comes out in a special edition on Nov. 2).

"Warner Bros. Records' International Department had asked that George Harrison come up with a B-side for 'This Is Love,' a single from his Cloud Nine album. At the time it was customary to couple an A-side with a never-before-heard track, giving it extra sales value," the Warner Bros. chairman emeritus wrote in the liner notes of 2007's The Traveling Wilburys Collection box set. "Cloud Nine was just out. George, along with cowriter Jeff Lynne and their friends Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, had been hanging out in Dylan's studio. I suppose George figured that as long as his pals were on hand, why not use them to knock off this flipside?"

Two days later, Harrison presented Ostin with "Handle With Care," a song that combined the personalities of all five men in the room into a jangly slice of classic rock heaven that immediately won over both himself and A&R head Lenny Waronker.

"Our reaction was immediate," Ostin wrote. "This was a song we knew could not be wasted on some B-side…The guys had really nailed it. Lenny and I stumbled over each other's words asking, 'Can't we somehow turn this into an album?'"

And that's precisely what they did when the five friends reconvened at Eurythmic Dave Stewart's home studio in Los Angeles to begin putting together songs for a proper LP, where they hunkered down for a little under two weeks. Each musician took up a moniker in the grand tradition of the Quiet Beatle's usage of such quirky pseudonyms as L'Angelo Misterioso, Hari Georgeson and Jai Raj Harisein when moonlighting on friends' albums in the Fab days. For this endeavor, they chose to christen themselves the Wilburys, named after the pet name Harrison and Lynne gave their studio equipment, and gave themselves all fake first names. Dylan was Lucky Wilbury, Orbison was Lefty Wilbury, Petty was Charlie T. Wilbury Jr., Lynne was Otis Wilbury and Harrison was Nelson Wilbury. They even came up with a whole folklore behind the brotherly bond, originally inscribed on the inside sleeve of the original LP, written by a one Hugh Jampton, E.F. Norti-Bitz Reader in Applied Jacket from the "University of Krakatoa (East of Java)."

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"A remarkable sophisticated musical culture developed, considering there were no managers or agents, and the further the Wilburys traveled the more adventurous their music became," the legend stated. "And the more it was revered by the elders of the tribe who believed it had the power to stave off madness, turn brunettes into blondes and increase the size of their ears."

There was a sixth Wilbury as well, Harrison's longtime drummer Jim Keltner, who was just as visible in the group's promotional material and music videos as the main quintet. He was given the handle "Buster Sidebury," and arrived at Stewart's compound to begin recording Vol. 1, quickly realizing just how loose the sessions were going to be.  

"I had already quit drinking and smoking and all that stuff by then," he recalls. "But George and Jeff would be drinking beers and getting a little silly. And they were laughing a lot. I've made a lot of my friends laugh over the years by listening to them being sober. My dad always used to say, when he was in the army, how the limeys would always have a screwy sense of humor. But once you got to know George especially, he was so into Monty Python and all those British comedies. And he had all those records and would play them for me, and I finally started getting the hang of it. But that night they were so silly talking about traveling Willoughbys, and just knocking themselves out with laughter. I'm listening to them and telling them, 'Jesus, how could you think this is funny?' I was just enjoying the fact they were having a good time."

In fact, Keltner found himself succumbing to the revelry while the Wilburys were coming up with the music for the Lynne-led rockabilly cut "Rattled," as dutifully showcased in the 24-minute documentary The True History of The Traveling Wilburys, when he began playing out a rhythm on the house refrigerator.

"I was in the fridge at a time when Jeff and George were hanging out in the kitchen," he explains. "I went in to get something to drink, and I was doing an overdub at the time and had my split sticks on me, which are like these wooden brushes. So I had them in my hand while I was looking for something to drink and probably screwing around with them -- I like tapping on stuff when I have sticks in my hand. And I think I was scraping the wooden brushes against the fridge, and somebody made a comment about how I should play that on the track. So I got real serious about it, and started moving eggs around and tamales and whatever they had in there to tune it a little bit and Jeff loved it and said, 'Put a mic on it.' Jeff knows how to get a feel out of anything."

The sessions for the first Wilburys album also gave Keltner the rare opportunity to hang out with Dylan -- whom he had toured with throughout his Born Again period -- in a more relaxed atmosphere. It was a vibe that would provide the levity of such Dylan-led numbers as "Dirty World," "Congratulations" and "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" in ways you didn't experience on his proper albums.

"You don't get to have that personal time with Bob very often," he asserts. "Because it was the Wilburys, I had a ball with him. He's so fucking funny when he's on his own and relaxed. I had so much fun listening to him talk about various things. He's a very funny guy, and people don't know that side of him. The thing I enjoyed the most about working on Vol. 1 was getting Bob to talk. I was very close with George and Tom I had known since he was literally a kid. So it was normal for me being around those guys. And Jeff was a very shy guy who didn't talk much anyway. But Bob was the one; some people were intimidated by Bob and being around him. They didn't want to talk much because they didn't want to sound stupid around him. But I knew Bob a lot better than that, and just getting him to open up and talk was so much fun. I had a camera on me and I remember he grabbed my camera a few times and started shooting things. I actually have footage of that somewhere; I wish I had marked it all."

The sessions proved to be bittersweet, however, as it would be the last time they enjoyed the company of Orbison, who died at 52 after going into cardiac arrest on Dec. 6, 1988, a little over a month-and-a-half following the release of Vol. 1. For Keltner, who also played drums on Orbison's posthumous twenty-second LP Mystery Girl, one of his final chats with the rockabilly legend proved to unfortunately be all too telltale that his days were numbered.

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"Roy had gone from being kind of chunky with a goiter in his throat or something that he had for years and wearing his hair like it was a hat," Keltner explains of Orbison's appearance in the early-to-mid 80s. "And then he had a makeover; I think his wife got him to do it. So after not seeing him for a while, everybody was shocked at his appearance when he arrived for the Wilburys sessions. I remember standing with a couple of the guys in the room across from where he was recording the vocals for 'You're Not Alone Anymore,' and we were watching him. And it was the most amazing thing. First of all, he looked great; he lost weight. They did an operation on his neck so that growth was gone, and he did his hair like a Samurai. He looked fantastic, and my last conversation with him was complimenting him on how great he looked and how was he doing it. And he told me, 'Oh man, I'm on a new diet. I can eat all the gravy and bacon I want.' I had been health conscious for a few years prior to the Wilburys recordings, so I knew he was talking about the Atkins Diet. And it was just too extreme, and sure enough it got him. I think he died at the dinner table."

The band shot the video for Vol. 1's second single, "End of the Line," following Orbison's death. In line with the Wilbury style, it was filmed on a soundstage made to look like a boxcar train, with Roy prominently displayed in the form of a framed photo and a rocking chair with his signature guitar sitting in his place. For Keltner, the gravitas of that set gave a serious amount of weight to his absence. If you got the feels from watching the video from home, the sorrow felt by the men during the shoot was tenfold.

"It was a strange and sad experience shooting the video," the drummer describes. "It was surreal, actually, because you're there for hours and hours doing multiple takes, and there was that chair with the guitar on it the whole time by itself."

The Traveling Wilburys would convene once again as a four-piece in 1990 with the cheekily titled Vol. 3 (both Mystery Girl and Petty's 1989 solo debut Full Moon Fever have long been hypothesized by fans as the unofficial second volume of the series given the involvement of all or most of band members). However, despite the success of its rockin' lead single "She's My Baby," the album failed to properly capture familial flavor that made its 1988 predecessor an off-kilter classic. For Keltner, the difference is clearly attributed to the presence of Orbison.

"Roy was the absolute reason why they even came together in the first place," he admits. "They all loved George and would have certainly come together for him. But with Roy, it was a no-brainer. The first album had this magic to it, and that was all Roy. They were all icons in their own way, but it was Roy who kept them having fun and knowing they were doing something special."