Growing up listening to “oldies”, I’ve always been well aware of Roy Orbison. I had an Aunt Gwen who loved the Big O. She and my Uncle Ronnie lived in the apartment downstairs in our bungalow and she would play Orbison’s records. Then, later on, I was in high school when Roy was enjoying his “victory lap”, with Mystery Girl and being a part of the Traveling Wilburys, a band my friends and I loved. I’ll never forget walking into drafting class one day and having my teacher, Mr. Wignall, take me aside and tell me Roy Orbison had died. Mr. Wignall and I always talked music; he was cool. He could see I was shook so he told me to go “take a minute” down in the cafeteria. When a once popular artist descends into obscurity and dies, it’s sad, sure. But when someone is in the midst of a resurgence and they pass on, it is all the worse.
Orbison was born in north Texas and grew up around the oil fields, assuming that would be his life’s work. As a youngster, Roy had poor eyesight – as all the Orbison kids did – and wore thick corrective lenses. He was self-conscious about his appearance and began dyeing his nearly-white hair jet black.
Growing up, Roy enjoyed many types of music including, of course, country and western but also cajun music and rhythm and blues. He put together a group he called the Wink Westerners, named for the small town in Texas where Roy went to high school and who played both hillbilly music and Glenn Miller songs. The group gained traction performing in small towns and on television in Texas and by this point had begun playing “Ooby Dooby”, the earliest of Orbison’s hits. In the mid-1950’s, Johnny Cash played in Odessa, Texas and appeared on the same TV show as the Wink Westerners. Cash suggested to Orbison that he make it to Memphis and see Sam Phillips at Sun Records, the company Cash was recording for. Roy made it to Sun but was rebuffed by Phillips; “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company”. However, once Orbison and his group – now called the Teen Kings – recorded “Ooby Dooby” for another label, Phillips reneged and signed Roy to a contract.
Roy and the Kings re-recorded “Ooby Dooby” for Sun and it was a modest hit. But then the Teen Kings broke up and Roy decided to stay on in Memphis. He asked his 16-year-old girlfriend, Claudette, to join him there. The couple stayed in Sam Phillips’ home, sleeping in separate rooms. While Phillips was more impressed with Roy’s mastery of the guitar than with his voice, he had Roy record the ballad “The Clown”. When that song was not a hit, things had to be reassessed. At this time, Orbison was told he would never make it as a ballad singer. Roy wrote “Claudette” for his girlfriend – they were married in 1957 – and it was recorded by the Everly Brothers but beyond this, things were not progressing for Roy and he quit recording for a time.
Orbison moved to Monument Records and became an originator of what came to be called the “Nashville Sound”. The new sound Roy was going for was a combination of country or at least rural sensibilities in an almost operatic setting augmented by strings and slick Phil Spector-like production techniques. Finally having a measure of control over his work, Roy forged ahead with his new ideas in a rock industry that was beginning to move away from blues-based music.Roy is one of the premiere artists we talk about when discussing the mini-era of 1958 to the end of 1963. The years after the slowdown of the initial wave of rock ‘n’ roll and before the Beatles arrived in America in February of 1964 were marked by girl groups, vocal groups, surf music and Roy Orbison. Many of the songs Roy had hits with are iconic, starting with “Only the Lonely”. His second-biggest hit, “Lonely” was written with the intention of offering it to Elvis Presley. I have read that Elvis turned it down but also that King was not home when the songwriters went to Graceland to offer it up to him. Regardless, when Presley heard Roy’s version, he bought many copies of the record and gave them out to friends. “Only the Lonely” reached #2 in the US and was a Top Ten song the world over. This was followed by other hits; “Blue Angel”, “Running Scared” (his first #1), “Crying”, “Dream Baby”, “In Dreams”, “It’s Over” and, in 1964, “Oh, Pretty Woman” which was his second and last #1 song, reaching the top of the charts in eight countries. By the end of 1965, Roy had enjoyed a better-than-average 5-year chart run that saw him place 18 songs in the Top 40; only 2 of 20 singles he released during this time did not reach the Top 40. But things would come to an end abruptly. In devastating ways.
Roy and Claudette had been together since she was 16 (Roy was four years older). In 1963, Claudette Orbison – the mother of Roy’s sons – was 22 years old and life as Roy Orbison’s wife grew to be a strain. Claudette was often left alone for long periods of time. Owing in part to this, she had an affair with the contractor that was building their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Roy and Claudette divorced in November of ’64 but the two reconciled and were remarried 13 months later.
Roy and Claudette became avid motorcyclists and this was a pastime they enjoyed together. On June 6, 1966, Roy and Claudette were enjoying a ride in Gallatin, Tennessee. Driving on South Water Avenue, Roy was ahead of Claudette when a pick-up truck pulled in front of her. She struck the door and died instantly. Roy was heartbroken and his boys were left without a mother.
Unfortunately, when he attempted to dull his pain by throwing himself into his work, Roy found that no one was listening. And they wouldn’t listen again for almost twenty years. It so often happens that a recording star from the 1950’s or 1960’s enjoys a run of hits but then cannot maintain their presence on the charts in the rapidly and drastically changing musical landscape of the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s.
Like many American artists who’s careers were on the wane Stateside, Roy toured throughout Europe in the late ’60’s. One tour in the early fall of 1968 found him in the English town of Bournemouth. There, he received a phone call notifying him that his home in Hendersonville had burned to the ground and his two oldest sons had perished in the fire. How does a person survive such tragedies? In a two year span, Roy had lost his wife and two young sons in horrific circumstances.
He recovered somewhat when he met and fell in love with a teenager from Germany named Barbara. Roy was almost 33 and Barbara had been 18 for two months when they married in 1969. They would go on to have two sons and stay married for almost 20 years.
“Orbison’s music, like the man himself, has been described as timeless, diverting from contemporary rock and roll and bordering on the eccentric, within a hair’s breadth of being weird”
By the late 1970’s, Roy Orbison was invisible. But no one seemed to notice; his disappearance seemed to coincide with the mysterious figure he had cut through the years. Roy wore his dark eyeshades, dressed all in black and did not move when he sang live. This ‘dark angel’ persona was in stark contrast to his real personality but nevertheless by the time he released his odd 1979 album Laminar Flow – only his fourth album in six years – it seemed his career was over. His songs were being heard but they were coming from other artists, many of whom had hits covering Roy’s songs; Nazareth, Sonny James, Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean and Van Halen all had hits with Orbison’s songs before Roy himself was heard from again.
Orbison began to reemerge in the mid-1980’s. In 1986, filmmaker David Lynch used “In Dreams” effectively and disturbingly in his film Blue Velvet. Roy recorded a new version of “Crying” with Canada’s k.d. lang for use in another film. And then in 1987, Roy was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Bruce Springsteen inducted Roy and spoke in such glowing terms that Roy said he felt “validated” and he asked Bruce for a copy of the speech. A few months later Bruce was on hand again as Roy performed a star-studded concert that was released on home video as A Black and White Night. Roy was visible again; his “victory lap” had begun.
The topper was a lunch date with Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. Both of these artists – from Electric Light Orchestra and the Beatles, respectively – were huge Orbison fans and were asking Roy if he would lend his legendary voice to some tracks. This lead to Roy’s inclusion in the Traveling Wilburys – a true “supergroup” comprised of Jeff, George and Roy and adding Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. The Traveling Wilbury’s first album, Vol. 1, was a huge success and won the band a Grammy award. It was a Top 20 album worldwide and sold in excess of 3 million copies.
Jeff Lynne was not done with Roy Orbison, however. Lynne created Roy’s “comeback” album, Mystery Girl. Contributors to this record were the cream of the crop; Lynne, Petty and Harrison and also Mike Campbell, Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, Barbara Orbison, Roy Orbison, Jr., Bono (he and the Edge wrote a track for the record), Jerry Scheff and Steve Cropper. The album was nominated for a Grammy, sold well over a million copies, was #1 in five countries and Top Ten in ten. Roy was back.
But the man who had felt tragedy’s cold hand in the past was about to be dealt the final blow. Orbison made the most of his second chance and began again to travel and to tour Europe. In November of ’88, Mystery Girl was completed and being prepared for release. Johnny Cash showed up in Roy’s life again at this time. Roy confided to Johnny that he was having chest pains and others around Roy noticed his unhealthy appearance. In early December, Roy went home to Hendersonville to relax, to recharge and to fly model airplanes with his son. December 6th, Roy ate dinner at his mother’s house. Later that day, Roy Orbison died of a heart attack. He was 52. Mystery Girl was released seven weeks later, a farewell instead of a comeback.
“He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop. [After “Ooby Dooby”] he was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal … His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself”
I barely know what the above quote from Bob Dylan means but it makes clear the fact that Roy’s voice inspired hyperbole. Roy Orbison was a unique artist. The persona he put forth was not a handsome one, not a dynamic one. There seemed, at first glimpse, to be a striking lack of charisma, lack of presence, lack of anything. And then he would sing. This makes Roy the real deal. Instead of packaging, with him it was all product. A cynical critic could say his music followed a formula; but let’s just say he had a style. A style that spoke of loneliness, that showed vulnerability, sensitivity. In a macho, masculine era, Roy sang of crying, of tears, of heartbreak. The tragedies he knew all too well in his real life came out in his music. Music that spoke to so many, fans and stars alike.