Roy Orbison – circa 1964
“Call them as you see them / You’ll stand alone / You’re the best friend that you ever had, ohh, yeah” – ’Best Friend’ (Roy Orbison, Bill Dees)
Sometimes you just have to have the courage of your convictions. In 1959 American singer, songwriter and guitarist Roy Orbison signs a recording contract with the ‘fledgling’ Monument Records. Roy Orbison, at this time, is probably best known for his recordings with Sun Records in the 1950s. Sun tended to specialise in rockabilly and Roy did some good material there but it ‘didn’t work out’ for him and that label. Now, at Monument, Orbison works with producer Fred Foster. Roy asks for a string section – violins, cellos. That’s pretty unusual for a rock ‘n’ roll record. But Orbison intends to ‘record his music exactly how he’d always dreamed it to sound like.’ Foster claims it won’t work, that people won’t be able to dance to this thing. Roy’s response is that he doesn’t want them to dance; he wants them to hear him sing. Roy Orbison gets his way. Sometimes you just have to have the courage of your own convictions.
Roy Kelton Orbison a.k.a. ‘The Big O’ (23 April 1936 – 6 December 1988) is born in Vernon, Texas, U.S.A. He is the son of Orbie Lee Orbison and his wife, Nadine Orbison (nee Schultz). Orbie is an oil well driller and a car mechanic. Nadine is a nurse. Roy is their second child. He has an older brother, Charlie, and will gain a younger brother, Grady. All the kids in the family have poor eyesight. Roy begins wearing thick glasses from an early age.
“When I was 6 years old,” Roy Orbison reminisces, “mom and dad gave me a guitar for my birthday, and daddy taught me the chords to ‘You Are My Sunshine’ [a popular song at the time].” Roy had actually asked for a harmonica as his birthday present, but a guitar was what he received. His older brother, Charlie, mentors young Roy on his guitar playing. “I started singing when I was about 6 or 7 years old and I fell in love with it straight away, fell in love with my voice, listened to it and marvelled and that was wonderful. It took me on through. I never really wanted to do anything else.” By the time he is 7, he is “finished, you know, for anything else.”
In 1942 the Orbison family moves to Fort Worth, Texas. “Mom and dad were both working in a defence plant during World War Two,” says Roy Orbison. Roy attends the Denver Ave Elementary School. A polio epidemic in 1944 scares the family enough for them to retreat to Vernon, Texas, again. There, they live with Roy’s maternal grandmother, a divorcee. Roy Orbison writes his first song, ‘A Vow Of Love’, when he is 8. The same year, the talented youngster makes his first singing appearance at a local radio station.
In 1945 Roy Orbison wins a talent contest on radio station KVWC in Vernon, Texas. Following this, he has his own radio show on Saturdays. In 1946 Roy Orbison wins another talent contest, this one with a travelling medicine show. More change comes late in 1946: “When I was 10, we moved to Wink.”
Looking back, the adult Roy Orbison describes Wink, Texas, as, “football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand.” Roy’s interests lie elsewhere. “I got my group together when I was about 13.” At the suggestion of one of their school teachers, Roy Orbison and his friends call their group The Wink Westerners. The founding line-up in 1949 is: Roy Orbison (vocals, guitar), James Morrow (electric mandolin), Richard ‘Head’ West (piano), Charles ‘Slob’ Evans (upright bass) and Billy Pat ‘Spider’ Ellis (drums). In 1949 rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t exist, so The Wink Westerners are mainly playing country music. Roy Orbison’s influences have been listed as country music acts such as Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. Roy partially disputes this view. “I wasn’t influenced by a lot of singers. We used to have to sing everyone’s songs when we played for dances and things in order for people to come to the dances and pay their money. We had to sing all the songs that were popular so [that included] a lot of influences from country to pop to standard songs, [but] no one individual.” The Wink Westerners play on KERB radio in Kermit, Texas, in 1951 and, by 1953, have their own show on that station. At school, Roy Orbison plays with the marching band and tries to learn the baritone horn. He has no aptitude for football, but he does act as the manager of Wink High School’s Kittens football team in 1952.
“After high school,” explains Roy Orbison, “I still had my band, and we played dances in the evening. I was working for El Paso Natural Gas in the daytime, cutting up steel and loading it onto trucks and chopping weeds and painting water towers.” He also works for the county shovelling tar and works in the oil fields.
“Then I went to college for a year,” adds Roy Orbison. This is the North Texas State College in Denton. Roy studies geology with the idea that it will help him get a job in the oil fields if his hopes for a career in music are not realised. Future pop star Pat Boone is one of Roy Orbison’s classmates. Two other college friends at Denton are Wade Lee Moore and Dick Penner. “It was a good year, but it was a lonely year,” is Orbison’s conclusion.
In autumn 1955 Roy Orbison moves to Odessa Junior College. Roy considers a career as a teacher. “I studied a bit at the university,” he recalls. “A bit of English and history. But it was just something to fall back on and, when I got to thinking about it, I didn’t want to fall back on it so I went ahead and went on tour [with my band].” In 1955 Roy Orbison goes to an Elvis Presley show in Dallas. This has a strong impact on Roy. Seeing the young man who will be hailed as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll inspires Roy and his friends to become more like a rock ‘n’ roll band and less like a country music act. Around this time (i.e. 1956), The Wink Westerners are reconstituted as The Teen Kings. They go through ‘a few line-up shifts’, such as Jack Kennelly taking over on bass.
The Teen Kings enter the recording studio for the first time on 4 March 1956. They work with producer Norman Petty at his studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Petty is best known for his work with Buddy Holly starting in 1957. The Teen Kings pay for their own recording session and cut two songs, ‘Ooby Dooby’ and ‘Hey Miss Fannie’. ‘Ooby Dooby’ is written by Roy Orbison’s college buddies, Wade Lee Moore and Dick Penner. The single is released on the Je-wel label on 19 March 1956. In the finished version, the A side is ‘Trying To Get To You’ with ‘Ooby Dooby’ on the B side. ‘Trying To Get To You’ is a cover version of a 1954 song by a Washington D.C. vocal group The Eagles [no relation to the 1970s country rock band of the same name]. Elvis Presley recorded an unreleased version of ‘Trying To Get To You’ in 1955 and, after Roy Orbison’s take on it, Elvis records ‘Trying To Get To You’ again and releases his version in August 1956. ‘Ooby Dooby’ is a ‘Texas hit’ but doesn’t make the national charts.
“We used to have a television show in West Texas,” explains Roy Orbison. He is referring to ‘Roy Orbison and The Teen Kings’ which screens on Saturday afternoons. “[Sun Records recording artist] Johnny [Cash] came by so he could promote his public appearance.” Cash advises Orbison that, “if you change your name and lower your voice, you’re gonna become a star, Roy.” Both suggestions are ignored, but Orbison does have a question for his guest. “I asked him how you got on records. And he said, ‘Call Sam Phillips at Sun Records and tell him I told you to call.’ And I did that and Sam said, ‘Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company,’ and slammed down the phone. So I sent him a recording later and we did get on the label, but John recommended me.”
Roy Orbison is signed to Sun Records on 26 March 1956. Sun Records is famed as Elvis Presley’s first record label – but the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll moved to RCA in November 1955. Sun is mainly devoted to rockabilly, a more hillbilly variant on early rock ‘n’ roll. The music Roy Orbison records for Sun generally conforms to that blueprint.
At Sun Records, Roy Orbison’s first single is a re-recording of ‘Ooby Dooby’ (US no. 59). In this twangy and raw slice of rockabilly, Orbison calls, “Hey baby, jump over here / When you do the ooby dooby / I just gotta be near.” The energy is contagious. The B side is a Roy Orbison composition, ‘Go! Go! Go!’, that is equally wild and loose. ‘Ooby Dooby’ backed with ‘Go! Go! Go!’ is released in May 1956. Fellow Sun label performer Jerry Lee Lewis puts out a cover version of ‘Go! Go! Go!’ under the amended title of ‘Down The Line’ in February 1958.
‘Nothing else Roy Orbison records at Sun has any success.’ ‘Much of his later Sun material is weak in comparison’ to ‘Ooby Dooby’. The best of these other Sun recordings is Roy’s next single, the 1956 track ‘Rock House’, written by Harold Jenkins and the label’s boss and record producer, Sam Phillips. The song is simple and effective, with a dramatic stop-and-start arrangement. Roy Orbison lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where Sun Records is located. He invites his 15 year old girlfriend, Claudette Frady, to join him there. Roy and Claudette live in separate rooms at Sam Phillips’ house. In December 1956 The Teen Kings split up ‘over disputed writing credits and royalties.’ Subsequently, in the recording studio Roy Orbison just works with session musicians. Despite reportedly wearing thick glasses from an early age, all the photos of Roy Orbison with The Teen Kings show him without any spectacles at all. Buddy Holly becomes the first bespectacled rock star in 1957 and, following that, Roy is less self-conscious about wearing his own glasses.
In 1957 Roy Orbison releases two more singles for Sun Records. Neither ‘Sweet And Easy To Love’ nor ‘Chicken-Hearted’ make the charts. It is in 1957 that Roy Orbison marries his girlfriend, Claudette Frady.
In 1958 Roy Orbison leaves Sun Records. He later muses that the Sun label “represented something unique…but it wasn’t a good [recording] studio.” Orbison expresses dissatisfaction at the “unprofessionalism” of Sun’s boss, Sam Phillips. “The industry just outgrew him overnight and he didn’t know it.”
In March 1958 Roy Orbison plays a gig in Hammond, Indiana. On the same bill is The Everly Brothers. They tell Roy they are looking for new material, so he plays them a song called ‘Claudette’, inspired by Roy’s new wife. The Everlys like the song and release their version of it in March 1958 as the B side to their single ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’. This leads to a publishing contract with Acuff Rose Music Publishing, the firm belonging to the manager of The Everly Brothers, Wesley Rose. In 1958 Roy Orbison begins working with co-writer Joe Melson.
Roy and Claudette Orbison become parents for the first time in 1958 with the birth of their son, Roy Dewayne Orbison. They go on to have two more sons: Anthony King Orbison (born 1962) and Wesley Orbison (born 1965).
It is a difficult time for Roy Orbison. He ‘writes songs in the car because his wife and infant son fill their small apartment in Hendersonville, Tennessee.’
Wesley Rose secures a new recording contract for Roy Orbison with RCA. Famed guitarist Chet Atkins is assigned to work with Roy as producer. Two singles are issued on RCA in 1958: ‘Seems To Me’ and ‘Almost 18’. Neither of these singles reaches the charts. So Roy Orbison’s time at RCA is ‘short-lived and unproductive.’
Wesley Rose steps in again to find a new outlet for Roy Orbison’s recordings. A deal is signed with a new company, Monument Records, in Nashville, Tennessee. Producer and owner Fred Foster is the ‘perfect foil’ for Roy Orbison.
The music of Roy Orbison is probably best described as pop music. It could be said that he was a rock ‘n’ roll act at Sun Records but, at Monument, it becomes obvious that Roy is ‘far more comfortable as a ballad singer than a hepped-up rockabilly jive cat.’ Yet calling Orbison’s sound ‘pop music’ seems like an understatement. His recordings at Monument are ‘quasi-symphonic productions [in which he is] backed by surging strings, ominous drum rolls and heavenly choirs of back-up vocalists.’ Performer Buddy Holly and producer Phil Spector had, separately and individually, experimented with adding orchestral instruments to rock ‘n’ roll but, for Roy Orbison, almost the inverse occurs: he adds a pop sensibility to soaring, operatic musical settings. Added to the mix are ‘Latin rhythms, martial beats, reminiscences of classical music [and] keening steel guitars.’
The most striking element of Roy Orbison’s sound is his own voice. He has a ‘rich, supple voice.’ ‘His vocals are peerless, his range extraordinary.’ In some ways, Roy Orbison is more like an opera singer than a rock singer. His approach is violently emotional and dramatic. Few, if any, rock acts can match him for sheer pathos.
Around two-thirds of Roy Orbison’s most famous songs are written or co-written by Roy Orbison himself. The balance of his output consists of cover versions of other artists’ songs or songs specifically written for Orbison. Thematically, the common threads in Orbison’s compositions are sadness and dreams. The motif of sadness is easily explained since it plays into his love of emotional ballads and suits his high-strung delivery. Often this sadness is connected to the ever popular genre of love-gone-wrong songs. However, sometimes that sadness is more accurately a form of loneliness. Orbison muses, “There was a lot of loneliness in West Texas where I grew up. We used to say it was the centre of everything, five hundred miles away from anything.” When Roy Orbison sings of dreams he has an idiosyncratic view. Most commonly, when rock singers such as Orbison’s contemporaries The Everly Brothers sing of dreams, it is an idealised imaginary realm of perfect love. Yet Roy Orbison’s dream worlds have an unhealthy, sinister aspect. Through a narcotic haze, a disturbing surrealistic world threatens to trap the dreamer with no prospect of escape.
Although Roy Orbison’s default mode may be aching ballads, it would be a mistake to think that he never rocks out. He is ‘capable of a tough, bluesy swagger.’ Some of his best songs are rough and gritty, providing a welcome contrast to his more gauzy works.
Roy Orbison’s first single for Monument Records, 1959’s ‘Paper Boy’, fails to chart. ‘Uptown’ (US no. 72), issued in late 1959, is a little more successful. Co-written by Orbison and Joe Melson, ‘Uptown’ is the tale of an ambitious boy dreaming of a better life. It is classy and cool as an ice cube in a glass. However it is Orbison’s next single that really sets the pace.
The 1960 Roy Orbison single ‘Only The Lonely’ (US no. 2, UK no. 1, AUS no. 5) is an ‘epic success.’ It starts out with a string of nonsense syllables: “Dum Dumb Dummy Doo-Wah / Ooh Yay, Yay, Yah, Yeah” – an incantation that evokes both Buddy Holly and 1950s doo wop groups. “Only the lonely / Know the way I feel tonight / Only the lonely / Know the feeling ain’t right,” sings Orbison, suddenly making self-pity seem both sharp and stylish. ‘Only The Lonely’, co-written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson, is ‘a beautiful, commercial pop ballad.’ Orbison offered it to both Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers and only after both acts rejected it, did he record it himself. This seems somehow in keeping with the mournful persona the singer projects. Here, Roy Orbison establishes the ‘rock ‘n’ roll archetypes of the underdog and the hopelessly romantic loser.’ The follow-up single to ‘Only The Lonely’ is ‘Blue Angel’ (US no. 4, UK no. 11, AUS no. 28). Once again, there is a nonsense vocal line: “Sha la la dooby wah / Dumb dumb dumb / Yeh, yeh, um.” Virtually swimming in sorrow, the singer consoles, “Oh Blue Angel, don’t you cry / Just because he said goodbye.” Roy Orbison closes out 1960 with ‘I’m Hurtin’’ (US no. 27), wherein his wounded and soaring voice advises, “You walked away and the pain began / I knew I’d never love again.” Like ‘Only The Lonely’, Roy Orbison co-writes both ‘Blue Angel’ and ‘I’m Hurtin’’ with Joe Melson.
Sun Records belatedly issues Roy Orbison’s first album ‘Roy Orbison At The Rock House’ (1961) which includes both ‘Ooby Dooby’ and ‘Rock House’. Monument Records releases ‘Lonely And Blue’ (1961) which contains the songs ‘Only The Lonely’, ‘Blue Angel’ and ‘I’m Hurtin’’. Sam Phillips produces ‘Roy Orbison At The Rock House’. Fred Foster produces ‘Lonely And Blue’ and produces Orbison’s next three albums. Roy Orbison releases two singles in 1961. The first of these is ‘Running Scared’ (US no. 1, UK no. 9, AUS no. 5) b/w ‘Love Hurts’ (AUS no. 5). ‘Running Scared’ is accurately described as ‘a rock ‘n’ roll Bolero.’ ‘The Bolero’ (1928) is an orchestral movement written by Maurice Ravel. It has a steady, implacable progression, increasing through each repetition, until it reaches a kind of crescendo. ‘Running Scared’ has a very similar structure. “Just running scared, each place we go / Yeah, runnin’ scared, what would I do / If he came back and wanted you?” is how the lyric begins. Roy Orbison’s insecure narrator worries about losing his lover to a former partner of hers, someone apparently more impressive (“You loved him so”). Yet, in the finale, the woman in question chooses Roy/the narrator, a choice that is accompanied by the song’s highest, most piercing note. ‘Running Scared’ is co-written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson. The B side of the single, the agonised ‘Love Hurts’, is a cover version of a song first recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1960. Roy Orbison’s second single for 1961 is ‘Crying’ (US no. 2, UK no. 25, AUS no. 1) b/w ‘Candy Man’ (US no. 25, AUS no. 1). ‘Crying’ is another signature Roy Orbison song characterised by its despairing misery. With a barely suppressed sob, he intones, “I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while / But when I saw you last night, you held my hand so tight when you stopped to say ‘hello’ / And though you wished me well, you couldn’t tell / That I’d been crying over you.” ‘Crying’ is written by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson, but the flipside, ‘Candy Man’, is written by Beverly Ross and Fred Neill. ‘Candy Man’ contrasts strongly with ‘Crying’ since it is one of the singer’s more forceful performances, highlighted by a harmonica riff.
Roy Orbison’s touring band is dubbed The Candy Men after his popular song ‘Candy Man’. The singer is reputedly a hard taskmaster. On one occasion, he dismisses all the group’s members ‘for not giving their best.’ The musicians from the opening act on that night, The Webs, are hired to become the new Candy Men. One of the (former) Webs is Bobby Goldsboro, who goes on to have a hit in 1968 with the tear-jerker ‘Honey’.
The album ‘Crying’ (1962) (US no. 21) incorporates all four of Roy Orbison’s songs from 1961: ‘Running Scared’, ‘Love Hurts’, ‘Crying’ and ‘Candy Man’. Also present is ‘Lana’, a doo wop love song about “The sweetest and the neatest / Little girl in the world”, written by Orbison and Joe Melson. Orbison’s first single for 1962 is ‘Dream Baby’ (US no. 4, UK no. 2, AUS no. 2), written by Cindy Walker. Rocking with a light touch, the song’s lyrics say, “Dream baby, got me dreamin’ sweet dreams / The whole day through,” then repeats the line, slyly altering the latter half to, “Night time too.” ‘The Crowd’ (US no. 26, UK no. 40, AUS no. 25), written by Orbison and Joe Melson, adopts a ‘Bolero’ tempo akin to ‘Running Scared’ but is another of Orbison’s trademark meditations on loneliness. ‘Dream Baby’, ‘The Crowd’ and another new single, ‘Evergreen’ (AUS no. 100), are the most recent entries on the compilation ‘Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits’ (1962) (US no. 13), issued in August. Roy Orbison issues one more single after that in 1962: ‘Working For The Man’ (US no. 33, UK no. 50, AUS no. 1) b/w ‘Leah’ (US no. 25, AUS no. 1). “Hey now, you better listen to me every one of you,” Orbison calls on ‘Working For The Man’. “We got a lotta, lotta, lotta, lotta work to do / Forget about your women and that water can / Today you’re working for the man.” This tough-minded track is awash with grunting and clanking. Roy Orbison explains that the song was inspired by his days working for El Paso Natural Gas. “Our straw boss was Mr Rose, and he wouldn’t cut me any slack,” Roy recalls. ‘Leah’ is a South Seas fantasy involving pearl diving. Both songs are written by Roy Orbison alone without any collaborators.
Roy Orbison is popular enough to have songwriters trying to get him to record their tunes. One such composer is folk rock icon Bob Dylan. “I didn’t know him as a singer, but he sent me a song, ‘Don’t Think Twice’ [which Dylan records in 1962] and I didn’t reckon much of him until afterwards [when he became more famous].”
Although Roy Orbison has been wearing spectacles most of his life, it is around this time that dark glasses become his visual symbol. “It was a mistake,” Roy claims. “I played a show in Alabama in 1963 and I left my clear pair [of glasses] on the plane…I had to go on that night in Alabama with the sunshades. It wasn’t cool in those days. I was a bit embarrassed. Anyway, I came to England [in May 1963] for a tour with The Beatles and Gerry And The Pacemakers.” This is The Beatles third national tour of Britain, but at the time they are still unknown to Americans – like Roy Orbison. “I was worried more about whether I was going to go over well in a foreign country or not. So they took pictures [of me in the dark glasses] and [those pictures] went around the world.” And so the dark glasses become part of Roy Orbison’s image. They also give rise to speculation about his eyesight. “I see quite well. I am a bit far-sighted. They are corrective lenses, but I don’t need the dark glasses,” Roy clarifies. Another component of his look is that he habitually wears dark clothes but this is almost as coincidental as the dark glasses. “I used to play cowboys and Indians and when I played the cowboys I had to be the bad guy and I never had a black shirt to wear so when I grew up and made a bit of money, I wore a black shirt and liked them so that’s part of the image too. I don’t always wear black…The image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black and somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really.”
The first of Roy Orbison’s singles for 1963 is ‘In Dreams’ (US no. 7, UK no. 6, AUS no. 1), written by the singer himself. The startling opening image is: “A candy coloured clown they call the sandman / Tiptoes to my room every night.” This misty, but deeply emotional, plaint suggests that, “In dreams I walk with you / In dreams I talk with you / In dreams you’re mine / All of the time / We’re together in dreams.” On the face of it, ‘Falling’ (US no. 22, UK no. 4, AUS no. 3) – another Orbison solo composition – is simply a song of all-encompassing love. But look deeper and it is rather twisted. “It wasn’t true,” he confesses, “I used you and you were just someone new / To thrill this lonely heart of mine / I was lying all the time.” Yet, in added complexity, Roy’s narrator wails, “But it’s different now, I’ve kissed you now.” The flipside of ‘Falling’ is the lightly martial ‘Distant Drums’ (AUS no. 3). The song is more commonly associated with Jim Reeves who, like Orbison, recorded it in 1963. But it is released in 1966 by Reeves and his version becomes the definitive one. Both sides of the next Orbison single are interesting but, like the earlier pairing of ‘Crying’ and ‘Candy Man’, it is the contrast that enlivens them. Orbison co-writes ‘Blue Bayou’ (US no. 24, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1) with Joe Melson. This is a rural Southern idyll with dreamy images of “Where you sleep all day and the catfish play on Blue Bayou / All those fishing boats with their sails afloat if I could only see / That familiar sunrise through sleepy eyes how happy I’d be.” Turn the disc over and one finds ‘Mean Woman Blues’ (US no. 5, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1), a Claude Demetrius composition first recorded by Elvis Presley in 1957. Roy Orbison attacks it with great energy, sounding almost unhinged. ‘In Dreams’ and ‘Blue Bayou’ both show up on the album ‘In Dreams’ (1963) (US no. 35), released in July. Also on this album is ‘(They Call You) Gigolette’, an Orbison & Melson song about a femme fatale that is highlighted by a gypsy violin. Rounding out 1963 for Roy Orbison is the single ‘Pretty Paper’ (US no. 15, UK no. 6, AUS no. 4), a Christmas-for-the-poor song of sadness whose country music lilt is explained by the fact that it is penned by country music star Willie Nelson.
Roy Orbison’s first single for 1964 is ‘Borne On The Wind’ (UK no. 15, AUS no. 8), a song that is both snappy and eerie. It is notable chiefly for introducing Bill Dees, who takes over from Joe Melson as Orbison’s most regular co-songwriter. The B side of the single is a crazed cover version of Ray Charles’ 1959 hit ‘What’d I Say’ (AUS no. 8). Orbison collaborates with Bill Dees for ‘It’s Over’ (US no. 9, UK no. 1, AUS no. 9). This is another Orbison song with a ‘Bolero’ tempo, a trait enhanced by clacking percussion. “Your baby doesn’t love you anymore,” is the blunt first line. Dripping infinite sadness, Roy’s vocal advises that, “It breaks your heart in two / To know she’s been untrue.” ‘When Orbison’s voice swells at the close of “It’s Over”, his love, his life and, indeed, the whole world seems to be coming to an end…’ ‘More Of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits’ (1964) (US no. 19), released in July, scoops up a number of hits that had previously been omitted from his other albums (i.e. ‘Working For The Man’, ‘Falling’, ‘Mean Woman Blues’, ‘Pretty Paper’, ‘Borne On The Wind’, ‘What’d I Say’ and ‘It’s Over’). Roy Orbison tours Australia with U.S. pop group The Beach Boys in 1964.
Roy Orbison’s ‘biggest and best hit’ is released in 1964. It is also ‘his hardest rocking.’ The genesis of the song takes place at Roy’s kitchen table. His wife Claudette passes him on the way out the door for a trip into town. He calls after her enquiring if she needs any spending money. Her rejoinder is, “Pretty woman never needs money.” Roy Orbison uses this as the inspiration for ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1), co-written with Bill Dees. Over an aggressive rock beat, he sings, “Pretty woman, walking down the street / Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet.” His singing is punctuated with such amusing asides as a cry for “Mercy” and a “grrr-owll.” Just when it seems the narrator has lost his chance, the song winds up with the lines, “Is she walking back to me? / Yeah, she’s walking back to me / Ohh-hh, Pretty woman!” Roy Orbison’s ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ tops the U.S. singles charts for three weeks from 26 September to 10 October 1964 and hits no. 1 in the U.K. on 14 November 1964 for one week only. ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ ‘may well be the perfect pop song.’ It is not exactly typical for a Roy Orbison song. If that criterion is applied, then his ‘best’ song may be something like ‘Only The Lonely’ or ‘Crying’. However such is the irresistible power of ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ that it seems churlish to deny it is Roy Orbison’s best simply because it is a hard rocking tune. After all, that quality is a big part of its appeal!
Roy Orbison’s only other release for 1964 is ‘She Wears My Ring’ (AUS no. 68), a track exhumed from the ‘Crying’ album, and released on an EP with ‘Wedding Day’, ‘Love Hurts’ and ‘Borne On The Wind’.
While Roy Orbison maintains a hectic touring schedule in 1964, things are not so good at home. ‘Roy and [his wife] Claudette are building a home in Hendersonville [in Tennessee], but while he is out on the road, she begins an affair with their [building] contractor.’ Roy and Claudette divorce in November 1964 ‘over her infidelities.’ However, the couple remarry in August 1965.
On 21 January 1965 Roy Orbison begins an Australian tour in the company of British rock band The Rolling Stones.
The first Roy Orbison single for 1965 is ‘Goodnight’ (US no. 21, UK no. 14, AUS no. 6), a strumming ode in which the narrator cannot bear to part from his lover because he misses the way she bids him ‘Goodnight’. ‘(Say) You’re My Girl’ (US no. 39, UK no. 23, AUS no. 8) is poppy and lightly groovy as the singer tries to win over the girl who has recently broken up with his best friend. These songs, together with ‘Oh Pretty Woman’, are on the album ‘Orbisongs’ (1965) (US no. 136). The album also holds Roy’s take on ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, Shirley (Goodman) And (Leonard) Lee’s 1956 hit. These are the last releases for Monument Records.
‘A move to troubled MGM Records sends Roy Orbison’s career plummeting.’ On this label, ‘his songs start to sound like lesser variations of themselves…Contemporary trends in rock and soul are making him sound dated.’ In short, ‘the new songs are not as successful as the earlier ones.’
‘There Is Only One Roy Orbison’ (1965) (US no. 55) is the singer’s first album for MGM and is, admittedly, ‘among his most eloquent.’ This disc is home to the Roy Orbison and Bill Dees composition ‘Ride Away’ (US no. 25, UK no. 34, AUS no. 15). It portrays the singer as an itinerant motorcycle rider in black: “Two wheels a-turnin’ / One girl a yearnin’ / Big motor burnin’ the road.” Also present is Roy’s own version of ‘Claudette’, the song named for his wife, the composition he gave away to The Everly Brothers in 1958. Roy Orbison and Bill Dees co-write the 1965 Roy Orbison single ‘Crawling Back’ (US no. 46, UK no. 19, AUS no. 14). It is a hushed portrait of a broken spirit: “Only you and no one else / Can keep me crawling back.” Rounding out the year is ‘Breakin’ Up Is Breakin’ My Heart’ (US no. 31, UK no. 22, AUS no. 19). ‘Crawling Back’ and ‘Breakin’ Up Is Breakin’ My Heart’ are both on the album ‘The Orbison Way’ (1966) (US no. 128), released in January. It will be over two decades before another Roy Orbison album makes the U.S. charts.
On 6 June 1966 Roy Orbison and his wife Claudette ride their motorcycles home from Bristol, Tennessee. A pickup truck pulls out in front of Claudette’s ‘cycle on South Water Avenue in Gallatin, Tennessee. She strikes the door of the vehicle and sustains injuries that prove fatal. Roy Orbison witnesses the tragedy. Claudette dies in his arms an hour later. She was 24 years old.
Roy Orbison’s old record label dusts off a couple of his songs and releases them as singles. ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ (US no. 81) comes from ‘Orbisongs’ while ‘Lana’ (UK no. 15, AUS no. 4) comes from the earlier album, ‘Crying’. ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ and ‘Lana’ bracket the release of a new single, ‘Twinkletoes’ (US no. 34, UK no. 29, AUS no. 13), on MGM. ‘Twinkletoes’ comes from the MGM album ‘The Classic Roy Orbison’ (1966), issued in July. Despite the intimations of its title, this disc contains all new material, not past hits.
1967 starts with the January release of ‘Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson’ (1967). This is an album of Roy Orbison’s interpretations of songs written by country music artist Don Gibson. The best known track is ‘Too Soon To Know’ (US no. 68, UK no. 3, AUS no. 20), a piano ballad about recovering from a lost love. Wesley Rose produces this album with Jim Vienneau. Rose is producer or co-producer on most of Orbison’s next few discs up to 1972. Roy Orbison’s next move is to star in a motion picture, ‘The Fastest Guitar Alive’ (1967). He is offered the starring role ‘after his friend Elvis Presley turns it down.’ The movie is set during the American Civil War. Orbison plays the part of Johnny, ‘a Confederate super spy’, whose secret weapon is a guitar that shoots bullets. The movie is a ‘critical and box-office flop’; ‘it is obvious his talents are not suited to movies.’ Inevitably, there is a soundtrack album, ‘The Fastest Guitar Alive – Soundtrack’ (1967). From this disc comes the song ‘There Won’t Be Many Coming Home’ (UK no. 12, AUS no. 12), a lament for lost soldiers, and the Spanish guitar of ‘Best Friend’. October brings a new album, ‘Cry Softly Lonely One’ (1967). The best track from this set is ‘Communication Breakdown’ (US no. 60, AUS no. 64), written by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees. Its guitar stutters out a kind of musical Morse code. After the one-off single ‘So Good’ (US no. 132, UK no. 32, AUS no. 28), two more tracks from Roy’s latest album are issued as singles. The title track, ‘Cry Softly Lonely One’ (US no. 52, AUS no. 10), is bathed in strings and features the singer’s upper register on the chorus. It is followed by ‘She’ (US no. 119, AUS no. 23).
In 1968 Roy Orbison goes on tour in England. At a gig in Leeds in August 1968 he meets Barbara Anne Marie Wilhonnen Jacobs, a German teenager. She becomes the new woman in Roy Orbison’s life as he falls in love with her.
On 14 September 1968, while Roy Orbison is on tour in England, the Orbison family home at Old Hickory Lane in Henderson, Tennessee, burns to the ground. Killed in the fire are Roy’s two eldest sons, Roy Jr. and Anthony. His youngest boy, Wesley (aged 3) is saved by Roy’s parents. Subsequently, Wesley is raised by his grandparents. The deaths of two of his three children, coming a bit over two years after the death of their mother, are a terrible blow for Roy Orbison.
“I think the records were okay, maybe, through 1968 or so,” says Roy Orbison. The first single for 1968 is the non-album track ‘Born To Be Loved By You’ (AUS no. 25). The best for the year is ‘Walk On’ (US no. 121, UK no. 39, AUS no. 53), co-written by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees. It is an anthem of pride and tears. ‘Walk On’ and ‘Heartache’ (US no. 104, UK no. 44, AUS no. 57) – the last single for 1968 – can both be found on ‘Roy Orbison’s Many Moods’ (1969), released in May.
Roy Orbison’s girlfriend, Barbara Jacobs, moves to the U.S.A. late in 1968. She and Roy marry on 25 March 1969. Barbara is 19 at the time; Roy is 33. The couple go on to have two sons: Roy Kelton Orbison, Jr. (born 18 October 1970) and Alex Orbison (born 1975). In later years, Barbara Orbison acts as her husband’s business manager.
Three singles are released by Roy Orbison in 1969: ‘My Friend’ (UK no. 35, AUS no. 99), ‘Penny Arcade’ (US no. 133, UK no. 27, AUS no. 1) and ‘Break My Mind’ (AUS no. 26). The best of these is ‘Penny Arcade’, a tribute to bright and diverting amusements. Musically, it mixes rough horns with a tinkling xylophone. ‘Penny Arcade’ is written by Sammy King.
The 1970s are not the best years of Roy Orbison’s career. ‘The Big O’ (1970), released early in the year, is a U.K. album that includes the 1969 singles ‘Penny Arcade’ and ‘Break My Mind’. ‘Hank Williams The Roy Orbison Way’ (1970), issued in August, is a set of cover versions of songs by country music great Hank Williams. The one-off single ‘So Young’ (US no. 122, AUS no. 82) is also released in 1970. After a quiet 1971, Orbison puts out two albums in 1972. ‘Roy Orbison Sings’ (1972) comes out in May and, despite a conspicuous lack of commercial success, is still considered ‘one of his finest.’ It includes ‘God Love You’. ‘Memphis’ (1972) follows in November and features a cover version of Chuck Berry’s 1959 hit ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ (AUS no. 84). ‘Milestones’ (1973) is Roy Orbison’s last album for MGM. He signs to Mercury in 1974 in a move that proves fairly unproductive, yielding the single ‘Still’ (AUS no. 56) in 1975 and the album ‘I’m Still In Love With You’ (1976). Roy Orbison returns to Monument Records and reunites with producer Fred Foster for the album ‘Regeneration’ (1977). The single from this album is ‘Belinda’. Although there are great hopes for the project, Roy Orbison declares he is not happy with the results and annuls his contract with Monument. He moves to Asylum Records for ‘Laminar Flow’ (1979) which yields ‘Easy Way Out’.
Roy Orbison sees Elvis Presley for the final time in 1976. He attends Presley’s concert in Las Vegas, Nevada. This turns out to be Elvis’ last concert there. Seeing Roy Orbison in the audience, Elvis Presley announces him to the crowd via his stage microphone with the words, “Quite simply, the greatest singer in the world, Roy Orbison.” Elvis Presley dies in 1977.
Heavy smoking and the years of life on the road as a touring musician take a toll on Roy Orbison. He has a triple bypass in open heart surgery conducted on 18 January 1978 at St Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. The surgery is successful and the singer recovers.
Although the 1970s are fairly barren for Roy Orbison in commercial terms, a groundswell of appreciation for him builds. Roy observes, “I think the renaissance started with Linda Ronstadt recording ‘Blue Bayou’, which wasn’t even the A side [of my 1963 single ‘Mean Woman Blues’] in America. It sold seven to ten million for her, and I guess I felt validated or something. That was in 1977. And then Don McLean did ‘Crying’ [in 1981], and it was a hit. Then Van Halen did ‘Pretty Woman’ [in 1982] and I won a Grammy with Emmylou Harris for the  single ‘That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again’.”
‘That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again’ (US no. 55, AUS no. 97) comes from the soundtrack of the movie ‘Roadie’ (1980). It is a pleasant country music duet with Emmylou Harris, a country rock singer. The song is co-written by Roy Orbison and Chris Price.
‘The two decades between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s are undeniably tough ones’ for Roy Orbison.
‘Wild Hearts’ (UK no. 76) comes from the soundtrack to the movie ‘Insignificance’ (1985). The album ‘Class Of 55’ (1985) reunites Roy Orbison with fellow Sun Records alumni Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. ‘Coming Home’, co-written by Orbison, lyricist Will Jennings and country rocker J.D. Souther, is a reassuring, almost gospel sounding, track from this album. Movie director David Lynch, who is a big fan of Roy Orbison, uses Roy’s 1963 hit ‘In Dreams’ in the motion picture ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986). This leads to ‘In Dreams: The Greatest Hits’ (1987), a double album of fresh recordings by Roy Orbison of many of his best known songs. Another movie, ‘Less Than Zero’ (1987), includes a new Roy Orbison song, the morbid ‘Life Fades Away’, co-written by Orbison and ‘ultra hard rocker’ Glen Danzig of the band called Danzig. The soundtrack to ‘Hiding Out’ (1987) includes a duet version of ‘Crying’ that Roy Orbison records with country rock singer k.d. lang.
On 30 September 1987 Roy Orbison puts on a show for the cameras at the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. His special guests, acting as back-up musicians or backing singers, include such rock music luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes and k.d. lang. The show is broadcast on Cinemax Cable TV in January 1988. Released on video as ‘Roy Orbison: A Black and White Night’, it becomes very popular. The live album, ‘A Black And White Night Live’ (1989) (US no. 123), counts among its highlights a 1984 Elvis Costello song, ‘The Comedians’, performed by Orbison and Roy’s rollicking rendition of his early songwriting triumph ‘Claudette’.
Roy Orbison begins work on a new album with Jeff Lynne (from British pop group The Electric Light Orchestra) acting as producer. Lynne is also acting as producer for an album by American rocker Tom Petty (‘Full Moon Fever’ (1989)) and was the producer of ‘Cloud Nine’ (1987) by George Harrison, former member of The Beatles. Harrison drops by the Petty recording sessions. All of them express their admiration for Roy Orbison. Petty toured with Bob Dylan in 1986. Harrison also knows Dylan, having met him during The Beatles’ first U.S. tour in 1964. Also Dylan appeared at Harrison’s charity concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Orbison also knows Dylan – distantly – from having been offered ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right’ and is familiar with Harrison from touring with The Beatles in 1963. With so many connections between them, the five men – Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, George Harrison and Bob Dylan – decide to record an album together. To reduce the pressure on the supergroup, they all take false identities and (absurdly) pose as brothers known as The Traveling Wilburys. Roy Orbison is Lefty Wilbury. The album, ‘Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1’ (1988) (US no. 3, UK no. 16, AUS no. 1), is released in October. It includes such popular new songs as ‘Handle With Care’ (US no. 45, UK no. 21, AUS no. 3) and ‘End Of The Line’ (US no. 63, AUS no. 11). It seems an ideal launching pad for a revival of Roy Orbison’s career.
On 4 December 1988 Roy Orbison plays a gig at Highland Heights, Ohio. It will turn out to be his final concert.
Roy Orbison had been experiencing chest pains since November 1988. On 6 December 1988, after dinner at his mother’s home, he suffers a heart attack in the bathroom. Although he is promptly taken to hospital, the singer dies there on 6 December 1988. He was 52.
‘Mystery Girl’ (1989) (US no. 5) is posthumously released on Virgin Records in February. Production duties on this album are shared by Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Mike Campbell (Tom Petty’s guitarist), T-Bone Burnett (the producer of ‘A Black And White Night’), Barbara Orbison and Bono (lead singer of Irish rock group U2). The first single from the album is ‘You Got It’ (US no. 9, UK no. 3, AUS no. 1) b/w ‘The Only One’. Produced by Jeff Lynne, ‘You Got It’ is co-written by three of The Traveling Wilburys: Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. “Anything you want / You got it / Anything you need / You got it / Anything at all / You got it, baby!” run the lyrics amidst cascading guitars and flourishes of musical punctuation. The B side, ‘The Only One’ (also on ‘Mystery Girl’), is a brassy, aching, 1950s throwback co-produced by Roy Orbison and Mike Campbell and co-written by Wesley K. Orbison (Roy’s son by his first wife, Claudette) and Craig Wiseman. ‘California Blue’ (UK no. 77, AUS no. 75) is produced by Jeff Lynne and, like ‘You Got It’, is co-written by Lynne, Orbison and Petty. It’s a dreamy song, soft as a watercolour. The title of the album, ‘Mystery Girl’, is a line from ‘She’s A Mystery To Me’ (UK no. 27), produced by Bono and co-written by Bono and his U2 colleague, The Edge. The song is virtually hypnotic and Roy Orbison’s voice acts like a beacon in the blackness: “Darkness falls and she will take me by the hand / Take me to some twilight land / Where all but love is grey / Where I can’t find my way / Without her as my guide.” Other notable tracks on ‘Mystery Girl’ include the slow and solemn ‘A Love So Beautiful’ (co-written by Lynne and Orbison); the bent ‘The Comedians’ which employs martial drumbeats (a song written by Elvis Costello that premiered on ‘A Black and White Night’); and the rattling rocker ‘(All I Can Do Is) Dream You’ (co-written by Billy Burnette [no relation to T-Bone] and David Malloy). ‘Mystery Girl’ is Roy Orbison’s best album. Although it can be argued that an album like ‘Crying’ better represents the peak of Roy Orbison’s career, Roy – and the industry as a whole – was more focussed on singles at the time. Albums were little more than a few hits and some filler. ‘Mystery Girl’ is a more cohesive work as a unit, an album. It has an added poignancy due to Roy Orbison’s death only a short time before its release. ‘Mystery Girl’ is Roy Orbison’s first full-length album of new material in ten years; it is also ‘the biggest selling album of his career.’
Virgin Records assembles one more album of Roy Orbison material from unused tracks, ‘King Of Hearts’ (1992) (US no. 179). Various producers are used, but Jeff Lynne oversees the project. ‘I Drove All Night’ (UK no. 7, AUS no. 22) chugs with locomotive power. It is written by hit-makers Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. ‘Heartbreak Radio’ (UK no. 36, AUS no. 31) is straightforward pop rock written by Frankie Miller and Troy Seals. The dramatic ‘Wild Hearts Run Out Of Time’ is co-written by Roy Orbison and lyricist Will Jennings.
“People often ask me how I would like to be remembered and I answer that I would simply like to be remembered,” said Roy Orbison. That desire was fulfilled. Often Orbison is thought of as a tragic figure, not only because of the melancholy nature of many of his hits, but also the real life heartbreak associated with the untimely deaths of his first wife and his first two sons. Orbison once reflected on this image: “The tragic life…that one period [1966-1968] of it was tragic. But there were a lot of years before and a lot of years after, so that’s very far from the truth.” Roy Orbison’s musical history can be divided into four parts: (1) the Sun Records rockabilly years (1956-1958); (2) the Monument Records classic period (1959-1964); (3) the MGM Records and other labels years of fitful success (1965-1986); and (4) the final period of restored power (1987-1988). The rockabilly songs are a bit underrated – even by Orbison. The long third phase still had some good songs (e.g. ‘Communication Breakdown’, ‘That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again’). The final years are heartbreaking for the loss of what could have been but at least Orbison’s career ended on an upswing. Yet his best years remain the 1959-1964 period, that odd twilight that followed Elvis Presley’s dominance and preceded the advent of The Beatles – two giant forces that shared a respect and admiration of Roy Orbison. And how did he achieve his greatest works at Monument? By defying conventional wisdom and having the courage of his convictions. Roy Orbison purveyed a ‘quavering operatic voice and melodramatic narratives of unrequited love and yearning.’ ‘At a time when pop music was irredeemably lightweight, Orbison stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries…His songs compelled attention.’
- metrolyrics.com as at 23 July 2015
- ‘The Essential Roy Orbison’ – Sleeve notes by Chet Flippo (Sony Music Entertainment, 2006) p. 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 42, 43
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Roy Orbison’ by Ken Emerson (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 154, 155
- wikipedia.org as at 19 July 2015
- royorbison.com –‘Roy Orbison – Official Biography’ – no author credited (11 December 2012)
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 21 July 2013
- ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine no. 544 – ‘Roy Orbison’s Triumphs and Tragedies’ – interview conducted by Steve Pond (26 January 1989) reproduced on rollingstone.com
- ‘Good Morning Britain’ (U.K. television program, TV-am (ITV) Network) – Roy Orbison interview conducted by Richard Keys and Anne Diamond (11 December 1987)
- biography.com – ‘Roy Orbison’ – no author credited – as at 20 July 2015
- allmusic.com, ‘Teen Kings’ by Bruce Eder as at 21 July 2015
- Internet movie database – imdb.com – as at 24 July 2015
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 158
- lyricsfreak.com as at 23 July 2015
- findagrave.com – Claudette Frady Orbison – as at 22 July 2015
- jmeshel.com – Jeff Meshel’s World – ‘Roy Orbison: Oh Pretty Woman’ by Jeff Meshel (19 November 2010)
- allmusic.com, ‘Roy Orbison’ by Richie Unterberger as at 21 July 2015
- The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 175
- azlyrics.com as at 23 July 2015
- oldielyrics.com as at 23 July 2015
- ‘The Beatles’ edited by Jeremy Pascall, Robert Burt (Octopus Books, 1975) p. 15
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 92, 93, 94, 98, 117
- ‘Roy Orbison – Black & White Night’ DVD – anonymous sleeve notes (Warner Vision Australia, 1999) p. 2
Song lyrics copyright: ‘Best Friend’, ‘Crying’, ‘Lana’, ‘Dream Baby’, ‘Crawling Back’ (all Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Barbara Orbison Music Company, Orbi-Lee Music, R-Key Darkus, BMG Rights Management, US, LLC); ‘Ooby Dooby’ (Peermusic Publishing); ‘Only The Lonely’ (Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Roy Orbison Music company, Sony ATV Music Pub. LLC); ‘Blue Angel’, ‘I’m Hurtin’’ (both Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Barbara Orbison Music Company, Roy Orbison Music Company); ‘Running Scared’, ‘Working For The Man’, ‘In Dreams’, ‘Falling’, ‘Blue Bayou’ (all Sony/ATV Acuff Rose Music, Orbi-Lee Music, Barbara Orbison Music Company, R-Key Darkus Music, Roy Orbison Music Company); ‘It’s Over’, ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ (both Sony/ATV Acuff Rose Music, Barbara Orbison Music Company, Roy Orbison Music Company); ‘Ride Away’ (Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music Inc., Barbara Orbison Music Company, Orbi-Lee Music, R-Key Darkus, BMG Rights Management US, LLC); ‘You Got It’ (Sony/ATV Acuff Rose Music, Gone Gator Music, EMI April Music Inc.); ‘She’s A Mystery To Me’ (Polygram Int. Music Publishing B.V.)
Last revised 7 February 2017