Look back at the lives of Roy and Barbara Orbison

By Bruce Sylvester

It was the late 1960s when Roy Orbison met, quickly fell in love with and wed with his second wife, Barbara Annemarie Wellhoener Jakobs, the teenage daughter of a successful German dress manufacturer.

A few months after Roy and Barbara’s 1969 marriage, the two eldest of Roy’s three sons with his late wife, Claudette, died in a house fire. Roy and Barbara had two sons of their own prior to his fatal heart attack — at 52 — in 1988, amid a stateside career resurgence.
On Dec. 6, 2011, the 23 years to the day of her husband’s death, Barbara Orbison, succumbed to pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

As administrator of her late husband’s estate, Barbara Orbison managed his legacy. She assembled the four-CD “Authorized Bootleg Collection” (Orbison Records, 1999) from heretofore unissued 1969-80 concert tapes. Working with her son, Roy Kelton Orbison Jr., she spearheaded Roy Sr.’s career-spanning four-CD “The Soul Of Rock And Roll” (Monument/Orbison/Legacy, 2008), during which time she gave this interview, which previously was unpublished.

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After Roy Orbison’s unexpected death in 1988, Barbara Orbison managed his legacy. She died Dec. 6, 2011, 23 years to the day after her husband’s death. Publicity photo courtesy Orbison Records.

Goldmine: What was the most difficult thing Roy did artistically, and what was the most fun for him?
Barbara Orbison: Writing was the most difficult, and going on stage was the most fun.

GM: Could you say something about his writing relationship with Joe Melson?  They came up with some classic songs together: “Uptown,” “Only The Lonely” and “Crying,” for example.
BO: He had the same writing relationship with Joe Melson and Bill Dees and Will Jennings. They would arrange to work at a certain time. The other writer would come to our house and have a cup of tea or coffee or Coca-Cola and go into our studio, and they wouldn’t come out until they had a song. You could see that the writing relationships were the same.

“It’s Over” [written with Dees] is very much like “Only The Lonely.” It’s always the same core energy. Roy didn’t change in his  years of being a writer. He wrote the same songs; he had the same arrangements, the same drum beats, the same violin arrangements, because it was Roy. I think Roy just needed someone else in the room. When you listen to the box set, you see how strong Roy’s vision for himself was.

GM: I’m a big fan of Sun Records in general, but Sam Phillips simply had him do rockabilly. Roy’s Sun sessions didn’t bring out his best.
BO: I don’t know that they didn’t. The early recordings are the music Roy heard in his ears. As a young man, he heard western swing and big band, but Roy knew he didn’t want to sing that music long before he went to Sun.

Here’s young Roy at Sun. He’s the lowest on the totem pole, and he doesn’t want to do the music that Sam Phillips wants him to do. But he needed that to really find out who he was. To me, without Sun, you wouldn’t have had the other part of Roy.
I think the biggest gift that Sun gave him was his friendship with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis, but Johnny was the longest, and Carl was the next in the length of the relationship.

GM: It’s ironic that the producer who brought out the most successful, the most dramatic Roy singles wasn’t Sam Phillips at Sun or Chet Atkins during Roy’s brief stay at RCA. It was Fred Foster at Monument, and he reportedly didn’t have much music background.   What were the dynamics of Roy’s working relationship with Foster?
BO: Roy was asking Chet Atkins for strings, for incredible arrangements.   Once, years later, Roy and I were watching  “The Johnny Carson Show” and Chet was a guest. Johnny asked, “Your career has been so magnificent. Do you have any regrets?” And Chet said, “Yes, I have one regret. I had a young artist, Roy Orbison, at RCA, and I was not able to give him what he wanted. I was restrained by the record company.”

Fred gave Roy the total freedom he started asking for on “Only The Lonely.”  I made Fred tell the story about the violins in the box’s liner notes. Roy said, “I need violins.” Fred said, “We have fiddles here.” Roy said, “No, no, no.  I want violins.” It took them a long time to find four violins. By the time I met Roy in ’68, he had 36 violins waiting for every session in his studio.  He built a big balcony for the string section.

GM: Who were some of his favorite singers? Were there any he emulated?
BO: I don’t think he emulated any singers. He always loved Lefty Frizzell. I do, too. But he didn’t have a Lefty Frizzell voice. He loved country music.

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