By Ken Sharp
Revered by the likes of John Lennon, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen and countless others, the legendary Roy Orbison is one of music’s greatest and most distinctive singer/artists. Orbison, affectionately known as “The Big O,” possessed a spectacular soaring operatic voice that channeled a deeply-felt, wellspring of emotion, infusing darkness, pathos and hurt into two-to-three minute, picture-perfect pop songs. As 2015 drew to a close, there was big news on the Orbison front with the release of “The MGM Years: 1965-1973,” a multi-disc box set culling 11 studio albums, one soundtrack record plus a compilation of B-sides and singles. But even more significant was the discovery of “One of the Lonely Ones,” a long-lost album the Texas-born singer cut in 1969. Whether tackling the standard “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” inhabiting the blue heartache of Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” or the title track, the album, which features Orbison backed by a tight rock combo, orchestra and choir, is a commanding sonic monument that lends testament to his timeless legacy. Goldmine spoke with Roy’s son, Alex Orbison, who oversees his father’s musical catalog, for the backstory behind this historic release.
GOLDMINE: Share the backstory behind the “One of the Lonely Ones” studio album and how it was ultimately located decades after it was initially recorded.
Alex Orbison: The MGM record deal, which was from 1965 to 1973 for my dad, called for three full-length LPs a year. So for what was 12 song records, over the course of those eight years there were plenty of songs that were just extras. They would record more songs, so there were outtake songs from these albums mixed in. So we didn’t realize that there was a whole unreleased record from 1969 that was a part of that. It was only when I went back to get the recording log books and looked. It was a real puzzle to me. Literally, I could not sleep one night and got up out of bed and I thought, “Why are there so many songs?” There were 30 something of them; it was more than just ones that didn’t make it. I didn’t realize what the process was until I looked at the recording logs, and there were 17 songs all recorded within a few months in 1969. Then when I went and got the record contract and realized there were three albums released each year, and I found the other two albums for 1969 but did not find the third. I eventually realized what we were sitting on was an entirely unreleased record from 1969. The actual source tapes were all spread out. After so much time had passed, some of these songs that were on this unreleased record were in a storage unit in Nashville, Tenn., and we didn’t realize it because the record company had stored them. MGM had changed hands and was later bought by Universal, and something happened with the paperwork along the way. So the payment on this storage unit defaulted, and when it came to this “Storage Wars” scenario where these people paid a hundred bucks to get this stuff out of hock, they looked and saw Roy Orbison’s name on these master tapes and called my mom. My mom ended up getting these tapes back. The story of where this stuff was and why it was not released have been very, very crazy.
GM: What was the state of Roy’s career in 1969 when he cut the “One of the Lonely Ones” album?
Orbison: In ’65, my dad moved to MGM Records and a lot of people have discounted the success he had there. He was based more in Europe; the first three albums charted, No. 10, 11 and 12 on the charts. They had shifted from singles to full LPs, so things were going quite well and, you know, my dad had tragedies involved. In June ’66, his first wife, Claudette, passed away in a motorcycle accident. It threw off the release schedule of him putting out three records a year, and there was no margin for a slip. He only took six weeks off, but it threw everything a little off schedule and the record company had problems coping. But the state of his career at the time was magnificent. He had these amazing live shows, and he was selling out multiple nights. He chose to play these better sounding club and he’d sell them out for a week and do this all over Europe and Australia. In 1968, he had kind of gotten things back together and then our house in Hendersonville, Tenn., burned down and it killed my two oldest brothers. So he took the rest of 1968 off and that album, “Roy Orbison’s Many Moods,” got pushed to ’69.
GM: Discuss how the unfathomable tragedy of the loss of Roy’s two oldest sons, Roy Dewayne and Anthony, shaped tenor and direction for the “One of the Lonely Ones” album.
Orbison: The “Roy Orbison’s Many Moods” album got pushed forward, so it pushed this album out of the schedule. But I think maybe his management was a little afraid of going in that deep and having a song like “One of the Lonely Ones,” where he so specifically spells out being sick and tired and uninspired and not wanting to be where he was heading, which was to be one of those glum, lonely people.
GM: The song, “One of the Lonely Ones,” was Roy directly addressing the tragedy of the loss of his two sons.
Orbison: Oh yeah, very clearly. It’s funny ‘cause my dad made the distinction of being lonely but then when you’re lonely, you’re a part of this larger collective group of lonely people, so you’re not alone — you know, the irony of that. He brought that back later on with “Not Alone Anymore” with the Traveling Wilburys. So this was the first kernel for that kind of paradoxical idea.
GM: In the liner notes you penned for the album, you write that doing the album helped save Roy’s life.
Orbison: Oh yeah, completely. Some stuff had happened with my dad just from being so worn out on the road and in so much demand, plus the demands of his recording schedule as well. He had mulled over retiring sometime in 1967; he had debilitating kidney stones. He had talked about that in the press, and after the tragedy in 1968, people really wondered if he was gonna continue on. So I think he had made up his mind probably through the holidays because the recording schedule started on January 21. I think he used the first two or three weeks of the year to write intensively. He’s been quoted as saying, “I’ll always work ‘cause by working and recording and touring I’m a better husband and a better provider and a better father and just overall a better me.” I think that he had probably figured it out through this time, and just the act of getting up and leaving the house, of having to comb your hair, a reason to take a shower. When you get that knocked out by life and you’re in one of those depressions, often when you’re talking about someone like Roy Orbison, the basics are overlooked. Just having to suit up and show up and a reason to put gas in the car and a direction is very important.
GM: You were born in ’75 and sadly were still in your early teens when your father passed away. That said, did you ever discuss with your father, given all those tragedies he experienced, what kept him going and moving forward?
Orbison: Yes, he did. He told me after the Depression when work was finally able to be found that my grandfather worked the graveyard shift seven days a week for several years. My grandmother, Nadine Orbison, told me when something happens, don’t make too much of it at the time and let a little time to pass to digest it and then to see how you feel about it. In speaking about his career, my dad said when the success had come and he started getting No. 1s, he didn’t peg himself up at that peak and tried to stay more in the trough and in the middle and not lose his head. So he used the same theory when things started going downward for him through the tragedies. He just tried to maintain and not lose his head over it and try to chop the tops of the mountains off and it’ll take that and fill in the valleys a little bit with it. He did look for deeper meaning. Instead of saying, “Why is this happening to me?” It was more an acceptance, “this is happening to me” and later it will all make sense.
GM: Is there a musical story that “One of the Lonely Ones” tells?
Orbison: It’s a bittersweet story because my dad met my mom in the early summer of ’68 and then fire happened in the beginning of the fall, so the two threads are loss and coping. With “You’ll Never Walk Alone” opening the album, it was such a good song ‘cause it’s a great classic Orbison low, high kind of thing. It starts off as real spare and builds to the big crescendo. Also, it mentions “at the end of the storm” and “getting through the storm” and the fact that you’ll never walk alone. It takes you through the whole thing and sums up the whole experience. Then when you get to the song “One of the Lonely Ones” you dig deeper to the bottom. Then interspersed in there are these deep love songs that my dad had picked with my mom in mind. “I Will Always,” the Don Gibson song, which is the last song on the album, really has my mother’s (Barbara) essence. All the Acuff-Rose (American music publishing firm) writers would come to him with their songs and Don Gibson included. They were all part of this team. When they would have a song that was new, either the producer or the actual artist would come by and they’d have meetings at Acuff-Rose and they’d say these are the hot songs that are coming across the desk. So even if my dad didn’t write them, he would pick them and “I Will Always” was recorded with another song that I really associate with my mom that went on his next official Orbison release in 1972. It was called “If Only For A While.” The big line in the song is “if tomorrow I might die then I would realize why I lived that you were mine, if only for a while.” And so there’s this deep thread of love songs aimed at Barbara. “Sweet Memories” is a song that my dad recorded. So all the sadness, my mom and dad just called it what it was, it was just the worst thing that could ever happen to you, and what to do now? Both of them looked to the future and what was in the moment and to honor the kids by living a full life and loving the time they had with them. So they got engaged and married in March ’69. The only other thing my dad was doing at the time was writing songs and recording. So the story with the record is that even if the songs aren’t Orbison-penned songs, they are selected with this deep kind of young love and reflectiveness of staying in the present to keep it together with the some of the songs delving into the actual tragedy. Then there was an urgency to stay relevant in 1969. The songs that my dad wrote for that album are different from any other Orbison song, but that’s the hallmark of an Orbison song. With a song like “Laurie,” vocally, with the ascending and descending vocal lines, my dad was just all over the map and it really is unique. “Child Woman, Woman Child” has some of those effects but also with that big guitar riff that people were probably waiting for after “Pretty Woman.”
GM: Near the end of your father’s life, he was riding high again with his solo career and enjoying multi-platinum success as a member of supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. What were his musical plans for the future?
Orbison: I’m glad you picked up on that. For them the story is it’s tragic that Roy wasn’t around to experience the high of having a hit record. He already knew. I saw an interview where he was really happy. He said, “Look, my hits package of re-records is selling 40,000 a day and every day sells about 4,000 more than it did the day before. The Traveling Wilburys is selling gangbusters, so I’m gonna postpone the release of my album until the new year so we don’t step on each other’s toes but it should do alright,” he said with a grin. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey and the fact that he was happy and recording again and feeling safe with Jeff Lynne and all of that. “Mystery Girl” wasn’t even the beginning; he had really revved up in ’85 with the “Black & White Night” project, and then the Wilburys and the re-records. It was like the third piece in an overall longer blitz. It was probably a 10-year plan. In December of when he passed away he was on his second honeymoon with my mom. It was coming up on their 20th anniversary, so they snuck away under the guise of a press tour and were in Paris on their second honeymoon. So he was taking a couple of days off to tour and was gonna go back and finish the rest of their honeymoon in time to take some days off for the holidays with the family in Malibu. Then on January 1, he was gonna start rehearsals with his band and figure out how to integrate the new songs and what the new set was gonna look like and what places he wanted to play. On the back of that there were rumblings of a Traveling Wilburys tour, too, where they would do an old school ‘60s type package and they would each play five or six of their own songs and then songs with the Wilburys.
GM: More than 25 years since his passing, what are the things you miss most about your father?
Orbison: He was just a special guy all the way around outside of his incredible talent. It’s hard to pick one thing when it’s his essence that you really miss. Of course, it’s the things you do together like the model airplanes. He was a fanatic for that (laughs) and actually I was, too. So when it was fast cars or fast models, meaning model cars and airplanes, I’m pretty sure things would have remained the same. We would have been checking out the latest Corvette and he’d be looking for a project to do to validate a reward like that. I really had to go inwards to figure out whether the ’80s Roy Orbison vocal was the one that I knew as a child and that’s why I liked it more of if my dad’s voice did in fact get better until the day he died. No matter how his career looked from the outside, even in the ‘70s when he was off the map, he was singing and touring and recording on a daily basis. So he never took time off. His voice did just get better and better and better. From the time he started singing at age six until he passed away, his voice just got bigger and bigger. Likely today we’d be seeing a long-haired, gray Roy Orbison, and his voice would have been better because he wouldn’t have stopped; that wasn’t in him to call it quits.