By Carol Anne Szel
Roy Orbison. For anyone reading this article, music aficionado or not, that name goes down in history as one of the most recognizable and revered names around the world. An artist whose career spanned the ’50s through the late ’80s, Orbison left an incredible body of work that stands up today as it did at any period of time in these last six decades.
Born in Vernon, Texas, Orbison’s high school band, The Wink Westerners, earned $400 to play its first local show, which in 1950 was … well, you do the math! From that time, Roy never looked back.
Possessing an understated style, both musically and personally, with trademark sunglasses and suits that matched perfectly with his smooth yet intensely-moving vocals, Roy Orbison has sold more than 100 million recordings, including solo and collaborative work, such as his final musical endeavor in The Traveling Wilburys.
Orbison built the foundation of his success in the late ’50s and finally had had his first No. 1 hit single in 1960 with “Running Scared.” Since then, he had an incredible 34 Top 100 career of hit singles, and hit No. 1 again in 1964 with one of the most recognizable songs of all time, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” With five Grammys to his name, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and induction to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and — of course —The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Roy Orbison is a musical icon.
Goldmine had the chance to sit down one afternoon with Roy’s widow, Barbara Orbison, whom he wed in 1969, to get an inside look at the man, the myth and the musical legend who was taken from us far too soon in 1988.
Tell me about the 1950s-era Roy Orbison. He must have had great stories of that time.
Barbara Orbison: It was such a remarkable time, because that was the first time there were five individuals in different parts that all heard the same music. Roy was in Texas, Johnny Cash was in Arkansas, Jerry Lee Lewis, and then Carl Perkins was in Tennessee, and Elvis. So they were totally isolated from each other, and they heard the same thing. I mean, you had Roy playing rockabilly when there wasn’t even rockabilly. I mean, it’s like they all had this sort of music, and then they all came together, which is a really remarkable story.
But Roy was in Texas. And he always said that from the time he was very young he heard a different music. He said he just heard a different beat, different sound. And it wasn’t country. So even when he would play standards, like country songs when he was 14, 15, they were all rock and roll. They were rockabilly. They had different drum beats. Roy was very famous in Texas for being a good guitar player and a great singer. But later on, the voice came through. Everyone loved his guitar playing because it was very recognizable. Then he went to New Mexico, where he recorded four songs for the Buddy Holly record. And people don’t even look at that.
What were some of Roy’s musical influences?
BO: He would listen to the Grand Ole Opry. He loved Lefty Frizzel. And when you’d ask him about influences, he’d say “I guess everything influenced me!”
There was nobody to model yourself after, because he didn’t want to be a country singer. And there were only black singers; black music was really big. And then in the ’50s, I guess, the crooners came up. But that was never his thing. He was an innovator; he was an architect.
Legend has it that he sat down in the studio and wrote “Oh, Pretty Woman” in 40 minutes. Did he write like that all the time?
BO: He wrote some of his most successful songs in the studio, and he was always writing. We have a Pretty Woman guitar now, a 12-string Epiphone — because he wrote “Pretty Woman” on an Epiphone 12-string; I mean, it’s a re-make of the original.
The name “Pretty Woman” is so big because of the movie and everything. So everybody kind of knows about that song. The introduction riff is one of the most recognizable ever. I mean, you can play it on any show and say “name that tune.”
And he had that laying around, that riff. And so that’s why it came together. Roy always said songs that were meant to be come together; some of them come together really fast and some take forever. There’s no formula whatsoever. Like “In Dreams,” he wrote before he went to sleep, in his head. And the next morning he remembered it. You know lots of times, we get great ideas before we go to sleep. I know I write it down, because it’s not guaranteed that you’ll remember. Roy remembered the whole thing.
Speaking of Roy Orbison’s legacy, what is the story about his now-iconic sunglasses?
BO: He got on a plane to go play with The Beatles, The Beatles’ first tour ever. And he left his regular glasses on the plane because it was a bright, sunny day. That was the amazing thing about Roy. First of all, he had the courage to go on in sunglasses. Because in those days, this was ’63, I mean Buddy Holly even just about made it wearing glasses. Roy didn’t wear glasses on tour. You know like the first pictures you see of Roy; people said “Are they really bad?” And they were very bad.
He could drive, and he did go onstage without glasses as a young man, because glasses had such a stigma attached to it back then. It was like they had all different names for people who were wearing glasses. Glasses were not cool. You could be as beautiful of a girl as you wanted to be, but if you had glasses it was like a weakness, or something that wasn’t sexy. And Buddy Holly really kind of made glasses OK. And then, what Roy did, he made glasses cool. Because in ’63, nobody wore sunglasses at night, and he had to open in England for one of the biggest shows, The Beatles. It was the first show that The Beatles ever played in London.
So when the question came ‘What am I going to do?’ I would have just said ‘Oh, I’m going to go on without the glasses.’ And Roy was famous just for standing; it wasn’t like he couldn’t do anything without glasses. So he could have walked out without glasses. And there were pictures of him without glasses. And in the early days there are lots of pictures without the glasses. My favorite Roy picture is a picture without glasses. So he said ‘Well, I have to wear the sunglasses.’ And then when the pictures came back the next morning he just looked at it, and that’s when Roy was really great, because he just immediately knew what was good. And he looked at it and he said ‘That’s it. I’m going to keep it like that.’ By doing that, he made wearing prescription sunglasses cool. He gave it that big stamp of cool. He got lots of attention, because you never wore sunglasses in the middle of the night.
Roy looked so deeply touched at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, especially moved, as we all were, at the induction speech by Bruce Springsteen.
BO: Bruce is such a … Bruce alone deserves, and he has, such a big place in rock and roll. Bruce did something for rock and roll that he’s an incredible performer and guitar player who sort of led this nation in what they wanted to say. He kind of channeled American youth, and then he just is a wonderful speaker.
He’s not just a wonderful songwriter. Lots of great songwriters, when you meet them, are like ‘Oh yeah.’ But like a Bruce, there are very few performers that have the ability to speak like Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen is just elegant to the point of being understated.
What he said about Roy just blew Roy away. I mean, Roy just didn’t know what to say. We met Bruce I think in ’74. Bruce came to Tennessee in ’71, and Bruce heard that Roy was going to play. And he heard about it, so they came from New Jersey to Tennessee in a station wagon and U-Haul to play on the same show and meet Roy. That’s a great story, yeah.
In the late 1960s, Roy sort of pulled back from the music scene. Why was that?
BO: It wasn’t like he pulled back. He never really pulled back. He kept on touring. And he just didn’t like lots of … You know, he just had his own integrity.
And in the ’70s — we were married in ’69 — in the ’70s, I think I nearly cost him his career, because I don’t think he was ambitious enough. He fell in love with me in ’68, he asked me to marry him, and we had two kids. And I think he just wanted to live. We had a great time together. You know, what do you do when you’re in love and you have just enough money to do whatever you want to? I don’t think you want to concentrate on the charts or writing or anything like that when you can ride motorcycles and take planes anywhere and walk beaches. You know what I’m talking about? They used to say to Roy, “Oh, your comeback in the ’80s.” And Roy would say, “Where did I go?” It’s just like when you have a long career, there are certain times when you have to straighten out your personal ambitions, too.
It is important for musicians, especially legendary ones like Roy Orbison, to experience life in order to continue to write great songs.
BO: Exactly. I think you should have lots of life, you know? And in those days, I mean, there was nobody. I mean, The Beatles only had longevity from ’63 to ’69, that was five years. So there are very few. The Stones, probably, had a very strong, ongoing career. And by the time The Stones came out, because they opened for Roy in ’65, Roy had already been famous.
So when you’re that young and you start having a career, he had his first television show when he was 19, toured all the time from when he was 19 on. I think he probably wanted more than just being Roy Orbison. And I didn’t know a lot of the music history or anything like that. So he really got a break from it. I mean, I was more interested in Ferraris or building a house, or my kids, or going to Fiji than producing a record with Phil Spector or co-writing with John Lennon. You know? The ’70s were a great personal time for Roy.
Who were you and Roy friends with?
BO: Everyone was so close, the stories that would go around. I mean, Johnny Cash is my son’s godfather. Johnny was in the delivery room. Johnny and Roy were best friends ever since 1955. They had one of the longest rock and roll friendships ever.
We lived in Tennessee at that time. [Johnny] visited, and he fell in love with it down there. Johnny and June were our neighbors.
But you just run around. I mean, you have lots of friends that you see all the time. You go to L.A. in those days — and now it’s really easy to stay in touch; you know you can send an e-mail — but in those days, telephone. I don’t know how we kept up with one another, but if we were coming to L.A. all of the sudden we would know who was in town.
And Roy had toured with everybody in contemporary music, which included the Brits. So he knew Jimmy Page, you know he had toured with Jimmy. Roy was a great historian. Because he never did drugs or anything like that, he had an incredible memory. And I so wish he had found the time and the willingness to do a book.