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|Cover Story||November 4th, 2010|
Sweet Dreams, Baby . . .
The tale of an unlikely
Elvis Presley was once asked, “Who do you fear?”
Elvis never answered that question, but he said, “I think the greatest voice in the world is Roy Orbison.” – Fifties Rock and Roll/Rockabilly Historian Bill Griggs
The King of Rock and Roll wasn't alone in his awe of Roy Orbison's magnificent and other worldly voice. Carl Perkins, who toured with Roy in the late 1950's during their rockabilly days recalled a specific performance where an audience heard Orbison for the first time and remembered he “had the audience completely silenced, in awe.” Country and Western star Dwight Yoakam once said that Orbison's voice made him think of “the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window.” The Bee Gees' Barry Gibb told an interviewer that when he first heard the Orbison ballad “Crying,” “That was it. To me that was the voice of God.” Bob Dylan wrote there was nothing remotely like him on radio in the early 1960's. “With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or an opera. He kept you on your toes...He sounded as if he were singing from an Olympian mountaintop...He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you (a struggling songwriter) 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 something like, 'Man, I don't believe it.'”
The composer and performer who influenced this wide range of stars—and countless others—was born Roy Kelton Orbison in Vernon, Texas, on April 23, 1936. Shortly after his birth the family moved to a west Texas town with the unlikely name of Wink, which Roy would later remember as, “Football, oil fields, oil, grease, and sand.”
All of the Orbison children had terrible eyesight, and a serious bout with jaundice as a boy left Roy with a sallow, pale complexion. Worse, his thick hair began to turn white. He would dye it to its original black for the rest of his life.
When Roy was six years old, he asked his father for a harmonica as a birthday present. Instead, he got a guitar. His father and uncle taught him to play it and young Roy was an eager student, as it allowed him to stay up late and play with adult family members. By the time he was seven, Roy said, “I was finished, you know, for anything else.” Although Roy would work in the oil fields and attend college, music would become his life. In high school, at age thirteen, he started an informal band known as “The Wink Westerners.” They played country and western standards and, occasionally, Glenn Miller tunes. Someone offered them four hundred dollars to play at a dance, and Roy suddenly realized there was money in music. If good enough, a guy could make his living this way. Soon the Wink Westerners had a live weekly show on a local radio station. By the time he graduated, Roy had a daily show on station KOSA.
In 1955 while working at the radio station, he met a young Johnny Cash who was touring Texas stations, promoting a record he'd made at the famous Sun Records studio of Sam Phillips. Roy was a terribly shy man, but worked up the nerve to ask Cash if he had any advice on how to get some of his band's songs recorded. Johnny Cash said he knew only one producer, and that was Phillips. Cash gestured towards the phone and simply said, “Call him.”
Roy swallowed hard. A cold call is tough to make for anyone, but especially hard for someone as quiet and shy as him. Cash gave him the phone number, and Roy dialed it and courteously asked for Mr. Phillips. When he came on the phone, Roy politely and modestly introduced himself. He said he had written several songs that were popular locally, and that Johnny Cash had suggested he call Sun Records and...
Sam Phillips bellowed back into the telephone, “I don't need more singers! I've got all I need, and Johnny Cash doesn't run my record company!” Then he slammed his telephone down, leaving Roy quaking in his seat.
To say that Sam Phillips was short-tempered and snappish would be an understatement. (He had an equally grouchy and profane secretary.) But he was a kingmaker in his day, having signed “The Million Dollar Quartet” to Sun Records, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Cash, and the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. If you wanted to break into what was then known as “rockabilly,” you had to go through Sam Phillips.
Deflated and shaken, Roy went back to Wink and his grueling job at the oil fields and his college studies at night.
Orbison formed a new band, the Teen Kings, and they recorded a single written by a couple of his college buddies. “Ooby Dooby” was an upbeat rockabilly tune and they paid to have a recording of it pressed into a 45 record. Roy drove it to Cecil Hollifield in Odessa, who was a well-known record dealer in west Texas. “Poppa” Hollifield liked the record enough to play it over the telephone to one of his connections in Memphis. The man on the other end of the line told him to ship him a copy. The “Memphis connection” was none other than ... Sam Phillips.
Less than a week later, “Poppa” called Roy and said Sam Phillips wanted the Teen Kings in Memphis in three days to record for Sun Records. Roy and the band dropped everything, loaded their instruments into an old car, and driving day and night arrived in Memphis on March 26, 1956. They re-recorded “Ooby Dooby” in the Sun studios the next day, along with two other songs. Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings were signed into a booking and management contract. They began to tour southern states with other, more established rockabilly and country stars. “Ooby Dooby” hit the national charts in the summer of 1956, but their other Sun recordings flopped. The Teen Kings split up that December, but for Roy there was no going back.
“Ooby-Dooby” topped out at #56 on Billboard magazine's Top 100 and sold two hundred thousand copies. It would be his only hit for the next four years.
Roy felt held down at Sun. Phillips wanted him to sing nothing but rockabilly and teen dance songs, just like all his other performers who, one by one, left Sun. It would take a person with the hide of a rhinoceros to work for Sam Phillips anyway, and he was especially harsh with the reserved, quiet Orbison. Roy said he had far grander things in mind, things that had never been recorded before. Roy wanted to record songs with strings--violins, not fiddles. This sent Sam Phillips into yet another of his patented tirades. Phillips said teen dance tunes didn't have string sections. Although unhappy at Sun, he took his first (and some say only) royalty check from them and made a down payment on a purple Cadillac. Once he used it to pick up and deliver a date in Memphis for his new pal, Elvis Presley. But Sam Philips, fighting mounting debts at Sun, steadfastly refused to hire the strings, in fact the entire orchestras that Orbison often spoke of. Roy bought out his contract and left the combative Sam Phillips and Sun Records behind.
Roy married his teenage sweetheart, the strikingly beautiful Claudette Frady, in late 1956, and they returned to Texas where their money ran out. He considered leaving his dreams forever and returning to the oil fields. He toured west Texas, performing live at small venues to make a meager living, and quit performing completely for seven months in 1958. The Cadillac was repossessed. Claudette became pregnant and, in dire financial straights, the Orbison's often had to accept help from relatives. But a fire still burned in his heart, and it had lit a long fuse on a mighty rocket.
Roy, Claudette, and their infant son lived in a tiny row house, just enough room for them and little else. But late at night, in order not to disturb his wife and wake the baby, Roy would take his guitar, a pen, and a pad of paper out to his battered used car. There, by the weak illumination of the dome light, he'd write songs in his unusual way. Most artists write a melody, then give it words, or write a poem then build a tune around it. Roy was different. He would write an entire song, words and music together, straight from beginning to end. Considerate to a fault, Roy would even roll up the windows so his efforts did not disturb neighbors. He had no way to know it then, sitting alone under the unblinking stars in the cold Texas night, but he was writing rock and roll history.
He took up a job with Acuff-Rose, a songwriting firm. He made a modest living at this for a while and met the Everly Brothers who were searching for a B side to one of their records that was soon to be released. Roy picked up a guitar and shyly sang “Claudette,” one he'd written about his wife, and the Everly's loved it. They went over the music a few times with him, then asked him to write down the words for them. He did so on the top of an old shoebox, the only paper they could find.
At Acuff-Rose he wrote songs that were recorded by other artists successfully, but could find no interest in his own recordings. Roy taped a few songs for smaller labels, but no one at the studios found anything noteworthy in the sound. He began to wonder if his future was as a songwriter and not as a performer. But when it was aired, the Everly Brother's A side “All I Want To Do Is Dream” was a staggering hit, their third number one, million-selling record on the national charts, and was so popular disk jockeys began to play the B side, which quickly rose on its own merit to # 30 on Billboard's Top 100.
Upon news of this, Wesley Rose, co-owner of the Acuff-Rose Music Publishing Company, helped Roy get a recording contract with the new and independent Monument Records, owned by Fred Foster. Roy teamed up with an old Texas writing partner, Joe Melson, and suddenly, like a dream, like a fog transforming into solid, gleaming marble, everything Roy Orbison needed for the superstardom that had long awaited him fell into place.
Monument hired professional background singers and Roy was allowed for the first time to use strings on his recording. Orbison and Melson wrote an upbeat song called “Uptown,” which made it to a modest but respectable 72 on the Billboard Top 100. He was on his way. But rock and roll, still an exclusively American phenomenon, seemed stalled at the time. Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army. Chuck Berry had been arrested and jailed. Jerry Lee Lewis had been severely discredited and banned from many radio stations when word of his marriage to his 13 year old cousin hit the press. Early rocker Eddie Cochran (“C'mon Everybody,” “Summertime Blues”) had died in a car accident. The wild, screaming Little Richard had found religion and swore off making “the devil's music.” Worst of all was the terrible airplane crash that claimed the lives of J.P. Richardson, “the Big Bopper,” Ritchie Valens, and the great Buddy Holly. Some thought that rock itself would fade away as a mere short-lived fad. With the true rockers and innovators dead or off the air, radio stations began to play endless variations of “the Twist” dance record and “cleansed” white balladeers who offered dreary records such as “Teen Angel” and “Tell Laura I Love Her.”
But one man would change all that.
Orbison and Melson wrote another song in April 1960. Monument backed Roy with the famed Anita Kerr backup singers, full strings, and released the magnificent “Only The Lonely.” It roared to # 2 on the American Billboard charts, simultaneously reaching # 14 on the Rhythm & Blues charts, and hit # 1 in Australia and the UK, where it stayed on the charts for over six months. Overnight, Roy was in great demand. He toured the U.S. for three solid months with Patsy Cline and made an appearance on Dick Clark's “American Bandstand.” Orbison had finally “found” his voice, and there would never be another like it. On “Only The Lonely” his phenomenal singing ranged from baritone to bel cantor tenor into falsetto and back with ease, not even taking the usual breath in between ranges that other singers capable of this needed to take. He did it effortlessly. Around the world, people shivered when they first heard the energy, precise control, and astonishing range of that voice. Coupled with Fred Foster's impeccable production of the record and the heavenly sound of the backup singers and strings, it was fresh, new, completely unlike any previous rock song ever recorded. When he first heard “Only The Lonely” Elvis Presley bought an entire box full of the 45's and passed them out to his friends. There was another unique thing about it. It was an operatic rock ballad, something unheard of at the time. Instead of the usual, swaggering, gyrating rock singers still doing poor imitations of Elvis Presley, Roy's haunted voice spoke of loneliness, the pain and heartache of unrequited love, of vulnerability. This resonated not only with Roy's target teen audience, but with many adults. Music historians all see the release of “Only The Lonely” as a seminal event in the history of rock. Quite simply, it would never be the same again.
The success of his hit allowed Roy to move Claudette to Nashville with him, and he dove back into the studio, following quickly with “Blue Angel,” “I'm Hurtin',” and his own version of the song he wrote for his beloved wife, “Claudette”. While other artists tried to copy his style, all failed and Roy moved on to his next blockbuster.
The song was written after Roy had listened to Ravel's “Bolero” and, intrigued by its complex composition, he co-wrote and recorded “Running Scared,” which was even more transcendental. While it timed to just around three minutes, the only musical convention Roy ever held to because radio stations then rarely played anything longer, it was going to be a groundbreaking song and everyone at Monument knew it. They hired a full orchestra and the finest studio musicians available. The story of a man on the run with a woman, pursued by another man who wants to take her away, the music starts softly and slowly, building as it goes. The final word was to be sung in a high falsetto while the orchestra built to a crescendo around his words, peaking on the very last one.
But recording in those days was still in the semi-stone age. There were no computerized mixers, dubbing was in its infancy, and modern electronics simply didn't exist. Roy, the musicians, and the entire orchestra were placed in the same studio and microphones arranged to pick up everything. Roy had another habit—he never liked dubbing, and when he sang a song he always wanted to sing it all the way through. They did two takes and Fred Foster told him he was being drowned out by the orchestra. In order to isolate Roy, they took the coat racks out of the hallway and rolled them around him to dampen the sound and—hopefully--make his voice clearer. They began the third take, looking at the analog gauges in the control room, and things went wonderfully. But, according to Orbison, somewhere in the midst of all this he decided to sing that last, powerful word differently. As “Running Scared” built up, the orchestra filling the studio with dramatic music, Roy sang the last word, a high G sharp, in full voice, no falsetto. The musicians played the closing notes, the tapes were stopped, and the orchestra simply lowered their instruments and stared at the figure behind the coat racks. What they had just heard was incredible. Fred Foster later said, “He did it, and everybody looked around in amazement. Nobody had ever heard anything like it before.” “Running Scared” became Roy Orbison's first # 1 hit on the American charts. Foster had been correct: nobody ever heard anything like that before. Roy was now an established superstar both in America and around the world.
Roy had hit his stride. He followed the innovative “Running Scared” with the outstanding hit “Crying,” in July 1961 and coupled that with the up-tempo R&B song “Candy Man.” In 1962 he kept on the charts with “The Crowd,” “Leah,” and “Workin' For The Man,” which he wrote about his days in the oil fields of Wink. But '62's greatest hit for Roy was co-written with veteran country and western songwriter Cindy Walker, the upbeat “Dream Baby.”
His songs were bought by the millions, but oddly few people even knew what he looked like. Roy had no manager, no publicist, and the covers of his 45's never carried his picture. LIFE magazine called him the “anonymous celebrity.” Painfully aware he did not possess the movie-star good looks of fellow rock artists, he dressed in a conservative manner, usually in black. Those who knew him all agreed he had a good sense of humor and was never bleak or morose, but they also knew him to be a terribly shy man and, remarkably, full of stage fright when performing in front of a live audience. This, along with the black clothes, the haunted tone of pain in his songs, and his natural quietness generated an air of mystery about Orbison. When he once left his regular glasses on an airplane, he had to wear his prescription Ray-Ban Wayfarer sun glasses while performing a concert. This only heightened the aura of introversion and mystery about him for the audience, while Roy himself found that wearing the sun glasses somehow helped him with his stage fright. The Wayfarers became part of Roy's performances forever after. Years later Roy told an interviewer, “I wasn't trying to be weird, you know? I didn't have a manager who told me how to dress or present myself or anything. But the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black, something of a recluse. But I never was, really.”
Orbison wrote and recorded a string of hits in 1963. “Blue Bayou,” “Falling,” “Mean Woman Blues,” and the eerie “In Dreams.” He topped off the year with a Christmas song written by Willie Nelson, “Pretty Paper.” After “In Dreams” was released, he was booked to do a summer tour of the UK where he was wildly popular. They told him he'd be double-billing with a new band that was quickly becoming successful in England and Roy cheerfully packed his Gibson guitar and hopped on an airliner.
When he was driven to the hall for their first performance, Roy saw many posters advertising him but he saw others mentioning something called “The Beatles”. Roy had never heard of them and backstage asked innocently, “What's all this? What's a Beatle?”
Someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I am.” It was John Lennon.
Roy became genuine friends with all the Beatles, especially John and George Harrison. It didn't hurt matters that they were already great fans of his. It was the Beatles who gave Roy his nickname, “the Big “O.” Orbison encouraged them to come to the United States. Later, when the Beatles' first American tour was being arranged, the four of them gathered and asked Roy to appear with them. He had to decline, being booked for performances halfway around the world at the time. As the tour proceeded throughout the UK, at one point John Lennon jokingly said they were getting tired of opening for Roy Orbison. Obligingly, Roy said he wouldn't mind going on first that night. And so he did. After they opened the show, the Beatles had always retired to their dressing room and had never actually seen Orbison perform. This night they watched dumbfounded in the wings as Orbison stood at the microphone like a dark, brooding statue, never moving, and simply drove the audience mad with his voice. The Beatles were used to dancing, hopping around, and Orbison never moved a muscle. In interviews years later, all of them strongly remembered this. Roy did his set and left the stage, only to be called back for an astonishing fourteen encores. The screaming British kids kept calling for him, apparently forgetting all about the Beatles and wanting to spend their evening with Orbison.
Lennon never made that mistake again.
Roy left England on a high note, but the 1963 tour took a heavy toll on his personal life. The woman he adored, his wife Claudette, had started an affair with the contractor who'd built their home. Friends and relatives of the family knew this, and attributed it to her youth and inability to withstand being alone and bored. When Roy found out, it was like a knife in his heart. But he forgave her. He loved her too much not to.
Roy, with Claudette in tow, toured Australia and New Zealand with the Beach Boys, then made another whirlwind tour of the UK. In Ireland, the police had to halt one concert in order to pull the girls off him. He continued to tour, this time back to Australia with the Rolling Stones.
When the Beatles landed in New York, it was the beginning of the famous “British Invasion.” From all over England rock bands flocked to the U.S., sweeping aside American performers and taking over the charts. In the wake of the Beatles came the Rolling Stones, Petula Clark, Herman's Hermits, The Who, Manfred Mann, and a long list of others. At one point the Beatles held the first five spots on the American Billboard Top 100. American kids loved the new sound and lapped it up. But more than one American singer's career would be devastated by the Invasion. For a while it seemed as if no American artist could compete with the young Brits.
Roy was talking with friends about the first time he saw the love of his life, Claudette. He'd seen her “walking down the street” and suddenly his mind began to drift. Roy found pen and paper and forty minutes later “Oh, Pretty Woman” was written. Released in 1964, at the very height of the British Invasion, it broke the Beatles stranglehold on the top of the Billboard charts, going to # 1 in America and # 1 on the British charts. “Oh, Pretty Woman” sold more records within ten days of its release than any record, in any country, before it. It sold seven million copies in 1964 alone and dominated the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic. It held the # 1 position for an astounding three weeks in the States and, even decades later, remained popular enough to become the theme song and title for “Pretty Woman,” the movie that made a star out of Julia Roberts.
Billboard magazine noted at the time, “In a 68 week period that began on August 8, 1963, Roy Orbison was the only American artist to have a number one single in Britain. He did it twice, with “It's Over”on June 25, 1964, and “Oh, Pretty Woman” on October 8, 1964. The latter song went on to become number one in America, making Orbison impervious to the current chart dominance of British artists on both sides of the Atlantic.”
But tragedy was stalking Orbison. His marriage to Claudette had become strained. There were rumors of more affairs. Roy divorced her in 1964. He broke an ankle a few months later before a concert but bravely (and painfully) completed the scheduled performance while standing on a cast. While resting in a hospital, Claudette came to visit him and Roy realized he was still hopelessly in love with her. They decided to reconcile and remarried in 1965.
Claudette had been around motorcycles most of her life. Her father and mother rode them frequently. Roy was always fascinated by machines and cars. He was known to see a car on the street that he liked and follow the driver until the car stopped, then offer to buy it on the spot. But Roy was introduced to motorcycles by his old friend, Elvis, and found he enjoyed riding too.
During their reconciliation, Roy decided to buy them matching motorcycles. They rode together often. But one grim day, June 6, 1966, while riding home together from Bristol, Tennessee, a semi-trailer truck pulled out in front of them. Roy was able to dodge it, but Claudette slammed directly into it. She died one hour later at age 25.
Everyone who knew Roy understood this event shattered something deep inside him. Claudette was gone forever, and eventually friends convinced him that he should continue to work instead of merely remaining alone with his pain. Roy went back to touring and writing, but his performances lacked the energy and power that he could command so easily before. He wrote a few more songs, but they seemed weak imitations of his earlier work. Still, he kept busy on tours. But when he sang of heart-wrenching loss, it was no longer the performance of a master singer. It truly came from his soul.
The black cloud returned on September 16, 1968, while Roy was on tour in Europe. His family home in Hendersonville caught fire and in the blaze his two eldest sons had perished. The third, the youngest child, was rescued by Roy's parents just seconds before the house collapsed.
Friends and family gathered around Roy, but were unable to reach into that part of him which was staggered by the double tragedies. His old friend, Johnny Cash, quietly purchased the land where the Orbison home had stood, cleaned the debris, and planted an orchard atop it. With his songwriting and recording royalties, Roy would never have to worry about money again. But knowing the unutterable sorrow and loss he was suffering, once again those who loved him suggested he find solace in his work. He had to stay busy or simply go mad with agony.
But the rock industry had changed since Claudette's death. Now the preferred sound was psychedelic music, which Roy never liked and never really understood. Following quickly on the heels of that trend came disco, which ruled the airwaves. Roy left Monument Records, faded off the charts, and simply played small clubs across the country. His brilliant star began to dim but everywhere he played, the house was always packed.
Turning his back on the wretched sound of disco music, Roy returned to his country roots and wrote and recorded a few songs for Mercury and Asylum Records in the 1970's. They paled in comparison to his earlier works. A haunted man, Roy began to doubt his own talents. Writer Peter Lehman noted that Roy's absence became yet another facet of the mystery of Orbison's persona: “Since it was never clear where he had came from, no one seemed to pay much mind to where he had gone. He was just gone.”
But Roy found love again when he married the beautiful Barbara Whilhonnen Jacobs, a young German woman he'd met just a few days before his sons deaths. And events were conspiring to bring him back to the top once more...
Younger artists were beginning to cover Roy's older work. Linda Ronstadt recorded her version of Roy's “Blue Bayou” and scored a hit. Roy agreed to cut a duet with Emmylou Harris of “That Loving You Feeling Again,” which bought them both a Grammy Award. Don McLean recorded “Crying,” and once more that song was high on the charts.
The heavy metal band Nazareth covered Roy's “Love Hurts,” and Glenn Campbell scored a minor hit with “Dream Baby.” And “the Boss,” Bruce Springsteen, began to end his concerts with Roy Orbison songs.
Movie director David Lynch asked Roy's permission in 1986 to use “In Dreams” for a film he was going to make. Roy never gave it, but Lynch used the song anyway in the surreal and violent “Blue Velvet.” Under Lynch's masterful direction the scenes in which it was included were so startling that audiences left the theaters, unable to shake Roy's otherworldly voice out of their heads. Millions saw the movie, now a cult classic, which also re-launched the career of Dennis Hopper and bought Lynch an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Now a new generation was asking, “Who was that guy who sang that weird, spooky song?”
While the filming of “Blue Velvet” was wrapping up, Roy embarked on a tour of Europe, his first in several years. He was astonished to find he was still as popular there as in his heyday. He was forced in Sofia, Bulgaria, to stay in his hotel room, lest he be mobbed in the streets by adoring fans. He discovered the Netherlands had the largest official “Roy Orbison Fan Club” in the world. Wherever he played, it was standing room only and the cheering and applause was deafening.
Spiritually recharged, Roy returned to the United States and in 1987 re-recorded an album of his earlier works, “In Dreams: The Greatest Hits.” The album sold like wildfire. He and k.d. lang teamed up for a duet of “Crying,” which won another Grammy Award. At long last, the Big O was back.
That same year Roy was inducted to both the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bruce Springsteen, a devout Orbison fan, gave a reverential speech at Roy's rock induction where he told the following story: “In 1970, I rode for fifteen hours in the back of a U-Haul truck to open for Roy Orbison at the Nashville Music Fair. It was a summer night and I was twenty years old and Orbison came out in dark glasses, a dark suit, and played some dark music...Orbison's voice was unearthly. He had the ability, like all great rock and rollers, to sound like he'd dropped in from another planet and yet get the stuff that was right to the heart of what you were living in today, and that was how he opened up your vision. I carry his records when I go on tour today, and I'll always remember what he means to me and what he meant to me when I was young and afraid to love. In 1975 when I went into the studio to record “Born To Run” I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan, that sounded like Phil Spector's production, but most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison. Now, everybody knows that nobody sings like Roy Orbison.”
In response, Roy asked Springsteen for a copy of the speech, and in his quiet manner said of his induction that he felt “validated” by the honor.
Events were picking up speed for Roy now. Within months Orbison and Springsteen teamed up again to film a concert in the Coconut Ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. “Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night” was to be a concert that spanned Roy's lifetime work, which meant it also spanned the entire history of rock and roll. All musicians and backup singers were stars in their own right, a stellar cast arranged by musical director T-Bone Burnett. There was a great deal of lobbying about who would get to play with the great Orbison. Tom Waits, Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, J.D. Sothern and others all chipped in with vocals and their instruments, while Roy's female backup singers were none other than “a million-dollar trio” of Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, and k.d. lang. One wag pointed out that only Roy Orbison could have gotten k.d. into a dress for any occasion.
Filmed in black and white and aired as a special by Cinemax, the concert was nothing less than mesmerizing, a jaw-dropping performance by all. It was later released as both a DVD and an album, which is available on the “Virgin” label. Also, YouTube has many films of individual songs from the special which you can watch at home.
k.d. lang poignantly said after the concert how humbled Roy had been by the show of support from so many talented and busy artists. “Roy looked at all of us and said, 'If there is ever anything I can do for you, please call on me.' He was very serious. It was his way of thanking us.”
Roy began to write songs for a new album, helped by some very special friends including Jeff Lynne from the Electric Light Orchestra and Bono of Ireland's superb U2 rock band. While working on this project, Roy stumbled almost by accident into the formation of another supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys. Roy, Jeff Lynne, and George Harrison all met at Bob Dylan's home studio in Malibu to record a B side to Harrison's “This Is Love,” but Harrison had forgotten to bring his guitar, which was then at Tom Petty's home. When he drove to get it, Petty returned with him and sat in on the recording session. The resulting song was “Handle With Care.” Harrison's recording label listened to it and declared it was far too good a song to be used as a mere B side filler. The men had enjoyed working with each other and decided to make an entire album. Joking among themselves, they created a complete fantasy about the Wilburys. In their liner notes they all claimed to be half-brothers having the same father but different mothers. (Roy was listed as “Lefty Wilbury.) All of them took a hand in writing the songs and the album was recorded in a mere ten days. They agreed to meet later to do videos for a few of the songs and Roy went back to work on his latest album, which by then had been titled “Mystery Girl.”
Roy recorded the rest of his album, including Bono's haunting contributions, “I Drove All Night” and “She's A Mystery To Me.” Bono said of the latter song: “I stood beside him and sang with him. He didn't seem to be singing. So I thought, 'He'll sing it the next take. He's just reading the words.' And then we went in and listened to the take, and there was this voice, which was the loudest whisper I've ever heard. He had been singing it. But he hardly moved his lips. And the voice was louder than the band in its own way. I don't know how he did that. It was like sleight of hand.”
After finishing “Mystery Girl” Roy flew to Antwerp, Belgium, to accept an award and perform one of the new songs from his unreleased album, “You Got It.” The show was professionally filmed and recorded live. He carried out a hectic schedule, giving several interviews daily. He returned to America to a concert in Boston, where a stage manager remarked that he looked ill. Orbison admitted to being exhausted, but played the show to another standing ovation. On his way home, he stopped at Highland Heights, Ohio, on December 4 to play a show for more adoring fans. It was both taped and filmed, but not by professionals. It was to be Roy's last concert.
He returned home to rest before finishing the videos for the Traveling Wilburys, then another UK tour. On December 6th, he spent the day flying model airplanes with his sons, he and Barbara having two of their own, and that night he had dinner at his mother's house. Later in the evening, Roy was found collapsed and unresponsive by his brother, Sam Orbison. Although rushed by ambulance to the hospital in Hendersonville, it was too late. Roy Orbison was declared dead of a heart attack at 11:54 PM, December 6, 1988. He was only 52 years old.
His death was an international news event. It made the front page in newspapers around the world and several television networks immediately began lengthy bios of his life. Letters of grief and sympathy poured into the Orbison home from all corners of the world. His fellow artists, many of whom had just worked with him, were stunned beyond words. That voice—that eerie, angelic voice that had never failed once—was now silenced forever.
“Mystery Girl” was released posthumously, having been finalized by his grieving friends. It went platinum, selling over a million copies by March 1989. The rest of the Traveling Wilburys finished the videos to Roy's recorded soundtracks. They all stood around a single microphone and sang their parts, and when it was Roy's turn the camera focused on a Gibson guitar rocking in time to the music in a rocking chair.
Roy Orbison's musical style still influences artists around the world, and will continue to do so. He went out happy and in demand, on a high note, the only man to ever match Elvis Presley's record of having two albums on the Billboard charts at the same time. There will never be another like him.
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