With his mournful appearance, melancholy songs and heartbreaking personal life, the singer was often cast as a dark and tragic figure. But, as Helen Gent discovers, his public persona belied a determined optimist.
Dressed head to toe in black, eyes hidden behind huge dark glasses, the man stood almost motionless on the stage at The Ambassador Hotel in LA. It was September 1987, and under the bright lights, the singer's pale skin looked oddly illuminated as he began to strum his guitar. Like a ventriloquist, his lips hardly seemed to move, but there was no mistaking the angelic sound that rose from his mouth. The audience
listened, transfixed, as the man's soft, almost inaudible, voice slowly began building to a crescendo, taking on operatic proportions as it lifted higher and higher, soaring to a climactic finale. When the last note rang out, the crowd shouted for more. But - like so many times before - the man in black had already turned his back and slipped out of the spotlight.
At the height of his career in the early '60s, Roy Orbison was the biggest-selling male singer in the world. Known as "the Caruso of rock" - a reference to the great Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso - Orbison, with his distinctive tenor voice and three-octave range, rode a wave of chart-topping hits, from "Only The Lonely" to "Oh, Pretty Woman". He toured with The Beatles and hung out with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, but his meteoric success was tempered by a series of personal tragedies and health problems. His career slumped in the '70s, but he was rediscovered in the '80s by a new generation of fans when his song "In Dreams" was featured in the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet. With his new-found fame, Orbison plunged into a rejuvenated
career alongside music heavyweights in the super-group The Traveling Wilburys. He was on the cusp of releasing a new solo album when he died suddenly, aged 52.
Unlike his friend Elvis, Orbison lacked sex appeal. With his albino-white skin, jug ears and dyed jet-black hair, he was so blandly unattractive a journalist once described him as having "all the characteristics of an office worker". Orbison also wore staid black clothes and trademark dark glasses that he removed so infrequently that many people
assumed he was blind. On stage, he cut a distinctly non-charismatic figure, and rarely engaged with his audience, once admitting, "I'm not a super-personality."
Offstage, "The Big O", as he became known, was a clean-living churchgoer whose only rock 'n' roll excess was smoking (his other "vice" was Coca-Cola). Yet Orbison also suffered unspeakable sadness, with two terrible accidents shattering his home life. Through it all, his Christian faith kept him going and he never lost his joy for life. His second wife described him as being born "sunny side up", while fellow Wilbury and former Electric Light Orchestra member Jeff Lynne remembered the singer for his infectious giggle. "My life is a never-ending dream," Orbison said just months before his death. "I take one day at a time and never look too far into the future."
Born on April 23, 1936, Orbison was raised in Vernon, Texas, by parents Nadine and Orbie Lee, who worked in the local oil fields. The middle of two brothers, Grady and Sammy, Orbison was a puny kid who wore bifocal glasses from the age of four. His destiny was shaped when his dad bought him a guitar for his sixth birthday; by eight, he was showing signs of being a gifted performer and won a local talent competition, which earned him a guest spot on local radio. At 13, he formed his own country music band, The Wink Westerners, who were given a spot on a local TV show four years later.
After graduating from Wink High School, Orbison enrolled at North Texas State College studying geology, but dropped out after one semester and moved to nearby Odessa. There, he formed a new band, The Teen Kings, and started dating Claudette Frady,
a beautiful, 16-year-old high school dropout. "You can't believe the young ladies [who] are attracted to me, as ugly as I am," mused Orbison to a friend.
It was through his ongoing television appearances that he met country star Johnny Cash. Recognising Orbison's potential, Cash introduced him to his Memphis record company in 1956. When he duly turned up at Sun Records,the label that kick-started the careers of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, boss Sam Phillips had misgivings. "I knew his voice was pure gold," Phillips said of the gawky-looking musician. "I also knew that if anyone got a look at him, he'd be dead inside of a week." Despite his concerns about Orbison's lack of sex appeal, Phillips signed him up and, within months, The Big O released his first hit, the catchy pop tune "Ooby Dooby".
But with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis dominating the charts, Orbison failed to repeat his earlier success. "I would have resented him had he not been delivering the goods," Orbison said of Elvis. (The respect was mutual; 15 years later, the King introduced Orbison to a Las Vegas audience as "the greatest singer in the world".) Eventually, Orbison returned to Odessa, where he married Claudette in 1957, and worked as a nightclub singer to support his wife, with whom he'd have three boys, Roy, Anthony and Wesley.
In 1958, Orbison hit the jackpot when his song "Claudette" - an ode to his wife - became a hit for The Everly Brothers. But within months, the normally sensible Orbison had blown all the royalties on cars and jewellery, and soon he was back singing in bars for $50 a night. In 1960, Orbison decided to have another shot at the big time, and travelled to Nashville. He'd written a new song - but in a sudden crisis of confidence stopped en route at Elvis's Graceland home, planning to sell it to his old friend instead. Fortunately, Elvis was asleep, so Orbison recorded "Only The Lonely". A huge hit in the US, Britain and Australia, the song launched him as an international superstar.
For the next four years, hit after hit followed, as "Running Scared", "It's Over" and "Dream Baby" climbed the charts. "I don't know what possessed me to write
a song like 'Crying'," he once said of his hit tune. "It was sort of a macho era. I don't know, maybe my personality lent itself to being very personal in a song." Rich beyond his wildest dreams, Orbison moved to a three-bedroom, ranch-style house near Cash in Tennessee. There, he indulged his love of vintage cars. (Orbison would eventually own more than 40 vehicles, and was so obsessed, he'd chase car owners down the street to offer them a price they couldn't refuse.)
It was on a 1963 tour with The Beatles that Orbison adopted his trademark sunglasses. "I'd left my regular glasses on a plane in Alabama, so I had to wear my prescription sunglasses," Orbison explained later. "And the press took all these pictures, and then people expected to see me this way. An image was born." Similarly, Orbison's penchant for wearing Bible-black on stage never wavered. "Once you become successful, you don't want to change anything too drastically," he noted. "So, I sort of stuck with all that, but it wasn't anything I designed."
In 1964, he penned one of his most famous songs, "Oh, Pretty Woman" (later immortalised in the 1990 film starring Julia Roberts) - and it topped charts around the world. It should have been the best year of his life, but, instead, his world imploded when he discovered Claudette was having an affair with a builder. They divorced in November that same year. "I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't communicate and I certainly couldn't write a song," admitted Orbison.
After a torturous time apart, the couple reconciled, and remarried in 1966. But two months after the wedding, their happiness was shattered. A keen motorcycle fan like her husband, Claudette was out riding with Orbison when she was hit by a truck. The singer, riding a few blocks ahead, turned back when he heard the ambulance siren, only to find his wife, just 25 years old, dying on the roadside.
After Claudette's death, Orbison was immobilised by grief. "It was a dark period," he recounted later. "All I was doing was surviving, trying to work my way out of the turmoil." After her funeral, he struggled to pen a hit and, as the years went by, his ballads fell out of step with the promiscuous, swinging '60s. "The thrust of the war and drug-related songs, I didn't relate to that at all," he reflected.
Orbison was still suffering over his wife's death when tragedy struck again in September 1968. While the singer was touring in Britain, his sons were at home in Tennessee, playing in the basement, when petrol for Orbison's vintage cars ignited and burnt the house down. Orbie Lee Orbison, who was babysitting, desperately tried to save his three grandsons, but only three-year-old Wesley survived.
Orbison was heartbroken - but determined not to sink into depression. Six months after the tragedy, he fell in love with German medical student Barbara Jacobs. "Roy never felt singled out for tragedy," said Barbara. "He'd always say, 'Any man on the street has incredible losses, too. I never felt that God would give me any more than I could shoulder.'"
Despite their age difference - Orbison was 32 and Barbara was 17 - the couple married on March 25, 1969. "We started talking and, for 20 years, we never really stopped," said Barbara, who had two sons, Roy Jr and Alexander, with Orbison. "We had a lot in common. We were both avid readers. We both loved cars. We had the same understanding of how God worked in our lives." Deeply in love, they moved into a new house in Tennessee, designed by Orbison, with three kitchens, a heart-shaped bath in one of the six bathrooms, and an office decked out in black leather and purple velvet. "I suppose I have a feeling for the aristocratic way of life," Orbison joked during a 1970 interview.
Despite a very happy home life, Orbison, who still toured relentlessly, was portrayed by the press as a lonely, tragic figure - a source of great amusement to both him and his wife. "Roy used to say, 'If only they could come to our suite!' He was tanned, we travelled the world, he rode motorcycles, and yet when they wrote their features, all of a sudden he was pale and lonely," said Barbara.
But touring was taking its toll. On January 8, 1978, Orbison collapsed with chest pains after a Memphis concert, and was rushed to hospital for a triple heart bypass. The operation spurred him to give up smoking (save for the occasional cigarette), and he released his first US hit in 16 years in 1980 with "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again", a Grammy award-winning duet with country star Emmylou Harris. That same year, singer Don McLean took a version of "Crying" to number one in the UK, while rockers Van Halen covered "Oh, Pretty Woman". "Everyone was starting up my career without me," laughed Orbison, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Throughout the years - whether he was in vogue or not - Orbison's voice never lost its rare purity. "Some people were moved to tears as he hit a high note, and sustained it for longer than singers half his age ever could," explained one enraptured music critic. "I've always been in love with my voice," said Orbison, proudly. "I liked the sound of it, I liked making it sing and I just kept doing it."
As the '90s beckoned, Orbison teamed up with some old friends, Beatle George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to form The Traveling Wilburys in 1988. The band had several hits, including "Handle With Care", and Orbison was looking forward to the release of another solo album. "Whatever drove me to do it in the first place is still burning away in there somewhere," he admitted during one of the Wilburys's promotional tours.
But it wasn't to be. On December 6, 1988, Orbison had a fatal heart attack. His sudden departure prompted a wave of tributes, with everyone from U2's Bono to Tom Waits praising his contribution to music. "He was a rockabilly Rigoletto. When you were trying to make a girl fall in love with you, it took roses, the ferris wheel and Roy Orbison," said Waits.
The Big O would have put it differently. Asked how he would like to be remembered, the ever-humble Orbison replied: "One day, when they are mentioning people who had an impact, if they just mention me among the rest of the guys and gals, it would be great."