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Roy Orbison's Triumphs and Tragedies

In the last weeks before his death, the rock great gave the most complete interview of his life

January 26, 1989
Roy Orbison, RS Issue 544
Roy Orbison
Ann Summa

The moment came early in every concert Roy Orbison gave for the last two decades of his life; in a way, it was as electric a moment as the instant Elvis Presley stepped onto a concert stage and found himself blinded by the glare of a thousand Instamatic flashbulbs. In Orbison's case, though, that instant of recognition, the tremor that came when audience members were reminded why they'd come, happened not when he ambled onstage, and not when his backup singers sang, "Dum dum dum dum-bedoo-wah" — the nonsense syllables that began the opening song, "Only the Lonely."

Video: Roy Orbison Performs Gorgeous 'Only the Lonely' in 1965

At a Roy Orbison show, the moment of epiphany came when Orbison stepped up to the microphone and sang, "Only the lonely/Know the way I feel tonight." Every night, in clubs and concert halls and auditoriums and state fairs, you'd hear an audible gasp, a wave of applause. Every night, the audience would be full of people thinking exactly the same thing: "My God, he sounds just like he did in 1960."

And from the early to middle Sixties, when he recorded twenty-two Top Forty hits, to his death of a heart attack on December 6th, 1988, he always sounded just like the Roy Orbison of our memories and dreams: the pure, aching melancholy, the bursts of passion that were invariably called "operatic," the overwhelming power of a lonely man in black singing about lost loves and midnight fears. Night after night, he'd take the stage, stand dead still in the spotlight, speak barely a word to the audience and spin out one teenage passion play after another: "Crying," "Running Scared," "Oh, Pretty Woman," "In Dreams." The lyrics told you that love was at stake; the voice could convince you that lives were at stake.

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And then he'd walk offstage, and the singer who'd unleashed such tremulous passion became shy, soft-spoken, gentle: if Elvis Presley once called him the best singer in the world, just about everyone else who knew Roy Orbison would add that he was also the sweetest man in rock & roll.

When he had his hits, he toured steadily. When his career faltered after personal tragedies and professional malaise, he kept on touring. And even in 1988, as he worked on one record that would be his first Top Ten LP in decades (Traveling Wilburys: Volume One) and another that seemed certain to seal his full-scale comeback (Mystery Girl), he still toured, playing the old songs on weekends and working on new ones during the week.

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In late October he was a featured attraction at the Arizona State Fair, in Phoenix. While outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum families rode the Ferris wheel and gambled along the midway, inside Roy Orbison sang his hits. "Cover for me on any notes I don't hit," he said to his bass player backstage before the show, and the line got a big laugh; everybody in the room knew he'd hit every note of every song, and he did.

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Afterward, he relaxed in the limousine carrying him back to his hotel, looking through the window at the bright neon and flashing lights of the fair. The Phoenix show marked the beginning of a series of Rolling Stone interviews with Orbison, conversations intended not for an obituary but for a story on the celebrated past and promising future of a rock & roll legend. And as Orbison peered through his thick glasses at the fairground sights, he began to reminisce.

"Ever seen a real medicine show?" he asked. "I played at one when I was ten years old, in Vernon, Texas. They just set up a bunch of benches in the dirt and strung up lights. And they told jokes and did skits and had a talent contest and sold this magic elixir. I was co-winner in the talent contest. Won $7.50, but my buddy went with me and carried my guitar and rooted for me, so he figured he ought to have half." He chuckled softly. "That was my first taste of a manager."

Roy Kelton Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, on April 23rd, 1936. When he was six, his parents gave him a guitar; at eight, he showed up so often at auditions for a local radio show that they made him a regular. Orbison loved Lefty Frizzell, Frankie Laine's pop hit "Jezebel," the odd instrumental and, after the family moved to Wink, in West Texas, Mexican music and the rhythm & blues songs that would soon coalesce into rock & roll. In high school, Orbison led a band called the Wink Westerners, later renamed the Teen Kings. A few years later the group recorded "Ooby Dooby," a nonsense rockabilly track written by some of Orbison's college classmates, in a Dallas studio. That version wasn't released, and neither was a version cut in Clovis, New Mexico, with future Buddy Holly producer Norman Petty. But Sun Records head Sam Phillips heard the song and invited the Teen Kings to his history-making studio in Memphis. They cut it one more time, and it became a minor hit.

A handful of rockabilly-style tunes followed; none were hits. All along, Orbison had wanted to sing ballads. He also wanted a better deal on his songwriting royalties, and when Nashville publisher Wesley Rose said he could get the Everly Brothers to record a tune Orbison had written for his college sweetheart and wife-to-be, Claudette, Orbison left Sun and, like Elvis Presley, signed with RCA. Unlike Elvis, he didn't sell many records, and in 1959, after a pair of singles, he moved to producer Fred Foster's label, Monument Records.

This time, everything clicked. Orbison's third Monument single, "Only the Lonely," began a string of lushly arranged, inventively structured pop ballads: "Running Scared," for instance, was a rock & roll bolero that slowly built to a pitch of lover's paranoia before its dramatic, happy ending.

In the early Sixties, the anguished grandeur of those songs was rivaled only by the work of producer Phil Spector and his stable of girl groups. From the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen, young rockers and young dreamers were listening to the sound of Roy Orbison, the heartbreaking balladeer — and, on tunes like "Oh, Pretty Woman" and "Working for the Man," Roy Orbison, the rocker.

But Orbison's momentum faded when he left Monument for a big-money deal with MGM Records in 1965. Subsequent producers, it seems, didn't have the Fred Foster touch. The records were good but not great; a movie for MGM, a Civil War musical titled The Fastest Guitar Alive, didn't do well.

In 1966 tragedy struck when Claudette Orbison was killed in a motorcycle accident, with Roy riding just ahead of her when it happened. He found it difficult to write any more songs, but he kept touring. Two years later, a fire destroyed his house in Hendersonville, Tennessee, killing two of his three children. From that point on, he refused to attend funerals.

The albums came sporadically, but the tours were steady. In 1969, Orbison married a young German woman, Barbara Wellhonen, and the couple later had two children. But a 1977 reunion LP with Fred Foster was disappointing; so was a 1979 album on Elektra/Asylum Records, which he recorded shortly after he underwent triple-bypass heart surgery.

But pop music never forgot Roy Orbison: Linda Ronstadt, Van Halen and Don McLean had hits with his songs in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and in 1980 Orbison released "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," a Grammy-winning duet with Emmylou Harris. In 1985 there was Class of '55, a reunion LP with Sun Records veterans Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis that contains a standout Orbison performance in the elegiac "Coming Home." That song, like most of the songs he recorded in subsequent years, is suffused with a spiritual glow and full of intimations of mortality; the grandiose ballad "Wild Hearts," from the movie Insignificance, is similarly unsettling, while "Life Fades Away," from the Less Than Zero soundtrack, is simply a dying man's missive.

At the same time, though, Orbison was preparing his comeback with the aid of fans director David Lynch (who used "In Dreams" to great effect in his film Blue Velvet), Bruce Springsteen (who inducted Orbison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987), T Bone Burnett (who handled the musical direction on the star-studded Cinemax concert Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black & White Night and produced the first two tracks for Mystery Girl) and Jeff Lynne (who wound up producing much of the album). In the end, a whole crew of admirers lent their support to Mystery Girl, which includes songs and productions from the likes of Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Elvis Costello and Bono.

But at the end of his life, Orbison's best-known collaboration was with Petty, Lynne, George Harrison and Bob Dylan, his partners in the Traveling Wilburys. Recorded quickly and cheaply by musicians who happened to be friends and colleagues, the album was presented, tongues firmly in cheeks, as if it were the work of brothers who had five different mothers but a single footloose father — and in an interview with the Wilburys, the other members were quite vocal about what a thrill it was to hear "Lefty Wilbury" sing. Lefty himself sat quietly as younger colleagues like Petty and Harrison spun outrageous tales of life as a Wilbury; then, just when it seemed the group's elder statesman might be uncomfortable with the elaborate put-on, he softly tossed out a choice remark. "Some people said Daddy was a cad and a bounder." he said, deadpan. "I remember him as a Baptist minister."

With the success of the Wilburys, Roy Orbison seemed on his way to a complete comeback. He finished his own album in mid-November, watching with undisguised pleasure as the Wilburys LP headed for the Top Ten; then he headed to Europe for a couple of television appearances and some promotion. When Roy's chores were finished, Barbara Orbison — who for the past year and a half had been her husband's manager — remained in Germany to visit with her family. Roy returned to the United States, did a few more shows and then went to the house outside Nashville where his mother, Nadine, and his son Wesley live. There, he flew radio-controlled airplanes with his bus driver, all-around aide and friend, Benny Birchfield.

On the evening of December 6th, Orbison complained of chest pains. At about 11:00 p.m., he collapsed in the bathroom of his mother's Hendersonville home. Paramedics rushed him to a nearby hospital, but by midnight Orbison had been declared dead of a massive heart attack.

In the three months before his death, the usually private but unfailingly polite Orbison had been generous with his time, inviting Rolling Stone to his recording and mixing sessions, his concerts, his comfortable, unostentatious house high in the hills overlooking the beach at Malibu. The final session took place over breakfast at a restaurant just down the beach from the pier where he'd once spoken to actor Martin Sheen about playing the lead in the movie version of the autobiography Orbison wanted to write. "I guess I'll give the book a try now," he said, finishing off his meal and smoking from a pack of Camels that he later left behind so that Barbara wouldn't get upset.

And as he sat in the restaurant less than three weeks before his death, flushed with pride at the success of the Wilburys and the completion of what he knew was a strong new album, a happy and productive Roy Orbison said he didn't have a clear picture of where he'd like to be in a year. "That's like predicting the future of rock & roll in 1954 and '55," he said with a laugh. "I have faith that everything will unfold properly."

It seems appropriate to start by talking about your voice. Did you know it was something special from the start?
I was on a flight with Dwight Yoakam to Nashville once, and he told me... I don't know if I should repeat this, but he said, "I've always been in love with my voice." And I could relate to that. Once I started singing, it was sort of a wonder. It was a great feeling, and it didn't hurt anybody, and it made me feel good, and some people even said, "Roy, that's nice."

I've always been in love with my voice. It was fascinating, I liked the sound of it, I liked making it sing, making a voice ring, and I just kept doing it. And I think somewhere between the time of "Ooby Dooby" and "Only the Lonely" it kinda turned into a good voice. Though it was always nice to me [laughs].

It's remarkable how little it's changed.
Yeah, I sound basically the same. When I was making my older records, I had more control over my vibrato — now, if I don't want to have the vibrato in the studio, I have to do a session earlier in the day, because by the evening it'll be there whether I want it or not.

It's a gift, and a blessing, just to have a voice. And I'm proud that people do appreciate it, you know? It's a long way from being overwhelmed because you don't know whether you're worthy, to realizing that if you have a gift, it should be precious to you and you should look after it and respect it.

 

What did you think when you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I looked around, looked up in this big room at huge pictures of all the guys who were coming in. And I remember seeing some pictures of guys who weren't there, who couldn't be there because they were gone. And I got into the spirit of the thing. I was really cool until I had to stand on the side of the stage during Bruce's speech. He said so many nice things, I didn't know what in the world to say [laughs]. But I took the speech from him. He had it written down, and I said, "Can I take this speech?"

It seems as if that night was the beginning of the resurgence that led to your new record.
I think the renaissance started with Linda Ronstadt recording "Blue Bayou," which wasn't even the A side in America. It sold 7 to 10 million for her, and I guess I felt validated or something. That was in '77, and then Don McLean did "Crying," and it was a hit. Then Van Halen did "Pretty Woman," and I won a Grammy with Emmylou Harris, for the single "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again." And also, at the same time I started touring in America almost exclusively and realized that you could tour America forever, almost.

Barbara and I felt we had to put everything in order, in my career. We never had the right management, the right agency, the right record company all at once. And then a couple of other things happened. Blue Velvet came out with "In Dreams" in it. Then there was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then Virgin [Orbison's record label for Mystery Girl] got in touch. So there has been a concerted effort for the career to make sense for the last three years.

Right now, you're on the verge of trying to reestablish yourself as a viable contemporary recording artist, which is something that very few of your contemporaries have done.
It's a stupendous undertaking [laughs]. But great things are stirring, you know? Being someone who was there at the founding of rock & roll, it's good that at the age I am I'm being accepted and recognized. We used to say, "I don't wanna be jumping around and going crazy when I'm thirty," you know? Even Mick Jagger said, "Well, I can't see myself at forty jumping around." Well, here we are, you know?

How did you start playing music?
When I was six years old, Mom and Dad gave me a guitar for my birthday, and Daddy taught me the chords to "You Are My Sunshine." We lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and Mom and Dad were both working in a defense plant during World War II. It was a good place for relatives and everybody to come by and play music. And it was a time of intense emotion in that the boys were going to one front or the other of the war, more than likely to be killed. And so when they were drinking, they'd drink with gusto, and when they were singing, they sang with all their hearts, and I got to stay up with these guys and sing.

I guess that level of intensity made a big impression on me, because it's still there. That sense of "do it for all it's worth and do it now and do it good." Not to analyze it too much, but I think the verve and gusto that everybody felt and portrayed around me has stayed with me all this time.

How long were you in Fort Worth?
Until the third grade, and then we moved back to Vernon, and when I was ten, we moved to Wink.

If you saw the film Giant, it was filmed eighty miles out of Wink. There's nothing. No trees, no lakes, no creeks, a few bushes. Between Wink and Odessa, where I used to drive all the time, one of the towns is called Notrees, Texas. And it has trees. But Wink was an oil-boom town. There was one movie theater, two drugstores, one pool hall and one hardware store, and that was about it. In fact, the Sears, what you did was go to this little office and look at the catalog. It's really hard to describe, but I'll give you a few more things: it was macho guys working in the oil field, and football, and oil and grease and sand and being a stud and being cool.

I got out of there as quick as I could, and I resented having to be there, but it was a great education. It was tough as could be, but no illusions, you know? No mysteries in Wink.

Were you a macho stud or a football player?
I tried till I was a freshman in high school. Just never was big enough. I played football until I was a freshman, and then I just started singing, and that turned out to be okay too.

I got my group together when I was about thirteen. We had a local radio show, and then we started touring for the principal of the high school — he was in the Lions Club, and so we were the entertainment. We were in this West Texas town once, and a fellow came up and said, "We'd like for you to come and play a dance for us," and I was about to say, "We only know ten songs," when he said, "And we'll give you $400." So we showed up and made $80 apiece for doing what we had been doing for nothing. It was amazing, because I'd worked for the county for two weeks and made $80 shoveling tar. I didn't know what the stumbling blocks were or how likely you were to succeed at singing [laughs], but it didn't matter.

 

But you stayed in school and did other work, too.
Yeah. After high school I still had my band, and we played for dances in the evening. I was working for El Paso Natural Gas in the daytime, cutting up steel and loading it onto trucks and chopping weeds and painting water towers. That's where I came up with the idea for "Working for the Man." Our straw boss was Mr. Rose, and he wouldn't cut me any slack. I worked in the blazing heat, hard, hard labor, and then I'd play at night, come home and some nights be too tired to eat or even to undress. I'd lay down, and I wouldn't even turn over. I'd wake up in the same spot and hit the oil patch again.

Then I went to college for a year. I guess it was an attempt at being legitimate, or not being a free spirit. It was a good year, but it was a lonely year. I think the reason it was really lonely was that I wasn't where I needed to be. But I met a couple of guys at school who had written "Ooby Dooby," and what convinced me that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time was I heard a record by a young fellow on the jukebox called "That's All Right." So I moved to Odessa to junior college, got my band together with different guys and started in doing what I wanted to do.

What was Sun Records like when you got there?
Well, Johnny Cash was on Sun Records — he was making unusual records. And Presley was there, and Carl Perkins. I was really impressed with that little chicken on the Sun label, because it represented something unique. And it was good to work with Sam. He wouldn't accept anything less than all you had, you know? But it wasn't a good studio, and Sam didn't know how to express exactly what he wanted. Elvis and I both were a little bit... We didn't think it was really good work, the early stuff, so we didn't play our Sun records onstage for a long time. Until about 1970, I think, when it became instant history, you know? All the information coalesced to the point where everybody thought that was a beginning. And so then I took it more seriously myself, because I had a few years to reflect. And Presley started singing "That's All Right," and I started singing "Ooby Dooby" onstage.

When you started having hits, did you run out and buy a fancy car and all?
Oh, sure [laughs]. Yeah. Had to have a Cadillac. A Cadillac and a diamond ring. Then got a little bigger Cadillac and a little bigger diamond ring, and then I said, "That's foolish," and I stopped.

The Cadillac wasn't pink, was it?
No, the first one was white, and the second was turquoise. But we did travel in a pink Cadillac, me and Johnny and Jerry Lee and Carl. It was wonderful.

I've heard that you moved around more onstage in those days.
Yeah, I did. When I had the Teen Kings, we had this number called "The Bug," where we had an imaginary bug we would throw on each other. And when it hit you, you had to shake and stuff. So I shook for a while, but I wasn't very successful at it. That phase of the career didn't last too long.

Guys like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis seemed like threats to the public decency, but you weren't quite so dangerous.
Yeah, I was milder. And the Everly Brothers, you know, they were milder too. But I'm sure that if I'd have had "Pretty Woman" as my first record, I would have been thought of in a different light.

Your image was more of somebody who was mysterious, and maybe a little weird. Bruce Springsteen once said that the first time he saw you, he got the impression that if he reached out to touch you, his hand would go right through you.
That's probably closer to the truth. I wasn't trying to be weird, you know? I didn't have a manager who told me how to dress or how to present myself or anything. But the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black and somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really.

You weren't trying to create an image with the clothes?
No, not at all. I thought black was just a smart way to dress. Black was my favorite, from the early days playing cowboys and Indians and being the outlaw and not having a black shirt and then finally getting one. And the dark glasses were a mistake when I left my other pair on a plane in Alabama, and I had to see to get onstage. While I was kinda forced to wear the dark glasses, I didn't mind when it became a thing, you know?

 

The image of you as a mysterious loner was reinforced by all those songs about being lonely and crying and naming scared.
With "Only the Lonely" being the first, I guess they said, "Well, he's a lonely singer." But in "Running Scared" I got the girl, you know?

But at the same time, it's just about the most paranoid love song ever written that has a happy ending.
Yeah, you're right. I was worried in that song. But even in "Pretty Woman," it goes through a lot of emotions. I didn't think of this as we were writing the song, but the guy's observing the girl, and he hits on her, real cool and macho, and then he gets worried and gets to pleading, and then he says, "Okay, forget it, I'm still cool," and then at the end she comes back to him, and he turns into the guy he really is. That range of emotion in a short piece of music I think is very important.

Was there so much fear in those early love songs because that's the way you were in real life?
No. When I wrote, let's say, a sad song, a melancholy song, I was feeling good at the time. Because I have to feel good and at peace with myself before I can think creatively. I've heard guys say, "Well, I got my heart ripped out and got wasted for three weeks and wrote this song." I couldn't do that. I'd be crying, I couldn't eat and all that. Of course, I knew what "Only the Lonely" was about when I wrote that. I had been alone and lonely. I wasn't at the time, though.

Why did you leave Monument for MGM?
MGM was a big company, and they painted a rosy picture for me and gave me a lot of money, and I'd had a record on Monument after "Pretty Woman" that didn't sell any. It was called "(Say) You're My Girl," and after doing upwards of 5, 6, 7 million for "Pretty Woman," for the next record not to sell, I couldn't believe it. I was thinking it would probably accidentally sell some, you know? I was leaning toward leaving before then, and that convinced me.

And the first few things for MGM were hit records, so I knew that everything wasn't terribly amiss. But the transition wasn't really that smooth. I think the records were okay, maybe, through '68 or so. But I was having to record a lot, plus I'd had some personal problems. My first wife was killed in '66, and then I had the fire in '68, and I'm a bit hazy, but I think the company was sold. So on one hand you had a company that wasn't really viable, and then on the other you had me, with things happening around me and to me. I mean, it was a dark period for me.

It must have been hard to even think about making records after the accident and the fire.
Yeah, that had a definite impact. I remember going on a worldwide tour after... after both things happened. Sort of as therapy, but also to keep doing what I had been doing. If you're trying to be true to yourself, and you would normally tour and write and function that way, if something traumatic happens to you, I've never seen the sense in dropping all that. Because it's not necessarily a personal thing, you know? It happens directly to you, but it's not directed at you, necessarily. In my case I went ahead and did what I normally did, insofar as I could, and then let love and time and things like that take care of everything. I guess I'm talking about faith, probably. And if you feel really singled out, I think you can make a lot of mistakes. I don't know of anyone who hasn't lost someone. This was something I knew by faith — but until the faith is strong enough, it does affect your work. That's a process that took a while.

You'd hardly have been human if at some point you hadn't thought, "Why me?" or "Why again?"
You have that feeling, but what I was trying to convey is the faith that you have that this has a meaning and is to a purpose. It may be a mystery to you at the time, and is. But if the faith is there, you ask yourself, "What is it all about?" But not every day, every minute.

I feel that that's what went on with me, you know? It was a long, long time ago, but I'm trying to reach back and really give you what went on as opposed to what I would like to have had happen. It was a devastating blow, but not debilitating. I wasn't totally incapacitated by events. And I think that's stood me in good stead. You don't come out unscathed, but you don't come out murdered, you know? And of course, I remarried in '69, Barbara and I, and we started our life together. And in fact, we were carrying on a romance long-distance at the time of the fire. I don't know whether she knows this, but she was a source of inspiration and faith too. So I have to give her credit.

From about 1973 on, you didn't do much recording.
Yeah. In '77 I made a record that I wasn't pleased with, really, for Fred Foster. I didn't write any of the songs, and I only had a few days to do the album. And then I did a record for Elektra, which was like a half-finished project to me. That was less than a year after the surgery.

 

Triple-bypass heart surgery.
Yes. I had blockage of ninety percent, seventy percent and sixty percent. So they said, "We'll take care of it," and I said, "We'll, leave me a nice scar, then." And it came out terrific. And it's still terrific. My doctor here said it's the best work he's ever seen.

Had you just gotten out of shape?
Well, it's the life of rock & roll that takes its toll. Always traveling and playing, and then trying to get rest. And no workouts in between, and eating road food. Like in the Traveling Wilburys song, "Dirty World," "I love your quest for junk food" [laughs]. So it was that, I think, and probably stress. The doctor said, "I don't care what you do, just don't worry about anything. If there comes an obstacle in your life, either move it or go around it."

Do you feel healthy now?
Yeah, yeah. Having lost a little weight, and my blood pressure's right with the diet. "The diet" not meaning a restricted food intake, but the proper food. And working out here with the trainer from time to time. Everything's terrific. Couldn't be better.

Was it ever frustrating to write new songs but then go onstage and just do the old songs?
No, not until about now. Because I toured in the Sun days with just one hit record. I'd go onstage, and I'd play everybody else's stuff — Chuck Berry's stuff, Little Richard's stuff — then I'd sing my one hit record and get off. And I really did want to have a few to play. And when I got the few, I cared for them enough that I never minded performing them.

But now I feel a phasing going on, from the older songs to the new. And I think I could put maybe any one of these tunes, just drop it into the show, and nobody would know that it wasn't supposed to be in there [laughs]. Because I think it is supposed to be. So I'm very much looking forward to going into rehearsal with the group and adding about thirty minutes to the show.

In a way, it must have been a pretty daunting task trying to come up with new songs that could stand alongside "Crying" or "Oh, Pretty Woman." Did you feel much pressure making 'Mystery Girl'?
I sure did. When I started, I said, "What kind of song can I write that will equal 'Crying'?" And almost the minute I thought that, I said, "That's idiotic. Just write a different song." But for a while I was looking around for another "Crying" and another "Pretty Woman" or two, and I remember getting in the trap of trying to write for myself as a singer — trying to write for Roy Orbison, the rock & roll balladeer, the guy who sings high and low and lonely.

Through writing with various co-writers and being produced by some wonderful people, everything came together, and I relaxed and wrote songs like I knew how to write them. There was some fear involved, because there was a legend in the background haunting me, and no way would I be able to live up to it. And then I realized it didn't matter. What mattered was jumping in with both feet and being committed and working hard and honestly. And like in "Running Scared," it's going to have a happy ending.

But like in "Running Scared," you had some fear along the way?
Yeah. It sort of relates to performing onstage. I used to be more frightened than I should have been. But I pulled in this parking lot at this concert, and the marquee said, "Roy Orbison. Sold Out." And there were no other names, and it sort of dawned on me that everybody came to see me and that they'd probably heard of me and they might even like me beforehand. So I went on that night, years and years ago, not quite so afraid.

You know, I never dreamed that there were that many people who would dedicate themselves to a project like this. I was working as if I was doing it myself, completely alone, and felt the weight of that whole thing. But then I stopped long enough to be grateful, and I realized that everybody who was doing their thing on this album was doing it with a lot of love and care. It's as if the album had a life of its own. As much as I had to do with this project, I had very little to do with it. That's astounding to me, and it's proven to me, too, that there are no limitations.

It has to do with my being as — some of these things are hard for me to say — as credible and viable today as I was when I just started. When I did start, rock & roll wasn't part of our culture, it wasn't acceptable as an art form. But there again, had I seen any limitations, like "You're only as hot as your latest record" or "What are you gonna do when you're thirty?" — had I listened to any of that, I would have cut the dream short. And I tell people who say, "How do you get started in this business?" — I say just keep carrying on. Go ahead, because you could stop one day short of the good thing that's gonna happen.

Just now you called it "the dream" — that's always been a prevalent image in your songs.
Mm-hmm. Without the word dream, or the concept dream, and without the word blue and the emotions, I would have been really limited in the things I've written and performed [laughs].

Are you ever going to go all the way and write a song called "Blue Dreams"?
I might [laughs]. "Lonely Blue Dreams." I might.

When things are written about you in, say, rock & roll reference books, it seems that the one-line take on you is "Sad songs, big voice, dark glasses," and sometimes they'll add, "And he's had a tragic life."
Yeah. The tragic life. . . . That one period of it was tragic. But there were a lot of years before and a lot of years after, so that's very far from the truth. In fact, it's totally the other way. But to be in the book is good enough for me right now.

If you wrote your own history, could you sum yourself up in a paragraph?
Hmmm ... probably not. I might be able to do it in song. I've never done a song to encompass all that, but maybe in pieces of the songs. Parts of "Crying," parts of "Pretty Woman," too, and "Running Scared." ...Pieces of my songs would tell the story.

This story is from the January 26th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“Nightshift”

The Commodores | 1984

The year after soul legends Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson died, songwriter Dennis Lambert asked members of the Commodores to give him a tape of ideas. "And the one from Walter Orange has this wonderful bass line," said co-writer Franne Golde. "Plus the lyric, 'Marvin, he was a friend of mine' ... Within 10 minutes, we had decided it should be something like a modern R&B version of 'Rock 'n' Roll Heaven,' and I just said, 'Nightshift.'" This tribute to the recently deceased musicians was the band's only hit without Lionel Richie, who had left for a solo career.

More Song Stories entries »
 
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