While still in his teens, Texas native Roy Orbison and his band, the aptly named Teen Kings, were the stars of their own weekly series on KOSA-TV in Odessa. They would also travel to nearby Clovis, New Mexico, to record in the studio run by Norman Petty, who had gained fame as the producer of numerous hits by Buddy Holly and the Crickets, among many others. The tiny Je-Wel label in Jal, New Mexico, would release the Teen Kings’ first single (with the singer’s name misspelled “Oribson” on the label). Orbison would soon sign with Sun Records in Memphis, but his first conversation with label head-producer Sam Phillips was an extremely brief one, facilitated by then-Sun artist Johnny Cash.
When Cash was in town to promote an upcoming concert at the Odessa Coliseum, he appeared as a guest on Orbison’s TV show, where the host took the opportunity to ask about his experiences as a Sun Records artist. According to Orbison’s authorized biography by his sons, Alex, Wesley and Roy Jr., the singer pleaded with Cash for advice and Cash offered up Sam Phillips’ phone number, warning, however, “Sam sure is a tough customer, but you hang in there, kid.” When Orbison reached Phillips, he told him, “I talked to Johnny Cash and he said I should call you about getting on the label.” Phillips replied, “Well, Johnny Cash doesn’t run this operation, I do, thank you very much.” And with that he heard the phone click. Orbison would, however, soon get a deal with Sun Records. He arrived in Memphis in March 1956, to record a new version of “Ooby Dooby,” one of the songs on that first single. Two months later, Sun’s version of “Ooby Dooby” had sold over 250,000 copies.
Orbison and Cash would soon become lifelong friends and they were also next-door neighbors north of Nashville, until a 1968 fire that destroyed Orbison’s home and killed two of his young sons from his first marriage. Orbison’s first wife, Claudette, had died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, but his career by then was in full swing and he was touring throughout the world, especially in England where his popularity often eclipsed his stardom in the States.
When Johnny Cash secured his own ABC television series in the summer of 1969, he filmed the show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, on the same stage where he made his Grand Ole Opry debut 62 years ago this week, on July 7th, 1956. Cash’s considerable influence would allow him to bring on such guests as Bob Dylan (a true rarity for network TV), Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and Stevie Wonder, among many others from the worlds of pop, country, bluegrass, gospel music and Hollywood. The Johnny Cash Show recently returned to television and is currently airing Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET on GetTV.
The show’s first season, which ran from June to September 1969, closed with an episode that featured Roy Orbison among the guests. In Cash’s familiar “living room” setting, the pair played acoustic guitars and sang a duet on Orbison’s massive hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Orbison also reminded Cash that he had given him some advice early on, telling the visibly embarrassed Cash, “You said if I lowered my voice and changed my name I might make it.” A trademark of these segments in the Cash show was their casual atmosphere, where minor mistakes such as forgetting lyrics or missing cues were left in the episode. Midway through this performance the two are out-of-sync lyrically but Cash especially seems to revel in Orbison’s high singing voice in spite of the advice he once gave his fellow performer. “I tried not to sing too much,” Cash says as the song ends and the two shake hands.
Cash and Orbison would team up for several other TV appearances and special events, including the taping of a 1985 special reuniting Cash and Orbison with their fellow Sun Records alums Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.