Roy Orbison maintained a celebrated semblance of mystery in an era when that was still possible. Though he reigned over the pop and rock charts in a prolific career that spanned the late 1950s to his untimely death in 1988, Orbison forever remained an enigmatic cat, protected by those cool dark glasses and a generally inscrutable demeanor. Little was known of his personal life, as he was fortunate enough to belong to a time that preceded non-stop social media and the prying eyes of gossip mavens.
What we were fully aware of was that soaring, emotional voice, so unmistakable that you could identify it from the opening notes. Orbison shined on hits such as “Crying,” “In Dreams,” “Oh, Pretty Woman” and his final hurrah, “You Got It,” all universally embraced by fans of rockabilly, pop, rock & roll and country. At the time of his death, he was enjoying a career resurgence launched by the Cinemax cable TV special Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night and continuing as a member of supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, alongside buddies George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. But even with his late-career accolades, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Orbison’s full story was still largely untold.
A just-released biography by Orbison’s sons Roy Jr., Wesley and Alex, titled The Authorized Roy Orbison, peels away the layers of the singer’s mystique to present a complete picture of the man, a loving husband and father as well as a musical kingpin. The three siblings, who affectionately refer to themselves as “Roy’s boys,” and music journalist Jeff Slate chronicle Orbison’s career from his Texas boyhood to recording stardom and the tragic end to his life at the much-too-young age of 52. More than 300 photographs, many of them never before published, dot the book and add the necessary context to the Orbison saga. Along with the book, the album A Love So Beautiful: Roy Orbison With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is also in release. The record melds Orbison’s original vocal tracks to his most well-known songs with the instrumentation of London’s Royal Philharmonic and occasional backing from his three sons, expert musicians in their own right.
“Dad was a recluse on the level of a Greta Garbo or a Howard Hughes.” – Roy Orbison Jr.
Roy Orbison Jr. spoke with Rolling Stone Country about the biography, sharing that his dad had actually begun a similar project during his career revival in the 1980s. “He was in the midst of writing a book on his own life before he died,” says Orbison Jr. “My mom [Barbara Orbison] worked on it after Dad’s death. It was kind of left to us to do it. The ‘Orbison Vault,’ as we call it, had a lot of the photographs and tour items. We collected a lot of photos from all over the world.”
With the book, the three sons essentially achieved an additional goal: to set the record straight on the Orbison legacy. “Dad was a recluse on the level of a Greta Garbo or a Howard Hughes,” declares Orbison Jr., “so there was not a lot written about him. I think he is one of the most misunderstood artists of all time and there is so much misinformation about him. In completing his memoirs, the truth was very important to us. This book is a personal account of our dad and we tried to present it in an entertaining way.”
In keeping with that objective, The Authorized Roy Orbison kicks off with a well-detailed introductory chapter where the boys recall a visit from Jeff Lynne to their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. The youngsters were engaged in a battle of wet paper towels, and pummeled the unsuspecting Lynne with their homemade paper towel bombs. “Dad sure wasn’t too pleased,” they write, “but Jeff took it in stride, and after we made our apologies, everything went back to normal.”
Also included is a recollection from Orbison on his 1963 tour of England with the Beatles, which proved significant in more ways than one. The tour solidified his ecstatic overseas fan base and, perhaps more important, introduced the world to the image we now associate with Orbison. It was during that tour that Orbison started wearing those now-signature dark prescription glasses permanently.
“He had left his regular glasses on a plane, right before the tour,” explains Roy Orbison Jr. “He had the dark glasses with him and decided to keep wearing them. Dad wasn’t able to see without glasses. When he got off the plane in England, people were taking pictures and that’s what they saw, Dad with the dark glasses.” A fashion statement, and a persona, were born.
Remembrances from the artists who idolized Orbison, among them Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Joe Walsh, are peppered throughout the book, lending even further legitimacy to Orbison’s influence. The fascinating stories behind “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream),” “Oh, Pretty Woman” and other classics are also included.
Orbison stands as the rare artist who defied simple genre branding. “He went from rockabilly to international pop stardom,” says Orbison Jr. “He shied away from musical labels because he didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one category.”
His contributions to all of music cannot be overlooked. The orchestrations on such records as “Crying” and “In Dreams” brought a certain sophistication to popular music. In eras when rock was especially dominated by macho posturing and sexual bragging, Orbison wasn’t afraid to show vulnerability. “I think he was the most romantic artist of all time,” assesses Orbison Jr. “Dad wrote and sang about subject matter that is timeless, like heartbreak. Teenagers still go through that. We’re at a time when a lot of music is fake. But Dad was real. And he is definitely our hero.”