When I interviewed the legendary Roy Orbison at a Central London hotel in the spring of 1987 his career was just about to kick-start itself all over again. Incredibly, he hadn’t enjoyed a hit single in the UK since 1969’s Penny Arcade. After a momentous recording career that had begun at Sun Records in 1956 and included some of the mightiest pop hits of the 60s, Orbison had seemingly disappeared without trace. How was this allowed to happen? After all, The Big O was no ordinary singer. Indisputably, Orbison’s four-octave baritone was one of pop’s most penetrating instruments, an awesome sound full of piquant emotional concentration. No less an authority than Elvis Presley had described him as, “the greatest singer in the world.” Certainly it’s hard to think of any vocalist who articulated the ache of the human heart so eloquently or powerfully.
At the time of our meeting, Orbison was slowly but surely edging back into view. The inclusion of his 1963 hit In Dreams in the movie Blue Velvet had brought him to the attention of a whole new generation. He’d briefly been signed to ZTT Records, narrowly missing the charts with the single Wild Hearts. He’d recently been inducted into The Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame. Recently signed to Virgin Records, he was about to release a collection of re-recorded Greatest Hits.
That particular album barely troubled the charts. But Orbison didn’t have to wait long for his re-booted career to go into orbit. He enjoyed phenomenal success as part of The Traveling Wilburys (along with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne), their debut album selling more than two million in the States alone. He was working on a solo album, Mystery Girl, that would become another huge global hit.
He was also touring again. I consider myself richly blessed to have been present at his last ever British show, at a packed Harlesden’s Mean Fiddler, in November 1987, when The Big O performed his tempestuous hits with the kind of keen emotion that would have made the angels weep. Personally invited by Orbison and his wife to the intimate after-show bash, my last memory of the great man is watching him go off in search of a cheese sandwich from the kitchen after he discovered that the all-meat buffet wasn’t to my taste.
Three weeks later he suffered a fatal heart attack while at his home in Hendersonville. He was 52.
How quickly did you decide that your life was going to be in music?
Nothing happened quickly for me. My daddy gave me my first guitar for my sixth birthday and taught me the chords to You Are My Sunshine. It came to me real easy. But it took a long, long time for me to build any confidence in what I was doing. It was a process over many years. Along the way, though, there were a few moments when I knew it was going to happen, a few milestones if you like. One was being allowed to stay up late with the grown-ups when I was six or seven. We lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and my folks were both working in a defense plant during World War II. It was a place where everyone would call round and make some music. I got to stay up with these guys and I got to sing with them. That was an important sign of approval, a kind of sanction. Then there was the first radio show on KVWC’s talent hour when I was eight, the first real breakthrough.
At thirteen I had my group. The Wink Westerners, together and we started touring around, later becoming The Teen Kings. We were in this West Texas town once, and a fellow came up and offered us $400 to do a show. That was remarkable to me because I’d been shoveling tar on the school holidays and it took me a fortnight to earn what I would make from that one show. But it wasn’t until I was nineteen that I got my first television booking. By that time I’d done a lot of live shows. I was still full of doubts but I got into thinking that I was at least as good as some of the singers out there, and better than some others. See, I’d always liked the sound of my own singing voice. But it was only when I was at Sun Records, doing Ooby Dooby and Rock House, that I started to believe that I had a really good voice. Or, to put it another way, my voice was memorable. That’s how I prefer to look at it. That’s what makes it a distinctive sound. It’s the kind of voice that, once you hear it, you never forget.
Performing music happened to be one of the few areas of my life where I’m able to shake off that shyness. There must be a point where the introvert stops and the extrovert starts.
What were you like as a live performer when you started out?
In the early Teen King days, I would move around quite a lot on stage. We had a song called The Bug where we’d throw imaginary insects at each other. When the bug landed, you’d kinda flip out and throw yourself around like you’d been bitten. That got a few laughs but it wasn’t nothing to base a career around. Then, when I went out on my own, I had my guitar with me so I couldn’t easily let go of the guitar, grab the microphone and move around. I was sort of trapped but I realised that suited me. After that I became known for standing motionless on the stage. I guess that became part of my image.
What were your first impressions of Sun Records?
Oh, I just loved everything about the label. Everything about it was unique, right down to the Sun logo. There was just so much talent there. Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash…See, I’d met Cash on a radio show and it was he who suggested I approach Sam Phillips at Sun. When I got to see Sam he wasn’t too impressed that Johnny Cash had sent me along. He said something like, “Cash doesn’t run my record company.” So I was almost straight out of the door. But I persuaded him to give a listen and he offered me a deal. We released Ooby Dooby and it sold 200,000.
So, you were suddenly rich and famous?
Far from it (laughs). I had myself a little bit of fame. But there wasn’t much money in evidence. The first real money I made was from The Everly Brothers using my song Claudette on the flip side of All I Have To Do Is Dream. That provided me with a down-payment for my first Cadillac. Apart from that, I needed to tour to make ends meet. I was singing in bars for a few dollars a night. Then, in 1958, I stopped performing for around eight months. I became a full-time songwriter as that was the only way to pay the bills. It was only with the release of Only The Lonely that my fortunes picked up. I’d co-written that song but wasn’t planning to record it. I actually drove to Elvis’s house with the idea of offering the song to him. But Elvis was asleep (laughs). Just couldn’t rouse him. So I figured I’d give it a go myself. When I had a hit with it everything changed. After that I’d write the kind of songs that best suited my voice.
Though you were friends and label mates, and though you both emerged with rock’n’roll, you and Elvis seemed to inhabit different planets as personalities.
Well, the difference was that Elvis was a huge personality. I never had the looks or the confidence to project myself in that way. I mean, let’s face it, nobody was ever going to mistake me for a sex god (laughs). Sexuality has never been a foremost thing in my music, certainly not an aggressive kind of sex. For me, it’s always been more of a gentle, intimate thing.
You have always seemed like the shy and retiring type…
I’ve always been shy. Performing music happened to be one of the few areas of my life where I’m able to shake off that shyness. There must be a point where the introvert stops and the extrovert starts. Performing enables me to turn one into the other. But that struggle for confidence still goes on to this day. I’m always in need of reassurance. I need people to tell me that I’m on the right track. However successful I’ve been, I’m not one of those people who ever believes they’d made it. At best, I only ever felt that I had it made for one brief moment. Then it was onto the next thing and I had to find the confidence to take up whatever challenge that was. I’ve never felt much relief from the pressure. Maybe I need that pressure. But it doesn’t make for an easy life.
I was lucky enough to hang onto my innocence...I could see that it wasn’t important to earn more money or become the world’s biggest star.
Given that self-doubt, how difficult has it been to stand in front of large crowds and sing?
The only way I can explain it is that most performers have two sides to them. They might be shy, retiring types but they’re able to summon up the brazen self-confidence you need to perform to an audience. Often it seems that chronic insecurity breeds creativity. The more insecurity there is, the more genius can shine through. Now this can create a kind of vacuum and, in order to keep some balance, a lot of people turn to drink and drugs. Y’know, the road to excessive self-destruction. Mostly the self-destructive element is already there. It just needs bringing out.
Would you agree that drugs fuel creativity?
I’m not sure it works like that. I don’t think you need to be on drugs to be out on the edge. Some of us are on the edge anyway (laughs). In my case I’ve had a lot of time and experience to let the insecure part of myself be lessened by the public acclaim. All the musical triumphs have bolstered me, so I’ve felt less vulnerable. Or, at least, those triumphs have given me the strength to carry on doing what I do. However successful I’ve been, however, those gaps are never properly filled. I’m always walking a fine line. If everything was real solid and smooth, it might get too dull along the way. I’m always looking for the next great song, the next great recordings, the next great concert. Those are the things that keep me hungry, keep me realistic.
How did you handle the fame?
When it first happened it took me by surprise. Nobody prepares you for being famous. Very quickly I had to get to grips with a lot of new issues. The way I think about is that I approached stardom from behind. It was with Only The Lonely in 1960 that I jumped into the middle of it. Then I sort of out-ran it. I was ahead of my success because I knew for certain that the next record would be a great one, that it would have the same fire and gusto. I was on a great run. After Only The Lonely came Blue Angel, Running Scared, Love Hurts, Crying, Candy Man, Dream Baby, Working For The Man, Leah, In Dreams…this was all in the space of something like eighteen months. It’s easy to get carried away when you’re on run of massive hits like that. You start thinking you’re capable of anything. Somewhere in the middle of all that I started wondering what other areas I could get into. Maybe movies, maybe novels, even politics. After a time reality sets in and, if you’re lucky enough to have held onto your innocence, you start to really get to grips with what you’re involved with and make the best of it. If you’re not self-obsessed and if you’re not too concerned with becoming even more famous, then you’ll want to bring it back to basics. See, I was lucky enough to hang onto my innocence. I had some perspective on my situation. I realised that what was important was to find out what was really inside me. I could see that it wasn’t important to earn more money or become the world’s biggest star. It was simply about learning to do things as well as I needed to do them. I’ve still got that innocence. A stranger will approach me for an autograph at the gas station. It’s happened a million times but, even after thirty years of it, I’m still taken aback. I’m still amazed that anyone would want me to scribble my name on a piece of paper. Y’know, I’m just a kid from Vernon, Texas. Why would anyone want my autograph?
Then came flower power and psychedelia. Suddenly the charts were full of drug songs and anti-war songs. There was no way I could compete with that.
How did you get the idea for the famous growl in Oh, Pretty Woman?
There was this guy, Bill Dees, who I’d known in Texas. He’d played in a band called The Five Bops, then he’d become a songwriter. We teamed up for It’s Over and that became one of my biggest hits. The story behind Oh, Pretty Woman is that I was working on some song ideas with Bill and my wife Claudette happened to walk in. She remarked that she was going out to do some shopping. I asked her if she needed any spending money. And Bill said, “There’s probably a song to be had out of this little scenario.” Forty-five minutes later, we had the song all complete. When we came to record it, there was one note I couldn’t get right. So, at that moment in the song, I decided to make a growling sound. I think I got the idea from a Bob Hope movie. The growl must have worked because that 45 sold seven million copies worldwide. I’m glad my wife walked in at that moment.
In 1966 you lost Claudette in a motorcycle accident. Two years later two of your three children were killed in a house fire. That must have been an unbearably dark time for you?
My life in general hasn’t been so dark. For the most part it’s been a glorious life. Those tragedies happened twenty years ago. Sure, those were rough times but everybody has those to one degree or another. There’s nothing I’ve gone through that nobody else won’t have to go through at some stage in their lives. We all have to deal with bereavement. OK, those were especially large tragedies and they happened in a two-year period. When they happened, maybe I didn’t deal with them emotionally as well as I could have. It’s always tempting to numb the pain and tell yourself you’ll deal with it further down the line. After the fire that took the lives of my two kids I went out on a world tour. I needed to keep busy. I can see now that I was numbing myself to what was going on and so the grieving process was longer than it should have been. When those tragedies happened, I was in complete shock as far as feeling and writing went. I was just so confused. It wasn’t made easier by the fact that I was having a very barren time as far as hit records go.
Would you say that people imagine you to be a more tortured person than you actually are?
I would say so. People have this perception of me which is largely based on the anguish in my singing voice. For better or for worse I tend to live my life as though I’ve just been born. I try to look at everything as though for the first time. I think I’m an optimist. At least I try to look on the bright side. Maybe that surprises people.
Because lot of your most famous songs are about loss, heartbreak, loneliness…
I suppose that’s true. All I’ve ever tried to do is sing what I feel. I feel very close to the songs. There’s a tenderness in them that is very real. If I didn’t have those emotions myself, the songs wouldn’t sound that way. And I’m not one of those singers who can fake an emotion. I need to feel it to sing it. I try to put my experience into a song. That’s usually the only influence. I don’t wonder that much about whether the newspaper boy will be able to sing it on the way to work. It probably helps that I have fairly conventional taste. If I like a song I figure that a lot of other people will like it too. It just so happens that a lot of those songs are sad. So people get this idea of me as some kind of tragic figure. This lonely figure dressed in black, wearing shades, singing about heartbreak. But my life isn’t all about the emotions in Only The Lonely.
How much thought did you put into the image side of things?
Practically none. As I kid I always loved playing cowboys and Indians. Whenever possible I liked to play the cowboy all dressed in black. I always thought that black clothes looked smart. That’s all there was to it. I wasn’t trying to look mysterious or anything. As for the shades, they came about by accident. I was touring the American south with The Beatles and I left my normal glasses on a plane. I needed another pair in order to see on stage. Someone handed me these dark shades. The press took all these pictures. After that, people expected to see me in the shades. If I was intending to look a bit different, to stand apart, I wasn’t conscious of it.
People get this idea of me as some kind of tragic figure. This lonely figure dressed in black, wearing shades, singing about heartbreak. But my life isn’t all about the emotions in Only The Lonely.
How did you react when the hits began drying up in the late 60s? Did you panic?
I kinda saw the change coming. I’d had my biggest successes when I was competing with the British Invasion. Y’know, The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks…So I’d ridden out that storm. Then came flower power and psychedelia. Suddenly the charts were full of drug songs and anti-war songs. There was no way I could compete with that. So, in terms of chart records, things started slipping away from me. There’s a perception that I became some sort of recluse after that, but nothing could be further from the truth. I was still touring the world and people were still turning out to see me perform. We always had full houses. Even if I wasn’t release chart-topping records, I still had a loyal audience. My life became a little less frantic through the 70s. I had a little more time to relax and enjoy my pastimes. I enjoyed collecting vintage cars, for instance, so I would busy myself with them. I’d ride my motorcycles. I’d travel with my wife, Barbara. I was very content with my life, my level of fame. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss having hit records. Now I feel I’m ready to have hits again. Right now I feel a momentum in my career that I haven’t felt for a long, long time.
When did things start turning round for you?
1978 was a decisive time. I developed heart problems and had to undergo a triple by-pass operation. That gave me a new perspective. Around that time Linda Ronstadt had a big hit with Blue Bayou. In 1980 I recorded That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again with Emmylou Harris which gave me my first chart action in years and won me a Grammy. That same year, Don McLean had a huge hit with Crying and Van Halen covered Oh, Pretty Woman. Bruce Springsteen was performing my songs during his concerts. Suddenly I was back in the news. But it wasn’t until the movie Blue Velvet was released that things really started.
How did you first react when you saw how David Lynch used In Dreams in that film?
Absolute shock. I was literally speechless. The song wasn’t going to be in the film. Then I heard they’d sneaked it in there. So I went to a cinema in Malibu, thinking I’d check it out. The song comes on during this bizarre scene. There’s the Dean Stockwell character lip-syncing the song, with all kinds of strangeness going on around him. Later in the movie the song starts up again and Dennis Hopper is beating up on this kid. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I mean, this wasn’t the kind of context that I thought was right for the song. It took me a while to appreciate just how innovative the movie was, and how innovative those sequences were. I can see now that the song appearing in the film as it did brought me up to date somehow. I’m grateful to David Lynch for it. In fact he’s helped to produce the new version of In Dreams on my new LP.
Any truth in the rumour that you’re working on songs with Sex Pistol Steve Jones?
Oh yeah. Over the last year I’ve been collaborating with a lot of different musicians. Everyone from Waylon Jennings to Steve Cropper. Steve Jones is in there too. The thing that connects all those people is that they have a similar approach to songwriting that I have. When you collaborate on a song, you need to be able to sit down with the other person and be completely open and honest. There can’t be any deception on either side because, if a good song is to come out of it, you need to share experiences. It has to be real otherwise there’s no point. As far as Steve goes, he was one of the names that came up when me and my producers were talking. I was intrigued. I’d heard of the Sex Pistols, obviously. I wasn’t that familiar with their music but I knew some of their stuff. Sounded like good rock’n’roll to me. So I invited Steve to my house. He roared up to the front gate on his Harley with his Gibson guitar. We had some coffee, then got straight down to work on a beat ballad. Very tender, quite the opposite from what his rough image would lead you to expect. Steve’s a joy to work with. He doesn’t hold anything back. In a song he’s looking for naked emotion, getting to the very heart of a song, and that’s what I’m after too. Like me, he enjoys losing himself in the music. It’s always best when it’s kind of abandoned. Elvis Presley had it. I hear a similar intensity in bands like U2.
Do you often think about death?
I try not to (laughs). I try to live in the moment. I believe that’s the secret of living life. At least it seems to work for me. I’m conscious of enjoying the moment. I’m conscious of it right now as I sit here with you, enjoying this conversation. But I’ve not always been able to live in the moment. I regret that a certain percentage of my life has been lived after the fact. I’d do these great, wild tours with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones but I only really appreciated the experience long afterwards, not while they were going on. I’m better at living in the moment these days. I don’t think of the future any more than I need to. If I think about death at all, I just know that I’m not ready to die just yet. Maybe I’ll know when I’m ready.
How would you like to be remembered?
If I’m just remembered, that will be good enough for me. When my time comes, I think there’s every chance I’ll die a fulfilled man. I never did have any big dreams. As a kid I’d sometimes fantasise about owning an island and being the king of a country. But all the kingdoms were taken. So I decided to open up my lungs and sing. Amazingly it all worked out.
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