Roy Orbison, Part II: From Beatles to Springsteen and Beyond

More on meeting him at the low point in his career and the comeback that followed. Did I help get it started with my Bruce connection? Plus music from The Beatles, Brandi Carlile and The Boss.

A further excerpt from my memoir-in-progress. Here’s Part I. Don’t forget to share, comment or subscribe (it’s still free). But first, the usual cartoon commentary, this time on Trump’s new Facebook ban….

Roy Orbison and Friends: Past and Future

We survived the Ray Manzarek club gig in Chicago, mid-summer, 1974. The following morning the room-service waiter awakened Roy with a knock and we found him in the darkened room just out of the sack already decked out in trademark shades.  It was kind of embarrassing, and a photographer was ready to shoot, but Roy seemed fine with it. He pulled the window curtain open,  then puttered around in his green (not blue) velvet robe, somewhat less mythic than the night before—his hair in a Prince Valiant attempt at a Beatles haircut, the bulk of his body sitting incongruously on pale spindly legs, the diamond ring on the little finger of his right hand gleaming with past success.

A pack of Salems and a dog-eared copy of Road & Track sat on a nearby chair.

We chatted across the table, my cheap tape recorder running, as he ate breakfast, starting with his childhood down in Wink, Texas. Later he got hooked up with Buddy Holly’s producer Norman Petty and then, via Johnny Cash, with the legendary Sun Records boss, Sam Phillips.   This led to a stream of anecdotes. Buddy Holly was a very bright boy, not “uppity.” The Everly Brothers passed on his first giant hit, “Only the Lonely.”  Yes, “Crying” was based on a true story. 

When he went to England to top a tour with the emerging Beatles for several weeks in 1963, they had not yet come to the U.S. Roy saw their faces plastered all over town and asked, “What is this crap?” only to discover that John Lennon was standing right behind him.  Roy, being Roy, apologized profusely.  (The Beatles had earlier covered the Roy hit “Dream Baby.” Here is Paul doing a great Roy imitation.)

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On their joint tour in 1963 the Fab Four opened for him, although he sometimes let them close, feeling bad that he was getting twice as much money. In many cases, he claimed, they found him a hard act to follow, with John good-naturedly telling him, “Yankee go home!”

Very shortly he grew so impressed with the Beatles—“not technically that good but they had a fresh look”—that he told them to get to America as soon as possible, despite their fears, predicting they’d go over great.  He even turned down a chance to handle their U.S. representation, he said. Then he came home and told everyone, including Brian Wilson, that the Beatles would be the biggest group in America in a few months (“I have the clippings to prove it”). 

Over the next hour, Roy told more wonderful stories about his interactions with Elvis, Johnny Cash, McCartney, Ringo, Bob Dylan.  How many others in the world could do that?   Sample:  He once made a backstage deal with the Rolling Stones in London before they came to the U.S.  He would sing his worst song, “Ooby Dooby,” from his early days, that night if they would do their worst song.  He kept his end of the bargain, they did not. “So to make up for it,” he boasted, “Mick gave me a silver cigarette case inscribed with Ooby Dooby.”  (No one could match Roy vocally but over the years many have attempted to come close. Here’s a recent, very fine, effort by Brandi Carlile, on “It’s Over.”)

When Dylan was recording in Nashville in ‘68 he came by Roy’s house on Old Hickory Lake to pay his respects but Orbison was in Canada at the time. Still, he considered this “a compliment.” Ditto for the carnations Paul McCartney sent to his house when he was cutting a record in Nashville.

Well, I could have listened to this forever, but I was there to cover his comeback, so I asked about the new recording.  At the Mercury office I’d heard the first, countryish, single and, while “Sweet Mama Blue” was very pretty, it lacked  the sock of early Orbison—as if he was still battling to get The Voice back (he’d had some heart ailments).  Roy seemed pretty relaxed about it, perhaps more pleased with the record’s existence than the assurance of major success. And he had never stopped making money from sales and tours abroad, in any case. “I think I’ve got possibly 20 years of good singing and record-making left,” he advised.

When he got home, he asked his record company to send me an original 78 of “Ooby Dooby.”

As it turned out, “Sweet Mama Blue” did, in fact, bomb.  I interviewed Roy again over the phone in the aftermath and he said, “It’s already a hit record to me.  It’s done so much more than what I had done like two years ago. Hit records are important to me, and I don’t want this to sound like a cliché, but I’ve had my share of them.”  No kidding.  But was The Voice still there?  “You’ll have to put this nicely,” he pleaded, “because I’m not egotistical in any sense…the voice is ten times what it ever was.  The Orbison tag, the Big Sound, whatever you call it, it’s all still there.”

My lengthy Crawdaddy profile would be published that autumn and drew wide “Whatever Happened To” attention. Roy liked it himself and hired me to write the liner notes for his next album (which would also fail to sell). A rising, rather than fading, star also told me he loved the article: my friend (at the time), Bruce Springsteen, who was still writing and recording Born to Run. (Here’s Bruce singing “Pretty Woman” as a request a few years back.)

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One afternoon on a visit to the Crawdaddy office in New York City I guided Springsteen  to our room in back that had a sound system and played him most of the Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits album.  Of course, Bruce was familiar with many of the songs. Like most people, however, he probably hadn’t heard most of them in years.  He was blown away, listened to all four sides, and a couple of songs again.  Then I lent him my album.

Soon, via the Jersey grapevine, I learned that he had made a Roy tape off my album and was playing it on his tour bus all the time, leading to occasional complaints from E Streeters.   Bruce started performing Orbisongs during his soundchecks.  That October when I visited him backstage at, of all places, Philharmonic Hall in New York (he was opening for another act), he greeted me, from across the room, with the opening notes of “Pretty Woman” on the guitar: Da-da-da-da-dum, pause, pause, Da-da-da-da-dum. My new theme song.

The following year, lo and behold, what shows up at the start of the opening track “Thunder Road” on Born to Run? What was destined to be one of Bruce’s most quoted lines ever:  “Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely/ hey that’s me and I want you only.”  I never got a chance to confirm my role in helping to inspire that, though the lyrics were written after I’d re-introduced him to Roy—and they did award me a gold record for the album. But hey, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

As I noted in the intro to Part I, Roy’s comeback began with “Thunder Road.” He recorded a hit duet with Emmylou Harris. Then the “In Dreams” sequence in Blue Velvet arrived, he joined the Traveling Wilburys, and recorded his own hit single and album. Somewhere in there he got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a speech by Springsteen. The film Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night (with Bruce, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt and etc.) is still aired during PBS fundraising drives. But then, sadly, he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1988. He was only 52. Newsweek quoted me in its obit. My little video tribute below:

“Essential daily newsletter.” — Charles P. Pierce, Esquire

“Incisive and enjoyable every day.” — Ron Brownstein, The Atlantic

“Always worth reading.” — Frank Rich, New York magazine, Veep and Succession

Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including the bestseller The Tunnels (on escapes under the Berlin Wall), the current The Beginning or the End (on MGM’s wild atomic bomb movie), and The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s left-wing race for governor of California), which was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of five greatest books ever about an election. His new film, Atomic Cover-up, just had its world premiere and is winning awards. For nearly all of the 1970s he was the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. Later he served as longtime editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. He recently co-produced a film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.