Though not so dark and lonely as his songs made him seem, Roy Kelton Orbison had a lot of pain in his life. He absorbed that pain and transformed it with dramatic lyrics and a three-octave voice, a one-two punch of emotion and sound that hit teenagers of the early Sixties right where they lived.
He sang about the “Pretty Woman” and lots of other women besides, many of them variations of his first, tragic love—Claudette, whose name he also used in one of his earliest songs. That was in 1958, and the Everly Brothers recorded “Claudette” as the flipside to “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”
But Roy was no pretty man. Needing coke-bottle glasses by the tender age of four, the young kid from Vernon, and later the big town of Wink, also took to dying his hair coal black while still in his teens to cover up the early onset of gray. And then there were the ears, which could have been switched with LBJ’s without leaving anyone the wiser.
Beginning in 1956, Roy recorded four songs for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records—thanks to a good word from Johnny Cash. The original man in black had heard Roy when they had appeared on the same local TV show in West Texas. Roy’s first song for Sun made a brief appearance on the charts, rising to number 59. “Ooby-Dooby” was not a taste of what was to come. But it was the only success he had at Sun Records.
It was the heyday of Sun: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash all signed with Sam Phillips. Roy couldn’t match their success. Phillips thought Roy was a good enough guitar player, but wasn’t that impressed with his voice. And then there were the looks. Up against Elvis, Fabian, and the other pretty boys of the Fifties, the young man from Wink, pale-skinned and shy, seemed to have little chance.
Roy had already seen one pretty boy make good, back in college. At what was then North Texas State College in Denton, he saw the young man who made a career out of sweetness and light make it to the big time. While Roy was out working in the oil field and playing occasional gigs with his band The Teen Kings, a smiling, soft-voiced Pat Boone got the record contract. With failing grades in his geology classes, Roy dropped out of school.
But in 1960, Roy collaborated with his friend Joe Melson on a song. The Everly Brothers turned it down. Roy knew Elvis well by then and went by Graceland to pitch the song to the King. Elvis was asleep and Roy decided to give the song a try himself. RCA gave Roy a chance to record it. “Only the Lonely” not only brought the shy singer to light but it did so in a way that introduced the world to the range of his voice.
The next year was even bigger: “Running Scared”; “Love Hurts,” later covered magnificently by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris; “Crying,” with k.d. laing; and “Candy Man.” Now Roy had a number 1 song in “Running Scared,” and a pair of number 2 songs with “Only the Lonely” and “Crying.”
Then came “Dream Baby” in 1962; “In Dreams” in 1963; and, finally, “Pretty Woman” in 1964. Roy was 28 and hitting the big time in both the U.S. and the U.K., where he became known as the “Big O.” He had all the money he needed, enough to fill a warehouse with cars he bought on a whim, sometimes following a car he saw and liked and making the driver a generous cash offer on the spot.
In 1963, his fame in the U.K. resulted in his being the headliner on a tour, along with a young group of kids from Liverpool. Roy got to England and saw all the press the Beatles were receiving. “What’s a Beatle?” he asked, evidently within hearing of John Lennon. Lennon tapped Roy on the shoulder and said, “I am.”
They soon got along well, with Roy becoming good friends with Lennon and a close friend of George Harrison. But the Beatles persuaded Roy to go on first, letting them become the headline act.
When Roy opened the next performance, the audience shouted for 14 encores, leaving the Fab Four standing impatiently offstage. After the 14th encore, the boys restrained Roy from going back on stage.
Roy had left his thick glasses on a plane in Alabama before taking off for England. The only other pair he had were black-rimmed Waverly sunglasses. He put them on, and people began to wonder if he was blind when they saw him perform. He saw well enough, but he kept the shades as part of his act, finding in them and in his black clothing a persona that seemed to compensate for his lack of good looks. And it didn’t hurt that the shades gave a shy man a way to hide his eyes.
When Roy met Claudette Frady in Odessa, Texas, she was only 16 and he was 21. A beautiful high-school dropout, Claudette was a source of both pain and inspiration for Roy. When “Pretty Woman” came out in 1964, Claudette, lonely and restless in Hendersonville, Tennessee, while Roy was on the road, had an affair with a contractor who was working on their home outside of Nashville.
According to an excellent magazine piece, Roy Orbison: The Big “O”, Roy was seriously depressed by the affair and the subsequent divorce in Novemer. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t communicate and I certainly couldn’t write a song,” he said.
Roy and Claudette reconciled while he was recuperating from an illness, and they remarried in 1966. By then, the boys from England had an edgier counterpart in the Rolling Stones; Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other voices of protest took over the charts.
It was a time when Roy and Claudette could spend more time together, and he no doubt needed her badly as his career began to fade. One day, about two months after they had remarried, they were out for a ride on the motorcycles they both loved. A truck smashed into Claudette and knocked her off the bike and onto the side of the road. Roy was riding a couple of blocks ahead. He heard the sirens, looked back, and didn’t see Claudette. When he reached the scene, she was dead.
“After Claudette’s death, Orbison was immobilized by grief,” the magazine story says. “‘It was a dark period,’ he recounted later. ‘All I was doing was surviving, trying to work my way out of the turmoil.’ After her funeral, he struggled to pen a hit and, as the years went by, his ballads fell out of step with the promiscuous, swinging ’60s. ‘The thrust of the war and drug-related songs, I didn’t relate to that at all,’ he reflected.”
Two years later, using his work as a way to fight his grief, Roy was touring once again in England, where his previous fame was less obscured by the songs of protest. There, he received a phone call. His father, Orbie, was taking care of the Hendersonville house and Roy’s three sons. The boys were playing in the basement. Some gasoline in one of Roy’s vintage cars ignited, and the house burned down. Only Roy’s father and one son, three-year-old Wesley, survived.
And so here was the slug of pain that some of Roy’s earlier songs seemed to anticipate. He was only 32, but his wife and two of his sons had died violently. This time, he determined to get on with his life. He remarried—a German girl of 17 he had met on tour—and built a new home in Tennessee.
In 1980, two years after Roy’s first heart attack at age 44, he and Emmylou Harris released the duet “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again,” and Roy was back on the charts—for a little while. He also received his only Grammy during his lifetime. The same year, Don McLean covered “Crying” and went up high in the charts. In 1987, Roy made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The strangest turn in Roy’s career came in 1987 when David Leach’s disturbing noir classic, Blue Velvet, appeared in theaters across the country. A do-wop song from the Fifties gave the film its title, but the tone of film itself was as far from the voice of a young Bobby Vinton as…as Wink is from London.
The use of his song In Dreams in the film, during two grotesque scenes, at first annoyed Roy. The second of the scenes shows a deranged and Dennis Hopper viciously beating a young character played by Kyle MacLachlan, while the opening lines of Roy’s song are playing in the background:
A candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper:
“Go to sleep, everything is all right”
But, in truth, the actual song ends with lines that show “everything is all right” only in dreams. The song was used to bring home the brutal disillusionment of the young man in the movie, for what could be less like the sandman our mothers told us about than a crazed Dennis Hopper? Roy came to see the use of the song as artistically appropriate. Regardless, the film helped boost Roy’s name into the consciousness of an America that had become enthralled by stories of lust, violence, and greed. Roy was “in” again.
In 1988, he and his musical friends performed in a highly successful TV special based on his music. Roy, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne then recorded The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One. The album had reached number 10 on the charts when Roy died of his second heart attack on December 6, ten years after he had given up chain smoking.
Roy’s life, despite the pain, is a testament to more affirming dreams than the ones in his famous song. “My life,” Roy said not long before his death, “is a never-ending dream. I take one day at a time and never look too far into the future.”
The man in the Waverly shades, wearing black clothes, and singing songs of longing, was, in the end, much more in tune with his soaring voice than with the dark persona he had assumed.
His second wife, Barbara Jakob Orbison, said Roy “was born sunny-side up.” She died at age 60 on the 23rd anniversary of his death.
Born April 23, 1936, in Vernon, Texas; died December 8, 1988, in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Here is Roy Orbison singing happy birthday to his son, Roy Jr. The accompanying photos are from Roy’s own birthday celebrations.