Mary and I went to see Roy Orbison at the Chicago Theater shortly before we moved to Atlanta. Johnny Rivers opened for him and put on a great show, but it paled when Roy came onstage and started hitting his high notes. It was as though he was controlling the crowd with them: he hit one and the crowd came to their feet. It will probably go down as the best concert I’d ever been to. Of course, I didn’t go to many concerts, but if it was the only one I saw, it would be enough.
Roy and his high-school band, the Wink Westerners (they were from Wink, Texas) had a goal of recording for Sam Phillips’s Sun Records after hearing that Elvis had gotten one. Johnny Cash, another Sun performer, gave Orbison Phillips’s phone number, but when Roy called, he was told “Johnny Cash don’t run my record label.” Thinking that was the end of his chances with Sun, he and The Teen Kings (formerly the Wink Westerners) went into the studio and recorded “Ooby Dooby,” which Roy had heard while at North Texas State College, for the regional Je-Wel label. Phillips heard the record when a record-store owner played it for him over the phone, and asked Orbison to come and record it at his studio. It was released in 1956 and reached #59 on the Hot 100. Years later, Creedence Clearwater Revival did a version for their Cosmo’s Factory album that sounded exactly the same.
From 1960 to 1964, Roy had seven Top 10 singles for the Monument label, culminating in what might have been his best-known song, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” It reached #1 in 1964.
Roy’s fortunes hit a bad streak after that. His wife Claudette, with whom he had divorced and remarried in 1963, died in a motorcycle accident, and the British Invasion swept him and so many other American acts off the charts. By 1976 he hadn’t had a hit album in over ten years and was doubting his own talent. Meanwhile, rock acts were beginning to cover his songs, most notably Linda Ronstadt, whose recording of “Blue Bayou” reached #3 on the charts. He rekindkled a friendship with George Harrison and became a member of The Traveling Wilburys, choosing the name Lefty Wilbury in honor of Lefty Frizzell. The Wilburys released their first album in 1987 and Roy’s final album, Mystery Girl, was released in 1988. Complaining of chest pains, he still managed to complete a hectic schedule. On December 4, after spending the day with his sons and having dinner with his mother, he died of a heart attack at the age of 52.
Roy Orbison, your Two for Tuesday, January 23, 2018.