Nearly 25 years have passed since Roy Orbison last prowled the Earth in one of his signature jet-black ensembles, with those trademark sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose. The rock pioneer responsible for the lascivious growl of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” the swoony high notes of “Crying” and a personal style best described as geek-noir chic died of a heart attack in 1988, which means he’s now been gone for almost as much time as he spent recording albums. Given his catalogue of classics and the long list of significant artists he influenced — from Bono to Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan — he’s hardly been forgotten. But in a music landscape where trends change as fast as our Spotify playlists can shuffle, reminders of the lasting timelessness of his work are welcome.
The latest reminder comes in the form of “Rhapsody in Black,” a book that falls somewhere between biography and music criticism. Musician, professor and author John Kruth covers the high points and crushing lows in Orbison’s life and career, while often pausing to take deep, analytical dives into his subject’s discography. The result is an uneven work that relates its share of interesting anecdotes but, to devoted Orbison fans, may be a rehash of stories they already know by heart.
Relying on his own interviews with musicians, producers and other Orbison colleagues in addition to material culled from previous books and articles, Kruth pieces together the events that turned a talented West Texas kid with an astonishing vocal range into rockabilly’s premier balladeer, the man behind that saucy “Mercy” in the massive hit “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and a genuine rock star capable of headlining concerts with the Beatles as his supporting act.
In one of the book’s more enjoyable chapters, Kruth notes that on the first night of a 1963 U.K. tour with the Fab Four, Beatles fans “unexpectedly went balmy over Roy, prompting John Lennon and Paul McCartney to physically (but good-naturedly) drag the so-called “Big O” offstage to prevent him from launching into yet another encore. According to the book, the crooner enjoyed a less pleasant relationship with the Stones. On a turbulent flight during their Australian tour in ’65, Mick Jagger allegedly mentioned the names of several famous musicians who had recently died in plane crashes, then dared God to “knock us out of the sky.” That prompted Orbison to later tell the wiry frontman, “You’ll never ride in an airplane with me again. . . . Don’t speak to me.”
Juicy little tales like these only pop up occasionally in “Rhapsody in Black,” which devotes much of its space to reverent, sometimes cliche-ridden descriptions of Orbison’s music. “His songs had a way of speaking to weary souls everywhere,” Kruth writes in a typical passage, “be they on the brink of suicide, or staring at the void through the bottom of a bottle of whiskey or sleeping pills, or see-sawing precariously on a window ledge.” Still, the author can be blunt when the moment calls for it: “It came as no surprise, particularly to those close to him, that Roy Orbison couldn’t act,” he says of the hitmaker’s brief dalliance with Hollywood.
The book also explores the two most significant personal tragedies of Orbison’s life: the death of his first wife, Claudette, after a 1966 motorcycle accident and, less than three years later, the deaths of their two older sons in a house fire. In the wake of the second event, Orbison left his one surviving son, Wesley, in the permanent care of his parents and remarried. With his new wife, Barbara, he eventually welcomed two more sons and remained happily wed until his death.
It’s impossible to read this and not wonder how Orbison could have abandoned his 3-year-old child. Though father and son reportedly reconciled in the days before the singer’s death, Terry Widlake, Orbison’s longtime bassist and road manager, tells Kruth: “That was a side of Roy I was surprised by and didn’t understand. Barbara controlled him in many ways.”
Barbara Orbison died in 2011, so she can’t shed light on the matter. Wesley Orbison can, but doesn’t. Perhaps he didn’t want to discuss his story here, having previously spoken to Ellis Amburn, author of “Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story,” which Kruth briefly mentions. But if an attempt to interview him was made, Kruth should have noted it.
When Orbison died in 1988, he was just 52 and riding the crest of a resurgence in popularity. His collaboration with the Traveling Wilburys had been a big success, and he had just finished recording an album, “Mystery Girl,” that posthumously yielded his first top 10 single in more than two decades, “You Got It.”
Had he lived longer, it’s quite possible that Orbison would have written his own memoir. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Instead, we’re left with a wealth of inspiring music, images of a mystery man forever hiding behind those dark sunglasses and books like this one that, try as they might, can only tell part of the story.
Chaney writes about pop culture for Esquire, New York’s Vulture blog and other outlets.