It was your basic nor-risk, all-pay-back situation in the Copacabana Room at the Sands the other night. There was Roy Orbison, dramatically hidden behind his trademark dark glasses, hardly moving from the microphone as he ran through classic ballads like "Crying," "Running Scared," "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Blue Bayou" and "Only the Lonely." And there was the crowd, pockets lighter from a day of paying their money and taking their chances, hitting jackpot after musical jackpot.
voice has not eroded in 25 years, and that he remains pop's most accomplished dramatist. His soaring bel canto tenor escalated the tension from verse to verse before resolving it in spine-tingling falsettos.
Offstage, the singer -- who'll perform at Wolf Trap tonight -- is low-key, mild-mannered; his waxen skin, like his speaking voice, is almost too soft, too white against the coal-black hair that looks to have been slicked down with shoe polish. The shades remain in place, but they don't hide the hardness of his 50 years, any more than the tight black outfit masks those few extra pounds around the waist.
But the voice, like an image that supersedes reality, is eternal. It's electrifying, a voice to cut diamonds with, one of rock's most magnificent and penetrating instruments. And when he sings, Roy Orbison is still a young man, a kind of musical Dorian Gray. Something special -- longing, anguish, heartbreak, self-pity -- courses through his songs, much the way it did a quarter century ago when those songs first tapped the misery of adolescence and entered the canon of pop culture.
"The voice hasn't changed," says Orbison. "The falsettos are easier than the full-voice high notes, but I still sing at the top of my range. And everything is still in the same key. That's the good Lord's work, not mine. I'm just trying to do the footwork."
By now, of course, after a life on the road, the footwork is as assured as the voice. "Don't retire or take it easy," advises Orbison, who has steadfastly refused to do either. "It doesn't do you any good . . . I've been going 10 days a month since 1963."
That was the year the Big O traipsed off to England to headline a concert tour with the emerging Beatles, just one of many British bands absorbed not only by the power of his distinctive singing and songwriting, but by the high style encapsulated in Orbison's slicked-back pompadour and paint-it-black vestments.
That was also the year Orbison's eyes disappeared behind the shades. "I left my regular glasses on a plane in Alabama, and then went straight to London for the Beatles tour," he explains. "So I had to wear my dark glasses. And the press took all these pictures and then people expected to see me this way. Now everybody's more comfortable with the sunglasses. I only wear them in public, though."
These are mildly heady times for Roy Orbison. Though he has not recorded a solo album since 1979, he remains a strong draw on the worldwide concert circuit. And recently, he regained some visibility in the record market through "The Class of '55," a reunion-collaboration with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Along with Elvis Presley, these men had made musical history at Sam Phillips' Sun Records studio in Memphis in the mid-'50s, and when they gathered there for four days of recording last September, it was a reminder not only of a unique period in rock 'n' roll history, but of how far each man had come, and how great the costs have been.
Orbison, who was always the gentleman among Sun's rude boys, admits it was "a little strange to go back into the studio. But it was good to see the guys. Once we got together I felt pretty easy about everything . . .
"There was a lot of . . . atmosphere," he adds with a smile.
"When we drifted apart into different record companies, I'd follow Jerry's career and knew all his records and his ups and downs . . . Johnny and I live next door in Nashville but only occasionally would we both be home at the same time . . . and Carl toured with Johnny for many years so I hadn't seen much of him. So it was super to get together and keep in mind all that had gone on and the miles we'd all traveled."
There is now talk about the Class of '55 concertizing together, which they did as youngsters in the mid-'50s before they hit it big. "It wasn't the thing to do once we became stars and had our own shows," Orbison explains. "We didn't want to share it with anybody." Of course, this time around, it would be a little like Mount Rushmore on tour.
One song on the reunion album, "We Remember the King," was an affectionate tribute to the missing son of Memphis. After recording it, Orbison recalls, "we went to the trailer to see it on tape. It was a touching thing. I got teary-eyed, because I could hear two things in that song: Elvis was one of my very best, closest friends, and I loved him dearly; and at the same time, the song could refer to Jesus Christ. So I heard both things together.
"We all gave each other a hug and told each other we were glad to be there . . . there was some weeping going on."
Ironically, Orbison's stint in Memphis last September was the flip side of his early experience with Sun: He hated his short stay with Sam Phillips, to the point of buying out of his contract in 1958.
"Elvis and I both felt the same about our Sun records for the longest time," Orbison recalls. "We wouldn't do them in concert . His success at Sun wasn't all that great, either, until he left. They released all that stuff in 1956, but Elvis still wouldn't do them until 1968. By then they'd become instant history and the beginning of something, so we started putting them in the act."
Looking back, Orbison says he had no sense of being caught up in history at Sun, and neither did Presley, Cash, Perkins or Lewis.
*"I didn't even know it was a good place to be at the time," he says, "but it turned out to be the best place to be because it was a great workshop. I had to package my own records and mail them myself and the studio was so small that you had to sing above the instruments. Apparently Johnny and Jerry Lee had to do that as well, because they developed really strong voices. There was only one microphone and we had to sing above the noise. Plus we didn't have session musicians; if you didn't have a band, then you couldn't record." Session men "meant Sam had to pay more," Orbison says, chuckling, and Sam Phillips was "real tight."
At the time, he continues, "I didn't think Sam knew a great deal, a lot less than he thought he did. But he knew more than I did, so that was okay. His best advice? He'd bring out these '78s -- 'Mystery Train,' 'That's All Right,' everything that he'd played for Elvis -- and say 'Sing like that.' What he meant to say was sing with that enthusiasm, get that much soul in your singing. But he didn't know, so he'd just say 'Sing like that.' "
But like Elvis, Roy Orbison didn't just "sing like that." He sang like something else, something all his own.
Roy Kelton Orbison turned 50 a few months back, and while his hits date back a quarter of a century, he's been making music much longer than that -- more than four decades, from the time he won an amateur contest two years after his oil-rigger father had given him a guitar.
"I had a radio show 42 years ago in Vernon, Texas," Orbison recalls of his hometown. "I didn't know what was going on at the time, but it was great. Had to do all kinds of music -- 'Jole Blon,' a Cajun song . . . 'Divorce Me C.O.D.,' a pure country song . . . some Bob Wills stuff, which was western swing. After I got my group in junior high school , we did 'Lady of Spain,' 'In the Mood' . . . We had to play everything, whatever people wanted.
*"I was always in the business, even as an amateur. I remember as a 9-year-old, singing at a neighbor's house and passing the hat. I made $14, and I said 'Boy, this is terrific! I get to do what I want to do and make money, too.'
"By the time I was 17, playing for dances, you also had to play a schottische, a polka and a put-your-little-foot, or they wouldn't come and you wouldn't get paid. You also had to do all the Glenn Miller stuff, all the Eddie Fisher stuff, it just went on and on and on. It was just great training."
At 18, Orbison won another contest, the prize being an appearance on a local television show sponsored by a furniture company.
"I talked the owner into doing it every week. He asked, 'What's it going to cost me?'
" 'No, for all of us together.' I was going whichever way he wanted," Orbison says lightly.
"We ended up doing two shows a week," he says, with Orbison as host and lead singer. They shared the show with a furniture salesman. "The store was right about in the middle between Odessa and Midland and right after that the owner built a store that almost reached from Odessa to Midland. We didn't know the power of television at first," Orbison says. "But we had a great time doing it because we'd go anywhere around there and people would just stare at us . . . we were local stars."
They were also hosts to other artists traveling in the region, plugging their concerts and records. That's how Orbison met Elvis and Johnny Cash. In fact, it was Cash who encouraged Orbison to call Sam Phillips.
"Sam said, 'Johnny Cash doesn't run my record company' and hung up," Orbison says, laughing. A while later, though, Phillips heard Orbison's first record, the Norman Petty-produced "Ooby Dooby," over the phone and ordered the singer to show up in Memphis in three days. "I took my Dad's car and borrowed a hundred dollars," Orbison remembers, and made the record again for Sun.
It's interesting to note that Orbison worked with three legendary producers -- Petty, Phillips and Chet Atkins -- without really making much of an impression.
He cut that first record with Petty in the Clovis, N.M. studio that was to become home to Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen and eventually Buddy Holly. At Sun, he cut only three singles before buying his way out of the contract, though Sam Phillips kept releasing material long after he'd left, including the only song Orbison has ever been embarrassed by: "Chicken Hearted."
"It was horrible, terribly embarrassing," Orbison winces, 30 years later. "I begged Sam not to release it. In fact that was the reason I left Sun Records." Phillips also refused to allow Orbison to sing any ballads, forcing him into the rigid rockabilly format of "Ooby Dooby." For years afterward Orbison refused to sing any rockabilly songs, though he now includes a couple in his show.
After Sun, Orbison did some recording for Chet Atkins at RCA, but his career didn't get going until he went to a small independent Nashville label, Monument, and hooked up with producer Fred Foster, a former promo man.
"He was enough of a novice that when I said I wanted strings, he said fine. He didn't know enough to say no, but he let me do what I wanted to do. And I was young and full of myself, so it turned out right."
Finally, Roy Orbison was able to match songs, voice and production. The result was that between 1960 and 1964, starting with "Only the Lonely," Orbison was the biggest-selling, most popular male singer in the world, with nine top-10 singles.
It almost didn't happen.
In the early 1960s, Orbison, perceived mostly as a songwriter ("Claudette," a song about his wife, had been a minor hit for the Everly Brothers), was trying to peddle "Only the Lonely." He and cowriter Sam Elson had driven all night from Texas, and just before dawn they stopped at Graceland to try to sell it to Elvis Presley.
"We sent him a note, and got one back saying Elvis had people all over the floor in the living room and was still asleep and 'See you in Nashville.' When I got there, I played it for Phil Everly and got about halfway through it and he grabbed the guitar and started singing me a song he wrote. I don't know if he knew I was pitching it to him. Finally I sang it for the record company and they said, 'Let's cut it.'
"I'm glad they did and I'm glad the others didn't get it. That could have been a whole career gone."
bat10 Oddly enough, "Only the Lonely" is not one of Roy Orbison's favorite Roy Orbison songs. The ones he picks are "Running Scared," "Crying" and "Oh, Pretty Woman," and behind each one there is a story.
" 'Ooby Dooby' had gone to No. 14, the next one hadn't charted and the third one didn't get released," Orbison remembers, "so my career was down in the dumper. Then 'Only the Lonely' sold two million, 'Blue Angel' a million and 'I'm Hurtin' ' about 300,000 and I thought, here we go again. But 'Running Scared' took me back to No. 1 and it was probably the best record technically that I ever made, as well as the first song I know that had the chorus at the end of the song -- verse, chorus and then out.
" 'Crying' was a complicated song and in 1961 a grown man certainly wasn't supposed to cry, not if he came from Texas, anyways. But I don't think anybody was supposed to cry or to write a song about crying over a girl you're in love with -- all the guys did but they sure wouldn't admit it. I don't know where that came from, but it was real to me at the time . . .
" 'Pretty Woman' is also complicated, and runs the gamut of emotions: Being cool, watching the girl go by, jiving, needing her, flattering her, getting desperate, leaving and finally getting together. Maybe it is one of the top 10 girl-watching songs of all time." Like many of Orbison's best songs, it came to him quickly. His wife was going shopping, and when Orbison asked her if she had enough money, she answered, "A pretty woman never needs any money." By the time she got back, the song was written.
All these songs were written "within 30 minutes," Orbison notes. "But it took a long time as a songwriter to get there.
"It's somewhat of a mystery to me, but it was an outpouring of what I thought was real," he explains, as if still trying to come to terms with his muse 25 years later. "Back then, I really didn't have any role models, so by the time I got to Monument, what I was writing was just as real as can be. Some of the ballads were personal experience, and that was back when things were hurting and all that . . . but I had to be over it and be in good shape to write those songs."
He managed to weather the British invasion, almost prospering while other American acts fell by the wayside. He also achieved stardom in England, the only American act to score No. 1 hits there in 1963 and 1964. In 1965, the hits stopped coming, though the audiences never did. But a year later, Orbison's world really started crumbling.
First Claudette died in a motorcycle accident. Orbison sought solace in his work and in his family, but a year later, two of his three sons died in a fire in his Nashville home. Devastated, he tumbled even deeper into work, and while he kept a home in Nashville, he would not tour in the United States for almost 11 years.
"I didn't know that much about anything at the time," Orbison reflects. "I was still quite young and any time you're successful I think you spent most of your time at what you're doing. I jumped into the work and that helped, that and time and a lot of good friends and friends' advice."
That work, with Orbison backed by a British band, would take him around the world, so much work that when he came back to the States, "I figured I should sit around and rest a little, I'd done my touring. You get caught up in something like that and you lose your perspective, you keep going and going until you nearly drop and then all of a sudden years have gone by. It's very strange."
The healing process was slow. In 1969, Orbison married a German woman; his family now includes Wesley, 21, from his first marriage; Roy Jr., 16; and Alexandria, 12.
The American tours started again in 1977, spurred on in part by Linda Ronstadt's remake of "Blue Bayou" and Don McLean's "Crying" (both were top five hits). In 1980, Orbison won his first Grammy (in the country category) for a duet with Emmylou Harris on "That Loving You Feeling Again."
The success of "Class of '55" (which is selling well despite mixed reviews, and will get a further boost from a Dick Clark special shot during the reunion in Memphis) has led Orbison to look for a manager and record deal; he's begun writing again, collaborating with J.D. Souther, Jeff Lynne of ELO, Will Jennings and Rodney Crowell ("We're all from Texas, except Jeff"). Not that he hasn't had offers in recent years -- he's just shown little inclination to rush into any situation.
"I've tried my best never to think commercial," he says, "but just to do good work and be fairly honest with it. I don't think I can choose what's commercial anyway, that's left up to the people who buy the records. I've just never settled in to take the money and run."
Having gone through a triple bypass heart operation a few years back, Orbison last year embarked on a health-food diet, with a trainer. He admits to sneaking a cigarette or two when he's on the road, but says, "So far I'm up to every task that's come along, so maybe I can hang in there a little longer."