I’ve always found it astonishing how late in the game that Roy Orbison finally found fame on the rock n’ roll map. Despite working out of Sun Records throughout the late 1950’s, where he was basically a contemporary of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Roy was deeply undervalued by Sam Phillips and his producer, despite gaining the respect of Memphis’ music makers. Primarily used as a session player, many of the songs Orbison wrote, many which he’d later record himself and have hits with, were passed over time and time again. But, while he could sing a great rockabilly song, Orbison didn’t feel comfortable doing it and his real magic came out as a balladeer, which just wasn’t what Sun Records was selling. Roy was even told by one producer that if he wanted to be a balladeer, he’d never make it as a musician. Signed by Sun in 1958, they only released a hand full of singles by Roy Orbison, but after barely promoting them, allowed Roy’s career to flounder.
So, after years of struggle, Roy left Sun Records for Monument Records and released his first full lp, ‘”Lonely and Blue,” in early 1961. Now to put this in perspective, by this point the first wave of rock n’ roll was finished, and rockabilly was no longer in fashion. Roy Orbison, barely out of the door, already sounded like a throwback. But with the pop charts filled with wobbly voiced teen pop idols whose looks were better than their delivery, Roy’s music had an emotional depth which had rarely been heard in pop music up to that point, which struck a very strong emotional chord with the audience. With his distinctive falsetto, and singing lyrics fringed with dark and tragic vulnerability in an era where men didn’t show emotions, Roy Orbison’s music cut through the soul like a knife out of the darkness. He didn’t sound like anything that was on the radio in 1961, making him the best that there was during that strange time where rock n’ roll was struggling between Elvis’ entrance into the military, and the British Invasion.
But who is this fella on the cover of “Lonely and Blue”? That doesn’t look like the Roy Orbison the world would get it know. It’s a rare glimpse of Roy Orbison before he even had a public persona. When Roy went over to Monument Records, he wasn’t concerned with creating an image as much as making music, and he did not develop any sort of stage presence or public persona. So, this early image of Roy Orbison is really what the man looked like in 1961. It’s an odd image to us because we can barely recognize him.
Immediately after the release of “Lonely and Blue,” Roy’s picture disappeared from the covers of his next number of releases. Apparently somebody, in his infinite wisdom, said that Roy Orbison was “too ugly” to put on an album cover. What I think this meant was that he was not as pretty as Elvis Presley or Bobby Vee or Fabian, but for the next few albums if there was a photo of Roy on the album at all, it was a small one regulated to the back cover. But while the company didn’t want to promote his image, Roy’s sound was connecting with record buyers and soon Roy was one of the biggest selling artists in the world. Elvis Presley was quoted as saying Roy Orbison was his favorite singer, and he was inspiring aspiring musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Tpm Waits and Neil Young to start writing songs.
So if it wasn’t there from the beginning, where did Roy Orbison’s distinct look – all dressed in black and, most importantly, having his eyes hidden behind those trademark dark glasses, come from? Well, it was a complete fluke, but one that would change his entire persona, establishing the way that audiences would think of him forever and making him one of the most recognizable musicians in the history of rock n’ roll..
This story has gone on record many times by many different sources. In 1962 Roy Orbison was off to England for his first tour out of North America where he had a supporting band opening of him which nobody in America had ever heard of – a little group called The Beatles. Can you just imagine The Beatles opening for you? Well it happened. Years later Ringo Starr would be quoted as saying that Roy Orbison was the only artist the Beatles was intimidated to follow. Roy Orbison would remain friends with the members of the Beatles and, many years later, would become a member of George Harrison and Jeff Lynn’s supergroup The Travelling Willburys.
Now Roy Orbison needed prescription eyeglasses to see, and was pretty blind without them (man, I can relate to that), and upon arriving at the London airport, he put on his brand-new pair of prescription sun glasses when getting off the airplane. Well, the photographers waiting for the visiting US music star to emerge started snapping photos of him with the sunglasses on, and that’s the first image that the London press had of Roy Orbison. Remember, Monument Records wasn’t distributing photos of Roy, so while they knew what his voice sounded like, the European market had no idea what he looked like.
Well, as chance would have it, Roy forgot his regular prescription glasses on the airplane, and they were now long gone. Now he was stuck on the entire tour with nothing but these sunglasses, so he started wearing them everywhere he went – to interviews, restaurants, parties and on stage. More press photos are being taken which is now being picked up by a larger press base throughout Europe, and people are starting to talk about his dark glasses. As far as they were concerned, this is what Roy Orbison wore all the time. He was wearing them to be practical, but the public was wondering if he was trying to make some sort of artistic statement. Was the opaque darkness of the glasses a reflection of the dark and sad sound of his songs? Not really, but it was working for him.
But what Roy found was that he actually liked the way that the dark glasses worked for him when he was performing. Said to be having a shy nature, and also being prone to stage fright, Roy found a sort of shield that protected him from the audience was created by the sunglasses, which put him into his own individual world allowing him to be a better performer. Standing perfectly still without the audience being able to see his eyes, Roy could hide within himself on stage, giving him a moodier and more mysterious persona, which matched his music perfectly. It worked for him, and the European fans ate it up.
So, when Roy got back to the US after what was one of the most successful tours of his career, he kept the dark glasses and the legendary Roy Orbison we know was born. Also, Roy started getting his picture back on the album covers by 1963, although in Buddy Holly type glasses. He wouldn’t be photographed in sunglasses for a cover until 1965’s “There Is Only One Roy Orbison.” But by then, it didn’t matter. Glasses or no glasses, Roy Orbison would forever be certifiably cool.