Roy Orbison – Crying (1962) and Roy Orbison – Mystery Girl (1989)

Few singers could sing a heart ache ballad like Roy Orbison, but few singers suffered as much personal loss as Orbison had during his lifetime, creating an authenticity to his morose sound.

No one in rock n’ roll has ever been able to sing a sad song like Roy Orbison.  With his unique voice, the unearthly falsettos and the hint of morose emotions, Roy wrote and sang heart break ballads like no one else.  “Crying,” “Running Scared,” “It’s Over,” “Only the Lonely,” “I’m Hurtin’” “Love Hurts,” “Leah” and “In Dreams” created not only a sound, but a mood, which defined Roy Orbison’s unique ability to deliver a ballad.  They presented a raw emotional devastation, but still managed to stand on their own without being pathetic or desperate.  Even his Christmas song, “Pretty Paper” (written by Willie Nelson) had a morose and painful sense of pain to it.  Sure, Roy had a whole batch of bangers, like “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Mean Woman Blues,” “Blue Angel,” and “Working for the Man,” but it was those haunting sad ballads that really stuck to the guts of the listener, and which made him a truly special artist.

So where did that sadness in Roy’s music come from?  The irony is that at the time that Roy Orbison recorded his most famous sad songs he was on top of the world.  One of the most revered artists in rock n’ roll he was a success on two continents, was selling millions of records worldwide, had The Beatles and the Rolling Stones opening for him, and even Elvis Presley was going around telling people that Roy Orbison was his favorite singer.  But if he was only mimicking a sense of pathos in his early recordings, in later years Roy Orbison would experience deeper emotional pain than most recorsding artists of his calibre ever experience.  It seems that when things were going good for Roy Orbison, disaster was around the corne.  But like most artists, Roy’s downfall was never financial or professional.  It always seemed to be deeper and more personal. 

Roy Orbison and Claudette Frady in Memphis during Roy’s Sun Records years.

From his earliest days at Sun Records, Roy’s constant companion was his young girlfriend, Claudette Frady.  The two met back in Texas when he was with The Teen Kings and were thought by most people to be exact opposites.  Claudette was glamorous and social while Roy was introverted and not conventionally good looking.  However, the pair got along well and when Roy made his move to Memphis and was signed to Sun Records in 1956 he wrote to Claudette and asked her to join him.  Although only 16 years old, she left home and she and Roy took residence in Sam Phillips’ house, although in separate bedrooms. 

Roy put all of his feelings for his girlfriend into a song, which would become the Everly Brother’s 1959 Billboard hit “Claudette.”  In the song Roy Orbison wrote:

“I got a brand-new baby and I feel so good
She loves me even better than I thought she would
I’m on my way to her house and I’m plumb out of breath
When I see her tonight, I’m gonna squeeze her to death.

Claudette, pretty little pet
Claudette, never make me fret, Claudette
She’s the sweetest little girl that I’ve ever met
Got the best love that I’ll ever get from Claudette
Pretty little pet Claudette.

Well, I’m a lucky man
My baby treats me right
She’s gonna let me hug and kiss and hold her tight
When the date is over and we’re at her front door
When she kisses me goodnight I’ll holler “More, more, more!”

Said to be outgoing and glamorous compared to the more introverted and quiet Roy Orbison, Claudette and Roy were married in 1957.

Claudette, pretty little pet, Claudette
Never make me fret, Claudette
She’s the greatest little…
Greatest little girl that I’ve ever met
Got the best love that I’ll ever get from Claudette
Oh, oh, Claudette
Yeah, yeah, Claudette.

When me and my new baby have a date or three
I’m gonna ask my baby if she’ll marry me
I’m gonna be so happy for the rest of my life
When my brand-new baby is my brand-new wife

Claudette, pretty little pet, Claudette
Never make me fret, Claudette
She’s the greatest little girl that I’ve ever met
Get the best loving
That I’ll ever get from Claudette.

Roy Orbison’s young family consisted of wife Claudette and songs Roy Dewayne, Tony and Waune.

For the most part, the song played out like Roy said.  In 1957 Roy and Claudette got married.  Claudette was 17 and Roy was 20.  With Roy toiling at song writing and working as a session musician, the two settled into a small apartment and quickly began to build a family of their own.  First to arrive was Roy Dewayne and soon a second son, Tony, was born.  Later a third boy, Wayne, would join the family. 

After a few years of struggle, including a brief return to Texas, Roy finally broke out in 1961 with his debut hit “Only the Lonely.”  Quickly rising to the top of the charts, Roy was suddenly one of the biggest recording artists in the worldThis is the point where Roy’s life began to spin out of control, and, like Lot in the Bible, everything would begin to be taken away from him.

You see, Roy loved to be on tour, and he became addicted to the road.  After enduring the adoring crowds in his first European tour in 1963 he returned the next year and began to spend more and more time touring between North America and Europe and spending less and less time at home.  Meanwhile, he set Claudette and his sons up in Hendersonville, Tennessee where he began to construct a massive home for his family.

Roy and Claudette Orbison with oldest son Roy DeWayne with one of Roy’s many vehicles. A lover of cars and motorcycles, Roy would often follow the tour buses in his own vehicles.

But with Roy constantly on the road, life was lonely for Claudette.  Still in her early 20’s, Claudette found solace from her loneliness in the arms of the contractor that Roy hired to oversee the construction of their home.  Coming home from another tour of England, somehow Roy learnt of Claudette’s infidelity and immediately filed for divorce. 

However, despite the betrayal, Roy and Claudette decided to try again and soon reconciled, but this time things were to be different.  Roy moved his parents, Orbie and Nadine, into the now completed house to help raise the kids and he was bringing Claudette on the road with him.  For the next few years Roy and Claudette became inseparable again, although friends said that the spectre of their breakup always seemed to float above them.  But although they seemed committed to make it work, Roy and Claudette’s reconciliation would be short lived.

Beyond music and his family, one thing that Roy loved was motor vehicles.  Roy loved fancy cars and motorbikes and during his rise to fame he began to collect both.  During trips on the road, Roy would often follow the tour in his newest machine, and when Claudette joined him on the road, he bought a pair of motorbikes for the two of them to travel together on.

On June 6, 1965 Claudette was killed when a truck collided in the motorbike she was driving. She died in Roy Orbison’s arms before ambulances could arrive.

On June 6, 1966, during a motorbike trip to Gatlin, Tennessee, a truck pulling out of a side street collided with Claudette’s bike.  Claudette was thrown for her bike and was mortally wounded.  Roy ran to her side and held her as she died in his arms before medical professionals could arrive.

As Roy mourned the death of the love of his life, his song “It’s Too Soon to Know” would hit the top of the charts in England.  Having recorded the songs month early, the lyrics now seemed prophetic:

It’s too soon to know
If I can forget her
My heart’s been broken in too many pieces
And It’s too soon to know.

Time passes slow
Will I ever know
If I can forget her and not let it show
But it’s too soon to know.

News travels fast when a love affair ends
People keep asking what happened to them.

But it’s too soon to know
If I can forget her
My heart’s been broken in too many pieces
And It’s too soon to know.

My heart’s been broken in too many pieces
And It’s too soon to know.

Roy Orbison’s first and final film flop, “The Fastest Guitar Alive” was released in 1967.

Emotionally devastated and physically exhausted Roy found it difficult to write music after Claudette’s death and began to creatively shut down.  However, a relentless workaholic, he threw himself into his next project as a way to distract himself from his grief.  Unfortunately, his next project would be a massively misguided failure, and his first flop since hitting with “Only the Lonely.”  Hoping to match the success that they were having with Elvis Presley, MGM studios had signed Roy to a five-picture movie deal.  A massive film buff, this was an attractive idea to Roy, and his first film was to be a dramatic western.  But for some horrible reason the direction of the film was changed and it was turned into a western era spy spoof musical called “The Fastest Guitar Alive.”  Forlorn and grief stricken, Roy was not in the right emotional place to be doing a comedy, especially for his debut film.  To make matter worse, as talented as he was in so many ways, an actor Roy was not.  He had zero screen presence and little to no acting ability. Roy Orbison could be enigmatic, but he wasn’t charismatic.  Putting all of his emotional energy into the film didn’t pay off.  The film was a critical and commercial flop, and despite the five film contract, MGM abandoned the idea of doing and more films with Roy.

Roy continued to record, although is albums made up of songs written by other artists failed to chart.  But as was the folly of many hit makers of the early 1960’s, the radically changing sound that emerged by the midpoint of the decade paid its price on Roy.  As the British Invasion raged on and the psychedelic sounds of California began to dominate the charts, Roy’s sound was suddenly antiquated.  It seemed like the world was passing by Roy Orbison.

And then, if things couldn’t get any worse, another unthinkable tragedy occurred.

Roy Orbison with his sons Roy DeWayne, Tony and Wayne on their farm in Tennessee. On September 14, while Roy was touring England, Roy DeWayne and Tony would die in a fire that destroyed the Orbison home. Roy DeWayne was ten and Tony was 6.

On September 14, 1968, while playing a concert in Birmingham, England, Roy received word that disaster had hit his home back in Hendersonville, Tennessee.  A fire had broken out in that home he had built for his family and his two oldest sons, Roy and Tony, were killed in the blaze as the home burnt to the ground.  Apparently, his parents had left the house, taking Wesley with them, and had left Roy, who was 10, in charge of 6-year-old Tony.  Fire inspectors later reported that the blaze seemed to be started by an aerosol can which contained lacquer which had exploded.

With the death of Claudette still so fresh in his heart, the death of his sons and the destruction of his home completely crippled Roy, who stopped writing and recording and began spending more and more time away from home and leaving Wesley permanently in the care of his parents.  Meanwhile, he sold the property where the charmed remains of his home remained to pal Johnny Cash who planted an orchard on the grounds in tribute to Roy’s family.

In the 1970’s Roy had another chance at family life with second wife Barbara, and their two sons Roy Jr. and Alex.

The tragedies that Roy Orbison faced would have destroyed the strongest of men, but in the years that followed Roy proved himself to be dexterious and, in time, he rebuilt his life.  In 1969 he married his second wife Barbara Jakobs who he would remain with for the rest of his life.  Roy and Barbara also had two sons, Roy Jr. and Alex, and Roy had a second chance at raising a family.  With his star greatly faded during the 1970’s he was able to maintain stronger ties at home and put himself into a headspace where he could pay more attention to being a husband and father.  He continued to record through the 1970’s but never hit the charts and was considered to be one of the “old guard” of rock n’ roll.

One of the greatest supergroups in the history of rock n’ roll, The Traveling Willbury’s consisted of Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. An unlikely grouping, the group made music magic in the later part of the 1980’s.

However, the 1980’s would prove to be another story.  With artists such as Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, K.D. Lang, Tom Waits and, most signifiantly, Bruce Springsteen championing Roy as being major influences in their careers a new interest in his music began to emerge from music fans. Meanwhile, cult film director David Lynch used Roy’s haunting ballad “In Dreams,” originally released in 1963, in his film “Blue Velvet” which led to Lynch directing a moody new music video for the song which both captured Orbison’s mystery and gave him a video for the all important MTV audience for the first time. Shortly thereafter George Harrison inviting Roy to join his and Jeff Lynne’s supergroup The Travelling Willburuys in 1988.  With household names such as Tom Petty and Bob Dylan completing the group, many modern music fans were being exposed to Roy Orbison’s unique sound for the first time, and most importantly his haunting falsetto during the bridge of the Wilbury’s massive hit song “Handle with Care.”  Roy’s voice still packed a punch, and it seemed like the time was right for Roy Orbison to make his well deserved return to the mainstream.

Roy Orbison – Mystery Girl (1989)

This led to Roy going back into the studio where he recorded what would be the most ambitious project of his career, “Mystery Girl.”  Produced by Jeff Lynne, the album included tracks written especially for Roy by some of the biggest icons of the day such as Tom Petty, Bono and Elvis Costello.  Meanwhile one special song, titled “The Only One,” was written by Roy and Claudette’s surviving son, Wesley, who gifted it to his father for the album.  Recorded in November 1988, what made “Mystery Girl” so unique is that while the album had a modern sound, it didn’t try to reinvent or update Roy Orbison beyond the artist he always was.  The mood and the feeling of each song sounded like the recordings of Roy’s past, but each of them had a timeless appeal.  This was classic Roy Orbison, but updated for the modern era.  It was a collision of the old and the new, and the album was and set by Virgin  Records to be a major release for 1989.  Roy Orbison’s career was about to be reborn, but ironically he would never see the release of what would become one of his most successful albums ever.

During the recording of “Mystery Girl” Roy Orbison told Johnny Cash he was having chest pains. He died a month later at age 53, not seeing the release of what would become his most critically acclaimed album.

During the recording of “Mystery Girl,” Roy confided in Johnny Cash that he was having chest pains.  After a busy month of multiple concerts and appearances, both solo and with the Travelling Willbury’s, Roy died of a heart attack on December 6, 1988.  Although he seemed to be a figure from a different era, he was only 52 years old.  He was far to young to be gone and had far too much more music in him to be made. 

A month later “Mystery Girl” would be released and would become one of the biggest critical successes of his career.  Certainly the fact that the world had just lost such a beloved iconic performer which they had just rediscovered had something to do with the albums success, but the quality of the album was all there.  Two songs, “You Got It,” cowritten by and featuring Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, and “She’s a Mystery to Me,” written by Bono would become Roy’s first top ten Billboard hits since the 1960’s.  The album proved Roy had left us to early, but it sealed him in our hearts as being a true rock n’ roll legend.

Today Roy Orbison is more revered and respected than ever, and is regarded as not only certified cool, but one of the greatest rock n’ roll treasures of all time.  But when listening to the sad songs which he became so famous for, remember that that mournful sound came with a  price, and it was very real to Roy Orbison.  The sound of sadness in Roy Orbison’s voice is a real one, from a man who knew sadness like few other artists had ever experienced.  Roy Orbison’s sound is more authentic than it should have ever had been.

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