Roy Orbison once said, “people often ask me how would I like to be remembered and I answer that I would simply like to remembered.” If Orbison could look back these almost-30 years now after his death (on Dec. 6, 1988), he’d discover that he’s been more than simply “remembered.” As Roy Orbison Jr., once wrote: “There is only one Roy Orbison. And there are many. Blue-haired Rockabillys, Japanese leather rockers, All-American college girls whose favorite movie is ‘Pretty Woman,’ Elvis-lovers, country music fans … Ramones punk rockers … and good old-fashioned Roy Orbison diehards who have stood by him from the beginning. They all see a different Roy Orbison. They all see their own Roy Orbison.”
In their new book, The Authorized Roy Orbison (Center Street/Hachette), Orbison’s sons Roy Jr., Wesley, and Alex, along with writer Jeff Slate, finish the project that their father started and that their mother, Barbara, continued to work on after Orbison’s death. As Alex points out, “previous bios all seemed to be done with interviews from people based on their opinions of my dad’s life.” Orbison’s three sons offer the real story of their father and his life, drawing on existing paperwork, family photos, and Orbison’s own stories. Many of the family photos have never before been seen and provide an intimate glimpse into Orbison’s daily life. The photos alone are worth the price of admission, for they reveal Orbison in unguarded moments with his family or with his friends Elvis, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others. The Orbison boys tell entertaining stories about their father; at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of sadness mixed with love and that animates the book. The Authorized Roy Orbison offers an in-depth portrait of the great singer for his fans, but it’s also a great gift for anyone wanting an introduction to Orbison and his life and music.
In addition to the book, Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings, partnering with Orbison-owned Roy’s Boys, has released A Love So Beautiful: Roy Orbison with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
I chatted by phone recently with Alex Orbison about the book.
What are your father’s most memorable traits?
You know, he was very quiet in person, but the way he looked, he was very charismatic, and people were just drawn to him. My dad would suck all the air out of a room when he’d walk into it. He was also extremely funny; very witty and quick, and had a dry sense of humor. He had this ironic humor. He had his own up and downs in his life, but he was very light spirited. My dad also could identify with people easily. He could find common ground with anyone he talked to.
Why did you and your brothers decide to write the book?
My dad always wanted to write a book, but he loved touring and he was on the road all the time, so he was never able to complete a book. My mom wanted to tell his story, too, and correct some of the incorrect information out there on places like Wikipedia. We took our three stories and gave them to Jeff Slate, and he was the cauldron that stirred them together into this book. We couldn’t have done it, either, without Marcel Riesco. He had done all this research over the past ten years, and he had collected all these receipts, news clippings, and other memorabilia from our dad’s life. We were free to tell our own stories of our dad and not have to get bogged down in those kinds of details. With the book, we’re kind of rebuilding and putting the concrete in the holes that need to be filled.
Were there more stories you wanted to tell that you left out of this book?
There’s always more with Roy Orbison. (laughs) We’re working on a film about my dad. We have a script, and we’re talking to actors. I can say that three of the writers who worked on the film Stand By Me are involved, but the movie itself is maybe a year from being finished. We definitely have material for another book, though.
What was the hardest part of the book for you to write?
Staying centered in the middle of the story and not getting pulled off into the side stories. I wrote the chapter on what I call my dad’s wilderness years: In the mid-1970s he was still out playing to millions of people globally, but people in the US thought he had disappeared. I wanted to pipe up about these things. It was also hard to write about the tragedies that struck him—his first heart attack, Elvis’ death, his first wife’s death in a motorcycle accident. Elvis was such a fixture in our family; Roy and I started crying in the middle of the Elvis section. This sucks all the energy out of you; sometimes I’d just come home and sit in my recliner and listen to a book on tape or watch a video. It was really a blessing to have the Philharmonic project to work on. When things got too hard, I was able to step away and go to work on this other project. We were also looking through the archives for the documentary, and as hard as it was, sometimes it was a relief to work on that project, too, to get away from telling the hard stories.
What did your dad teach you about music and the music business, either directly or indirectly?
Well, my advice to my own son—though I don’t have a son to share this advice with now—will be different from my dad’s. He always told me that any time you’re gonna sign a contract or do a deal, act like you’re being arrested and call a lawyer. He taught me that a lot of times that first deal doesn’t work out; do the best you can in that first deal, knowing that it’s not likely going to last and that something better is coming along. I also learned from him that the show goes on, no matter how you’re feeling. If you’re not in the hospital, you need to be on stage, he’d say. He had a level of professionalism that was unparalled.