Saturday, June 1, 2024

Behind the Shades: A Few Memorable Roy Orbison Anecdotes

This past weekend there was a Roy Orbison tribute at the Greysolon Ballroom here in Duluth. Unfortunately the show coincided with one of our Dylan Fest events, but thinking about it brought to mind a few anecdotes that I was aware of from the life of Roy Orbison.

A lot of people don't realize what a big deal Orbison was in his day. Maybe a few of these vignettes will give you a little perspective.

The first is a story about Bruce Springsteen. When Springsteen was first starting out he was doing a tour with Orbison. This was before the advent of decked out buses and all that have become commonplace today. Springsteen was in the back of a semi for 15 hours with Roy during which time Orbison shared with Springsteen insights about telling stories in song. Springsteen fans will readily recognize how his songs are stories. Credit belongs, in part, to this 15 hour ride in the back of a semi.

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As "In Dreams" was released in April 1963, Orbison was asked to replace Duane Eddy on a tour of the UK in top billing with the Beatles. When he arrived in Britain, however, he realized he was no longer the main draw. He had never heard of the Beatles, and annoyed, asked rhetorically, "What's a Beatle, anyway?" to which John Lennon replied, after tapping his shoulder, "I am."

On the opening night, Orbison opted to go onstage first, although he was the more established act. The Beatles stood dumbfounded backstage as Orbison simply played through 14 encores. Finally, when the audience began chanting "We want Roy!" again, Lennon and Paul McCartney physically held Orbison back. Ringo later said, "In Glasgow, we were all backstage listening to the tremendous applause he was getting. He was just standing there, not moving or anything." 

Through the tour, however, the two acts quickly learned to get along, a process made easier by the fact that the Beatles admired his work. Orbison felt a kinship with Lennon, but it was George Harrison with whom he would later form a strong friendship.

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The thing that most sticks with me are the tragedies he's endured. Orbison (like Dylan, Brad Pitt and many others) enjoyed a love of motorcycles. In June 1966 Orbison and his wife Claudette were riding home from Bristol, Tenn, when she struck the door of a pickup truck that pulled out in front of her. She was killed instantly.

In 1968, an ever greater tragedy struck. While on tour in Britain his home in Tennessee burned down and his two eldest sons were killed. It's hard to imagine what he must have gone through.

* * *

The payoff from his friendship with George Harrison came with the creation of the supergroup Traveling Wilburys featuring frontmen Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Orbison. You can read here the backstory on how this legendary coming together came about.

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"To Roy."

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