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Lost Roy Orbison Album Revisits a Tragic Time in His Past

Roy Orbison used music as his refuge.
Image courtesy Roy's Boys, LLC
Roy Orbison used music as his refuge.

From Texas Standard: In West Texas, it’s not just the landscape that's long and lonely – the days and nights are too.The late musician Roy Orbison once described his youth in Wink, Texas, as football, oil fields, grease and sand. At night, when the sky would light up like Christmas, Roy would grab his guitar, sit in in the family car, and sing. It was a way to fill all that empty space, he once said. The car wasn't big enough to contain the voice of a man who would one day become known the world over as the “Caruso of rock.”


The early rock impresario Sam Phillips of Sun Records once told Orbison he'd never make it. Kids don't wanna hear those slow songs. Phillips was wrong, twice over. Not only was Orbison's range much greater than Phillips imagined, he would be inspired to write a song so remarkable it would knock the Beatles from the number one spot. According to Roy's son, Alex Orbison, it was a song he wrote for his young wife.

"She said that she was gonna go into town and my dad asked, 'Do you need any money?'” Alex says. “And my dad's co-writer, Bill Dees, said, 'A pretty woman like that doesn't need any money.'"

With hits came the good life. Orbison once said Elvis introduced him to motorcycles. Roy and his wife Claudette would often go riding in the hills not far from Nashville. On June 6, 1966, while riding home from Bristol a truck pulled out in front of Claudette's bike and she died instantly. It would be the start of a long period of tragedy for Orbison. He threw himself into new projects like films and music but couldn't shake the darkness.

"He met my mom in summer of 1968, and things – just when they started looking good in the Orbison story – the next tragedy hits,” Alex Orbison says. “September of 1968, the family home burned down, killing my two oldest brothers and everything when on halt."

The death of his sons shook Orbison to his core. He disappeared from the spotlight, from public life, just as popular music was changing. Orbison had left the stage, but what many don’t realize is that the music never left Orbison.

In January 1969, Orbison went into studio again to record an album of songs that spoke to what he was going through – an album never before heard by the public until now. It’s an album which fills in a missing chapter of the Orbison story.

As Alex Orbison explains, the sessions served as a kind of catharsis for Orbison and the studio was a kind of refuge.

"It just created even structure and a place to go during the day just to have to have an excuse to brush your teeth and shower to get out of the house,” Alex Orbison says. “My dad started performing at the age of 7. Has his own radio show by the time he was 8. It was one of the things that was in his toolkit. It was his answer for many problems."

Listen to the whole interview with Alex Orbison in the audio player above.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

David D. Brown is executive producer and host of the award-winning cultural journalism program Texas Music Matters at NPR affiliate KUT-FM in Austin. He is former anchor of the award-winning public radio business program Marketplace, and a veteran public radio journalist. He has reported national and international affairs for Monitor Radio from bases in Atlanta, Boston, London, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
David Brown
David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.