ON DECEMBER 6, 1988, JUST AS HIS MYSTERY Girl CD was about to hit stores, 52-year-old Roy Orbison died suddenly of a heart attack at his mother’s home outside Nashville. Orbison—whose entire career had been a series of giddy highs, devastating lows, and hard-fought comebacks—wound up selling two million copies of the album in America alone.
Nobody knew it at the time, but the show of interest in the life and work of the West Texas balladeer was a sign of things to come. Today, a full decade after Orbison’s death, business is better than ever. There have already been, of course, a stream of posthumous releases: the CD and video of Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, which captured Orbison onstage in 1987 backed by Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and other admirers (and won him a 1990 Grammy for best pop vocal performance by a male for “Oh, Pretty Woman”); 1992’s King of Hearts; and the 1993 hit single “I Drove All Night.” But fueled by a 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys, this year’s activity and next year’s plans threaten to dwarf all that. Ranging from the dubious (a Legendary Voices CD with tracks equally split between Orbison and Patsy Cline) to the divine (live takes of songs he never cut in the studio), the newly available product from what might be called Roy, Inc., includes several number one country hits penned by writers from Orbison’s publishing company, Still Working Music; Orbison and Orbison-related CDs on the Orbison and Orby labels, respectively; concert and documentary videos; and a coffee-table book. Impressive stuff—just don’t call it a tenth-anniversary blitz. “He never sold out,” says Orbison’s widow, Barbara, who still runs his business affairs, “so I have always tried to shy away from such things as a matter of integrity.”
A product of the Texas oil fields, Orbison was born in Vernon and raised mostly in Wink (which holds an annual weekend festival named for him), attended North Texas State University in Denton, and hosted a teen-oriented TV show in Midland. After a brief fling with rockabilly (his first hit was 1956’s “Ooby Dooby”), the moody singer found his true voice in 1960, when he began writing and recording pop ballads in a soaring three-octave voice as stark yet as vast as the plains, with dramatic arrangements to match. For the first half of the sixties, with hits like “Only the Lonely,” “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Dream Baby” and “It’s Over,” Orbison—the perennial outsider—rewrote the book on adolescent fear, fantasy, and apocalypse.
He and Barbara, the teenage daughter of wealthy German parents, met in a disco in Leeds, England, in 1968, two years after his wife, Claudette, died in a motorcycle wreck and three months before two of his sons (Roy Duane and Tony) were killed in a Nashville house fire. Within six months the 32-year-old singer and the 18-year-old pre-med student were married. They had two boys of their own (Roy Kelton, Jr., now 27, and Alex Orbie-Lee, now 22) and raised a third son (Wesley, now 33) from his first marriage.
Though his songs were periodically revived by other stars (including Linda Ronstadt, whose 1977 “Blue Bayou” was a smash), Orbison’s own career seemed dead in America and only marginally better overseas. Then, in 1985, working out of Malibu, with Barbara serving as his manager, he made one more push. The next year, director David Lynch featured Orbison’s “In Dreams” in the cult film Blue Velvet, and suddenly he was everywhere. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1988 he joined Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty to form the Traveling Wilburys. When he died, the supergroup’s “Handle With Care” was moving into the middle of the singles charts; six weeks later, his own single “You Got It,” off Mystery Girl, began climbing toward the top ten. “It was overwhelming,” Barbara recalls. “When you lose somebody, it’s so personal that you just want to push out the world. And when you lose somebody who’s well known, the world wants to come in.”
Barbara spent much of 1990 organizing a benefit memorial concert that established a residence in Los Angeles for 27 mentally handicapped homeless people working in the outside world. A few years later, after a run of bad luck—the Malibu fires of 1993 consumed her home and the L.A. earthquakes of 1994 leveled her Santa Monica offices—she moved back to Nashville, where she bought and rebuilt a six-story warehouse just off Music Row. It is there, on the top two floors that house the twenty-person staff of her umbrella company, Barbara Orbison Productions, that the business of Roy Orbison is conducted today.
Much of the income comes from Still Working Music, whose writers have penned number one country hits for George Strait, Reba McEntire, and Ronnie Brooks. Barbara has also formed two record labels. Orby has released Celtic Passion: The Songs of Roy Orbison and Celtic Christmas, two instrumental CDs arranged as traditional Irish music, and early next year will issue Ruby Red, the debut CD of Nashville’s Ryan Murphey, son of former cosmic cowboy Michael Martin Murphey. The second label, Orbison, has issued a CD-video set of Roy’s Combo Concert/1965 Holland, a performance on a Dutch TV show. The tenth anniversary will be acknowledged later this year with a Christmas gift box including the Black and White Night CD and video, a greatest hits CD, and a pair of the trademark Orbison sunglasses. Next year a six-CD box set of material originally conceived as a tenth-anniversary salute will be released, and more CDs are planned. (CDs of Orbison’s music move more than a million copies in America each year.)
Because broadcasts of A Black and White Night bring many donations to public television fundraising drives, a video of Austin City Limits clips and other documentary footage under the working title The Life and Times of Roy Orbison is being prepared for PBS—exclusively, at first, though it will eventually come out on both CD and video and may air on the A&E cable network. Barbara also wants to bring to Broadway Only the Lonely, an Orbison musical currently touring England. And then there are the book projects. Back in 1995, Barbara authorized an Orbison biography by British writer Ray Coleman, who died before he could begin. She also began an as-told-to with Chet Flippo, Billboard magazine’s Nashville bureau chief, but stopped cooperating shortly before it was finished. “I just needed to keep Roy to myself a little longer,” she says.
Flippo’s text may be incorporated into the coffee-table book now being shopped to New York publishers. Barbara has already gathered historical photos from the West Texas oil fields as well as previously unseen shots from European photographers and the Orbison family scrapbooks. “It won’t be just another pretty photo book,” she promises. “It will tell the story of his relationship to Texas, to Europe, to country music, to pop music.”
Clearly, that relationship is growing—even today.