Roy Orbison was known for his black shades, an operatic voice and powerful ballads, but to Alex Orbison he was "Dad." Now, there's an album from the legendary singer's career that Alex and his brothers are releasing for the first time.
“One of the Lonely Ones” was recorded in 1969 in the wake of the death of two other of Orbison's sons in a tragic fire, but it hasn't been heard by many people until now.
Alex Orbison joins John Horn to discuss the joy of reviving his father's lost music.
"One Of The Lonely Ones" was recorded in 1969, but was never released. What happened to it?
To understand Rob Orbison's life in 1969, you need to back up just a little bit to 1968. Things seemed to be looking up for my dad. He was touring the U.K. and he met a young girl named Barbara, who would become Barbara Orbison, who was my mom. Tragedy struck in September 1968 and burned down our family and killed my two oldest brothers. His life grounded to a halt and he didn't do anything until the first of 1969.
So the "One Of The Lonely Ones" sessions started in January and they went hot and heavy until March. The MGM record deal called for three records a year and they had three records that year. So "One Of The Lonely Ones" got pushed out of the schedule.
You can hear the heartbreak in his voice on this album, particularly on the title track. How much of the album was informed by the loss of his two children?
As much as he needed to get through it, I think. The title track, "One Of The Lonely Ones," is directly addressing the situation. What he said is that songs are little gifts that come, and you know they are gifts because if you sit down to write one and nothing comes, then it makes you grateful for the ones that did. So he said that in order to get on to the next ones, you had to validate the one that was on hand.
So I know "One Of The Lonely Ones" was one of the first ones out of the gate that he had written. I think it had enabled him to get further and get a grasp on his situation. Some of the album has classic songs like "Sweet Memories" and "Leaving Makes The Rain Come Down" that are wonderful love songs. There's some specific 1969-like songs. One is called "Laurie" that my dad wrote, and another one called "Child Woman, Woman Child" that has a huge guitar riff not unlike "Oh, Pretty Woman."
I think they were trying to stay relevant and stay focused on being exactly in 1969 while getting over the hurdle of just getting movement again, from grinding to a halt.
When you're hearing an album like this, it's almost like a postcard from the grave. You're hearing the heartbreak, the joy, the musicality. What is it like for you, as his son, to revisit this music? Do you get to revisit the man in a way?
Yes I do. You know, we weren't too reminiscent about every specific thing. I would say Roy Orbison lived his life through the windshield and not the rearview mirror. This has been a window into a time that I didn't realize how much was going on and how hard he was working to try to get back on track. One thing that defines Roy Orbison is being different from one record and sound to the next. My dad as a man, is definitely ... you know, your dad is just dad until you become a man.
You're a musician yourself. How much did you share music together and did he influence you by teaching you how to play? What was your relationship like as musicians?
My dad wouldn't push anything on us, or anyone in general, but once you gain steam in a direction he would support you. So when I wanted to play drums, I had to beg for them for two years. On Christmas I got them and he let me play just before New Years. So I had about four or five days where I played and he said, "Oh, you want me to show you some stuff?" And I thought, What is this guy gonna show me? He plays harmonica and guitar.
He sat down and he just played the most beautiful press roll, and if you know anything about drumming, to play a drum roll is one thing, but to play a press roll is just this open natural thing. [And] here's Roy Orbison doing the best press roll I've ever seen. So he really showed me my first tricks. And right before he passed away [from a heart attack in 1988], he would sneak over to where I played the drums on the garage side of the house, and one day I was playing this beat that I was working on and I opened the door and my dad fell in.
I said, "You can't sit there." I'm all embarrassed. He said, "You can really play," and that was one of my fondest memories. He was really proud of whatever I was doing.
Is there a specific track on this album that you find yourself connected to more than any of the other tracks?
Yeah, it's called "I Will Always," and it feels like it's directed at my mom. This song was completely lost since it was recorded. We listened to the source tapes, and so you have these other songs, and my dad is playing through the songs seven times and the band isn't gelling properly. They take a break and you hear this harp and violin. It's the most beautiful sound, totally different than anything we've ever heard.
I said, "What is this?" And [recording engineer] Chuck Turner says, "I don't know, brother, but it is beautiful."
Roy Orbison's “One of the Lonely Ones” is now available.