Throughout his career, rock’n’roll pioneer Roy Orbison remained a figure of mystery. In many ways he was the exact opposite of his peers. Unlike such dynamic performers and personalities as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, Orbison was a shy and private man, known for standing stock-still on stage, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, while totally mesmerizing audiences with his powerful voice. A new illustrated biography, The Authorized Roy Orbison, by the icon’s sons, Roy Jr., Wesley, and Alex Orbison, along with writer Jeff Slate, provides a peek behind the shades.
Published as a tie-in with the anniversary DVD re-release of the 1987 concert film Roy Orbison: A Black and White Night, the book opens with an extended prologue detailing the making of the film and the important role it played in Orbison’s return to the charts just months before his death from a heart attack in December 1988. The book then plunges into a straightforward chronicle of Orbison’s life. Like many rock pioneers, he grew up in relative poverty, fascinated and enthralled by music.
The book recounts Orbison’s first success for the renowned Sun Records in Memphis and the subsequent frustration of failing to follow up on his first hit. A move to Monument Records in 1960 catapulted him to superstardom through a series of revolutionary recordings. Orbison faced his greatest personal challenges after his first wife died in a motorcycle accident in June 1966 and two of his sons died in a house fire two years later. Despite these tragedies, Orbison persevered and re-built both his personal life and musical career over the next two decades.
The narrative follows a simple, chronological timeline energized throughout by personal details and anecdotes. Orbison’s sons recount an incident from the mid-1980s when British rock star and producer Jeff Lynne visited Orbison’s lakeside home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, to discuss recording an album with him. While Lynne waited for Orbison, the boys continued their teenage horseplay, eventually nailing the visiting producer with wet paper towels in the crossfire: “Dad sure wasn’t pleased, but Jeff took it in stride, and after we made our apologies, everything went back to normal and Dad and Jeff disappeared to talk shop.” Such moments give The Authorized Roy Orbison a distinctly personal cast, elevating what might have been a routine illustrated biography—generous with photos but lacking narrative detail—into a unique portrait of Orbison’s life.
The book also provides a lush visual compendium of Orbison’s life, including more than 300 intimate photos, many never previously published. In addition to studio, concert, and family photos, the book includes sumptuous images of a range of memorabilia from Orbison’s career: newspaper and magazine clippings, sheet music, personal drawings, album covers from around the world, and many vintage concert posters.
Although The Authorized Roy Orbison is an obvious labor of love by Orbison’s sons, it also displays some of the missteps associated with authorized biographies. Orbison lived a relatively scandal-free life compared to many of his contemporaries, but he had failings. According to accounts in other Orbison biographies, for example, his first marriage was a story of bad choices, mutual infidelities, and, ultimately, forgiveness and love, but the book glosses over the story, perhaps out of a misplaced belief that such “gossipy” details might tarnish Orbison’s reputation rather than serving to paint a more complete and satisfying picture of him as a person. The book also spends little time discussing Orbison’s strengths as a songwriter and the successful writing partnerships he built with Bill Dees and later Joe Melson—two men who made vital contributions to Orbison’s career. Also given short shrift is Orbison’s mastery in the studio and the way Nashville musicians played an essential role in creating his singular sound.
But despite such omissions, The Authorized Roy Orbison is a well-written book delivering a heartfelt chronicle of Orbison’s life. It’s a worthy addition to any well-stocked music library and a treasure trove of photography and images for Orbison’s devoted fans.
Randy Fox is a freelance writer whose writing on music and pop culture has appeared in Vintage Rock, Record Collector, The East Nashvillian, Nashville Scene, Jack Kirby Collector, Hardboiled, and many other publications. He lives in Nashville.