You probably already have a good idea who Roy Orbison Jr, is, just judging by his name alone. What you might not know is not only is he’s an accomplished musician/songwriter in his own right, he is also the co-president of Still Working Music.
Roy Jr, along with his brothers Wesley and Alex, play gigs as The Orbison Brothers. Their set includes their father’s music, keeping the spirit of the rock legend alive for a whole new generation of fans. They’ll be at NY Metro Beatle Fest this weekend, playing a show and chatting about their father’s connection to The Fab Four.
Roy Jr. has a bright and engaging personality. Our chat ran the gamut and, with the stories he has, it felt like it could have gone much longer.
REBEAT: What do you think draws you to preserving your father’s musical legacy?
ROY ORBISON JR: Well it’s a great honor, I’m a musician as well and I’m a fan, so coming at it from those three angles, it’s what I do anyway. So, it’s not really a question, it’s kind of who I am, it’s a matter of how public we are with that or how private. Left completely on my own, I listened to a lot of Roy Orbison and then every now and then he kind of spills into different projects and things that we want to do. His legacy is pretty well-preserved by itself and it stands alone pretty strongly. So I’m just along for the ride. It’s fun.
You play his songs live with your brothers, correct?
Oh yeah all three of us are musicians. Probably to hang out with our dad, we all went into music. Wesley is a great singer and songwriter and he’s he’s done a lot of work, and Alex is a great drummer, and I play guitar and write and have been in every part of the music business really from top to bottom. We were born with a lot of responsibility.
So what’s it like recreating your father’s music for a modern audience?
Oh well, they’ve been doing that since the Fifties. Roy Orbison has been surfing a wave of teenage girls since about 1954! The chord structures and the lyrics are so universal that it fits reggae or hard rock. You’ve got bands as different as Al Green and Glenn Danzig perform[ing] Roy Orbison music every night. I mean, right now, there’s five big acts that do “Pretty Woman.” Every night they’re on the road: that’s Bruce Springsteen, Chris Isaac, and Green Day does “Pretty Woman” in the medley that they do. And John Fogerty does “Pretty Woman” every night that he tours and Al Green and a couple of others, so I’m just one of many.
There’s so many Orbison impersonators. Every country nearly has one or two. Australia has a famous impersonator. Ireland/Sweden has one, Germany has one, Vegas has two, Canada has one. So ranging from Orbison impersonators all the way to the hologram that we have where Roy tours this year, there’s plenty of room, whether it’s music videos or documentaries or books. It expands so far beyond recreating the music, you see.
I think about life and I think like, oh wouldn’t it be easy if I was just a star’s kid trying to play my music and be heard. That’s actually created big artists like Jakob Dylan or Ziggy Marley. And most children kind of follow in one way or the other, they rebel or they find acting or modeling or something. So it’s an admirable thing, but that’s not been my life. I’ve been on kind of both sides of the camera for so many projects. We’re building a museum! When you’re Roy Orbison’s son you have to build museums, and you have to do plays and movies. We have the Pretty Woman play coming out soon. It’s the Garry Marshall movie done as a musical and the book that we did with Jeff Slate recently, The Authorized Roy Orbison, I did that with Alex and my brother Wesley.
So the question that you ask is so big… “What is it like to recreate Roy Orbison’s music?” Well, back to the first one-word answer it’s… fun. It’s easy.
Buddy Holly’s first album had two Roy Orbison songs and then Ricky Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis and just on through… So whether you recreate them directly, or you and any band: Van Halen, Don McLean, Linda Ronstadt! You know, all the way up through it’s just virtually anyone! America’s Got Talent’s first winner was a puppet a guy who was like a genius with puppets [Ed’s note – he’s talking about ventriloquist Terry Fator]. I’m sure he’s he’s made a 100 million dollars in Vegas with puppets and he won with “Crying.” He made the puppet sing “Cry-y-ing!” He won with that and David Hasselhoff and the others they voted that they would have said it was the best version of Roy Orbison! Carrie Underwood, very famously she won [American Idol] with the song “Crying.” I mean I’m surprised more people haven’t picked up on this! If you’ve had your one hit, if it’s Glen Campbell “Rhinestone Cowboy,” your next thing is “In Dreams,” you’ve got to have that second hit and you want a guaranteed thing! Just do a reggae version of “You Got It” or the country music version of “Only the Lonely” or any of these songs! Just pick any song, switch your style, a jazz version of “Blue Bayou” would be the top of the jazz charts right now.
Yeah, they’re such versatile songs.
Yeah! So you ask how it is and it’s like creating your own work of art. His stuff is so fundamental, the emotional aspect the songs lend themselves to virtually anything.
Do you have a favorite cover that someone has done?
That switches all the time. All these questions are so hard for me because it’s so personal! I love them but off the top of my head the Spanish version of “Crying” by Rebekah Del Rio. It’s from the David Lynch movie Mulholland Drive. That version in Spanish is just so good. Another favorite cover version just off the top of my head, “Love Me Do” by The Beatles [is a] cover of Orbison’s “Candy Man.” If you play music it’s kind of a one to the five, back and forth.
The Beatles… John Lennon and Paul McCartney were all geniuses. There were four geniuses there. But really that’s one that’s fun for songwriters to see… I like to see the prism of John Lennon’s mind on a single like “Day Tripper” when he rewrote “Pretty Woman.” And this almost is controversial, because you’re on holy ground here when you talk about the Beatles, but they said it themselves. John Lennon could tell you where he got it from. But, like all guys, they kind of hid where they were getting stuff but still the Beatles had their own genius and the prism of John Lennon’s mind… put “Pretty Woman” in and you get “Day Tripper” out a little bit fragmented, you’d say he quantized the notes, he jumbled them, rearranged them into a kind of a tongue twister and then moved it through the 145 and [sings a bit of the guitar line of “Day Tripper]. Really good music, it’s all a cover you know. That’s what U2 [taught] me, you know, “Every poet’s a thief,” and so was Roy Orbison.
My dad did a partial cover of “Help” after John Lennon died. So I’m thinking backwards here, Roy did some covers too, you know. My dad was the second person ever to do a Johnny Cash song. He wasn’t the first, a friend of ours Warren Smith did a song on Sun Records “Rock N Roll Ruby” but, Roy did a Johnny Cash song, “You’re My Baby.” So that’s considered a cover. Roy’s covers were very good as well. You know what you call covers now is a little different. While he didn’t write the song “Love Hurts,” that’s a Roy Orbison song. [It’s] Nazareth singing a Roy Orbison song. So, the covers of Roy Orbison songs, let’s say Rebeccah DelRio, let’s say Van Halen’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” And… I really like Miley Cyrus, she did “It’s Over,” I think. I actually dig what the kids are doing too, so Miley Cyrus, that was a nice cover.
We’re really excited to see you guys at Beatle Fest and I’m wondering what you guys have planned. What can look forward to this year?
Well we call ourselves the Orbison Brothers, we’re coming up to New Jersey to do the Beatles Fest there. There are some great acts and it’s a real honor. Millions of people would love to come do this and we get a chance to! We’re doing it with Jeff Slate, the fellow that we wrote the book with, who’s a great writer, songwriter and singer. Alex and I are going to join his band and play some relevant songs. There’s actually a lot of crossover, so we’re doing some Wilburys songs, including maybe some Tom Petty, and then some songs that Roy did with them. So there’s there’s a bit of crossover [in] the setlist, chosen by all of us, and we probably can’t go play anywhere without doing “Pretty Woman.”
A lot of people don’t know George Harrison’s playing guitar on “You Got It.” You know he’s, there. So, we’re going to do “You Got It,” “Pretty Woman” and some Wilburys, and that covers the first set. And then – we’re hanging around there and we’ll probably jump up on stage with anybody who wants us to. I believe we’ll be doing something with The Liverpoolians, the Beatles cover band from Liverpool, and I think we’re doing “California Blue,” which is a song from Roy’s Mystery Girl written by Roy and Tom Petty, and George Harrison plays on that one. So we’re really proud. You know there’s Roy Orbison songs that George Harrison was actively involved in and Roy was very, very proud of that Mystery Girl album that he got a Beatle on there!
Do you have any memories of Roy’s time with The Traveling Wilburys?
Oh yeah, I was there. I was one of the extra members. There’s always a fifth or sixth member of all these bands, but that one I was in on the ground level. I was the only one [of my brothers] hanging around with [Roy] during the Wilburys time. It was all very secretive and they didn’t tell their wives because they were managers and they didn’t tell the managers or wives or anyone, no record company. I was lucky to be the fly on the wall for the Wilburys. I remember lots and lots of things. Too much actually when it comes to the Beatles. You have to get a little more specific because I’ve got… I have connections [to all of them]… Some of my earliest memories are Paul McCartney.
My life goes in little chapters and I still see all of the Beatles, but in the beginning, it was Paul McCartney and then it crossed over into John Lennon. For whatever reason, Roy and John Lennon were very similar. They didn’t get enough time together, really. But suddenly, John Lennon was in our lives and then it was George during my teenage years. Suddenly, George was Roy’s best friend. And then after my dad’s death, Ringo Starr has been emotionally there for my family. You know his wife is Barbara and her sister Marjorie Bach and Marjorie is my mom’s best friend. My mom died six years ago, though. But, Marjorie Bach and [her husband] Joe Walsh are godparents to my baby boy Roy The Third and Bo. I just had a baby boy!
So that means we’ve had Christmases where it’s Joe Walsh and Marjorie and Ringo and Barbara and their extended families with Lucy Walsh and all the kids, from lots of different families and we all get together and have a big buffet. And Ringo has a lot of remembrances of Roy, at different times. So now Ringo is part of the family.
But [regarding] Traveling Wilburies, my specific memory was my contribution. My sideways contribution! We were driving to the valley, to one of their houses. I don’t know, Mike Campbell or Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics, and I was going into a big Monty Python phase and John Cleese was living next door. It was two houses away, but in the Malibu Colony, that is 30 feet. So he was over there and he taught me how to juggle, and I’m not sure what I taught him, I taught him something about boogie-boarding. So I was hanging out with John Cleese and going into a big John Cleese [phase]. He was filming Fish Called Wanda. He had rented two houses from us, and my dad and I were doing a lot of Monty Python.
My dad and George got along a lot because George actually funded the Life of Brian. So it was their own thing, it comes from George, but Roy fit in with that sense of humor. And Tom fit almost anywhere and he was happy to be around. But Roy fit in with Jeff [Lynne] and George and the Wilburys mentality. So we were listening to a tape, I think, [Ed’s Note, he’s thinking of 1980’s Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album] and Roy and I are driving to the scene listening to Eric Idle, who is also a friend now, singing a song where they were going through a list of sexual diseases and they just blow horns and it was like doing the censorship. It was the same type of song where they do special effects beats but they had, like, cows mooing and all this kind of stuff. [Ed’s note, Roy Jr. is conflating two very funny Monty Python songs, “Medical Love Song” and “I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song On The Radio”]. And Roy went in there with that – I waited in the car the whole day – and Roy comes out and we’re back playing the cassette. And they tagged that [censorship joke] onto “Dirty World.”
So that’s an idea I put in my dad’s brain. I claim a little bit of credit for that because it was my cassette and what I wanted to listen to, driving Roy on the way. Roy must have started doing that and they ended up throwing it in, from a Monty Python sketch, over to “Dirty World.” That’s the kind of memories that I have. They are deep and ingrained with the music.
That’s a really amazing story. I’m actually a comedian and one of my emphases is where music and comedy intersect, so that’s very cool. A story right from the Willbury’s mouth, ya know?
Yeah! And it’s a good example of how lucky I’ve been that that covers a lot more. So I’m saying, if you wish it was just a simpler story but no, it’s a story of me and John Cleese juggling, Eric Idle and Michael Palin writing the liner notes. There’s lots of stuff like that.
[George wanted] to do a whole [Traveling Wilbrys] album and, and then do a whole album of videos. That was the next thought they were having exactly at that time, which Roy was very excited about, which did not get to happen.
I see online, I don’t know what people are talking about, but I see quite a lot of people on all the web sites, George’s and everybody’s, and when it’s the Wilburys, they go, “Oh, I saw them in New Jersey! I saw them at the pier in New Jersey!” What?
Did they think that they think they saw the Wilburys? I don’t know what they really saw, but George was really keen to go on tour. And Roy was excited about it, and the idea was that they would each come out and just two songs, their hit songs, and then they would come back together and do the entire Wilburys album in a row. That would have been a dream show: you’d have Bob Dylan doing “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Tambourine Man” and you’d have Roy doing “Pretty Woman” and probably at the time he would’ve done “You Got It.”
If they did two songs and the new ones, the idea was that these other characters were their alter egos. The idea was that they were actors, that Roy had started on Sun Records and that he was actually Lefty Wilbury, who pretended to be this other guy, “Roy Orbison,” for his whole career and came out and did his songs. They were going to break through, almost like, take the mask off of their actual egos.
But they had it reversed. Nobody seems to get that joke! They think it’s Tom Petty as “Charlie T. Junior,” when they were saying it’s Charlie T. Jr. as “Tom Petty.” They did that in the videos and some of the documentaries. But OK, I could talk obviously all day long just one little thing like that!
I wish we could! Before we go, is there anything else you want to convey to the fans at Beatle Fest before it starts?
I’m doing a 30 minute set on Sunday. It’s just me and I’m coming with an acoustic guitar and I’m going to do some songs that I already do, like “Oobie Doobie” and some Elvis and Buddy Holly stuff and Chuck Berry. Most of my stuff is oldies rock ‘n’ roll, like ’50s, but I’ve managed to find a way to relate that to the Beatles. I’ll be talking a little bit too about the book because when I do “Blue Suede Shoes” gotta talk about Carl Perkins, gotta talk about George loving Carl Perkins. And I’ll try to point out some of these different things; that “La Bamba” is “Twist and Shout” and I’ll probably do “La Bamba” and a Johnny Cash song. That was a hard one! I was like, “How can I relate Johnny Cash to the Beatles?” So I’ve managed to do a little talking.
I met Paul McCartney when I was very little, I was two or three, and my first kiss was Mary McCartney. I’m not going to talk about that, but I’m going to talk Beatles. I’m going to take everyone through. I do like two minutes of talking, and then I do a song, and then I talk about Elvis meeting the Beatles and then I do an Elvis song and then I talk a little bit, like I said, about the Beatles getting their name from Buddy Holly and then I do “Peggy Sue.” So I’m doing some rock ‘n’ roll oldies that relate to Roy Orbison and kind of, side angles. I’m not going to do any straight covers, although I love “My Sweet Lord” and I love “Give Peace a Chance.”
My final thing that I can tell you that I learned, was in their age and wisdom, they say “peace and love” all the time: “peace and love.” If you give Ringo 10 seconds for his birthday, he says “peace and love!” So guess what? I’ve started doing it and honestly all I have to do is say “peace and love” and “Beatles forever” to those Beatles fans. And I get why they say that, you know?
John Lennon wrote the song [“Give Peace a Chance”], the fact that Ringo takes this song that John Lennon wrote just shows such love between men, and in this tough world we live in, almost anything you say is going to be controversial, but peace and love is something we can all get behind. And it’s still a very important idea.