Roy Orbison Goin’ back – early days

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Apr 2013 Roy Orbison Goin’ back – early days
This month’s mindless meanderings look back at somebody who would definitely define the word unique, the ‘Big O’, Roy Kelton Orbison.

Roy was responsible for some of the most dramatic and emotional songs in pop music, some of which sadly reflect some of the tragedy that plagued his life.

However, we’ll look back at a pretty different Big ‘O’ from the big dramatic ballad singer we’re all familiar with to when he was a young hot-shot rockabilly cat. Born in Vernon, Texas, the son of Orbie Lee and Nadine. Due to the great depression the family moved to Fort Worth and then to the small somewhat desolate West Texas town with the delightful name of Wink. According to Roy, the town’s main attributes were: “Football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand”.

Receiving a guitar for his sixth birthday from his Dad, by seven Roy was totally hooked on music and saw it in some way as his future. His early heroes were country stars of the day, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb who was the first performer he’d seen in person.

As a teenager, he got together with some school pals and formed a hillbilly band, calling themselves The Wink Westerners. The band played country songs and pop songs of the day around the local Wink honky tonks and cafes.

They were eventually given their own radio show on KERB over in nearby Kermit and, when the band was offered $400 for a gig, Roy realized he could possibly make a living out of music.

From High School Roy went to North Texas College to study geology as part of his back-up plan if a career in music didn’t pan out. One of Roy’s college friends was Pat Boone, and when he saw Pat get a record deal, this gave Roy even more resolve to make music his career.

roy3Roy was now exposed to the emerging rock’n’roll sounds and, with some members of the Wink Westerners, he reformed the band into a rockabilly unit, naming them The Teen Kings.

They became a popular combo around Wink and the surrounding areas, playing some of the rockin’ songs of the day. Roy was now living in the oil capital of Texas, Odessa, and, on a trip to Dallas, Roy experienced the spectacle that was the young ‘hillbilly cat’, Elvis, who was only a year older than Roy. Like many other aspiring young musicians, this gave him more inspiration, and with the transition to rockabilly, Roy to start writing songs of his own.

At the time Roy was quite a different performer in both sound and looks. His voice was less dramatic, and more up-front while without his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, he did, in fact, look quite geeky.

The Teen Kings, now comprising Roy, Jack Kennelly, Billy Pat Ellis and James Morrow enjoyed some further local exposure by way of local TV. On one TV show in Midland at KMID, the band met Sun Records’ star Johnny Cash who invited them to a concert at Midland High School on October 12, 1955. On the show was a package of Cash, Elvis Presley, Wanda Jackson, Floyd Cramer, Porter Wagoner, Bobby Lord and Jimmy C. Newman.

After the concert, Cash introduced Roy to Elvis. They tried to persuade Sam Phillips of Sun Records to give Roy a contract. When he made a follow-up call to Phillips, Phillips made it clear that no-one, not even Johnny Cash, was going to dictate who did and did not get an audition on his record label, saying that “Johnny Cash doesn’t own Sun Records”.

However, the band did get an opportunity to record thanks to the parents of Jean Oliver who frequently got up and sang with the band. They financed a session at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico on March 4, 1956, where they cut Trying To Get To You (written by Rose Marie McCoy and Charles Singleton) and Ooby Dooby (written by Roy with Wade Moor and Dick Penner). The results were pretty loose but impressive and were issued on March 19 on the small Odessa label, Je-wel.

Just how Roy and the band sounded back in 1956 can be heard on the excellent Roller Coaster CD, The Teen Kings, Are You Ready? (RCCD 3012). Taken from a 1956 TV broadcast in Odessa, they perform mainly rockabilly hits of the day, plus one or two early self-written pieces. It also includes the band talking about how they got together and some of their experiences on the road. Indeed it’s a superb time-piece and a chance to hear the embryonic talent of Roy as well as one of the hottest West Texas combos of the time.

On the day of the release of the Je-wel single, Roy took a copy along to Odessa record store owner and promoter Cecil ‘Pop’ Holifield. Upon hearing the disc, he called Sam Phillips and played the record over the phone, telling Sam it was ‘selling big’. Pop also told Phillips that he would regret not recording the young singer, and in doing so, managed to persuade Sam into auditioning The Teen Kings.

A few days later, the band arrived at Union Avenue, Memphis outside the Sun Studio, on Monday March 26, 1956. Roy admitted to Phillips that he was actually under-age when he made the recordings for Je-wel and had signed without his parent’s consent. In view of this, Phillips got Roy to sign with Sun with his Dad Orbie co-signing. The shrewd Phillips also took an roy2injunction out to stop Je-wel from selling any more copies of their record, despite 5,000 copies being pressed with Norman Petty’s help.

With Sun, Roy recorded a total of 28 songs, both original and from other writers that have now become rockabilly classics. These include Domino, You’re My Baby, Rockhouse, Go,Go,Go (Down The Line), Mean Little Mama, Chicken Hearted, and Claudette. The latter title would of course give Roy his foot-in-the-door into Nashville when the Everly Brothers cut their version.

By May 1956 The Teen Kings had their first hits on the Sun label, with the back-to-back coupling of  “Ooby Dooby” and “Go Go Go”. Returning to the Je-wel single, it was manufactured in Phoenix, Arizona and issued on both 78 and 45 rpm with at least three label variations: the first pressing mis-spells Roy’s surname “Oribson” and many copies credit “Trying To Get You” instead of “Trying To Get To You. Now considered one of the world’s rarest and highly collectable items, it’s valued at in excess of £3,000!

A good friend of mine actually has a copy of this extremely rare item and I guess it will serve as his retirement fund, Any offers?

John Firminger

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