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Orbison Biography: Man Behind the Ray-Bans

The Beatles backstage with Roy Orbison, in sunglasses, and Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1963 in Britain. Illustrates BEATLES (category e), by Forrest Wickman (c) 2013, Slate. Moved Thursday, May 23, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: From “The Beatles in Liverpool,” by Spencer Leigh, courtesy of Mark Naboshek Collection.)

The Beatles backstage with Roy Orbison, in sunglasses, and Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1963 in Britain. Illustrates BEATLES (category e), by Forrest Wickman (c) 2013, Slate. Moved Thursday, May 23, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: From “The Beatles in Liverpool,” by Spencer Leigh, courtesy of Mark Naboshek Collection.)

When biographer John Kruth writes that Roy Orbison’s “life seemed to mirror that of Job’s from the Old Testament,” he is not stretching too far to make a point. The singer’s first wife died in a motorcycle accident with Orbison just a few hundred yards down the road ahead of her; two of his sons died as boys in a house fire while the singer was overseas. Poor management contributed to a series of bad albums and to Orbison being nearly forgotten.

Yet, like Job, as Kruth tells the tale in Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison , Orbison had a nice comeback, with a doting (if strong-willed) second wife, admiring friends in the Traveling Wilburys and the hit single You Got It. Unfortunately, that 1989 hit was posthumous; Orbison died the year before at 52.

His arias of longing and heartbreak, such as Blue Bayou, Crying and his magnum opus, Oh, Pretty Woman, won him election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the admiration of Bruce Springsteen, who name-checked Orbison and quoted him in Thunder Road, one of the Boss’ biggest hits.

While it’s hard to call Orbison a major rocker, he’s a tributary who keeps feeding the great river of music. Performers as different as Creedence Clearwater Revival (Ooby Dooby), Linda Ronstadt (Blue Bayou), The Cramps (Domino) and k.d. lang (Crying) have recorded excellent takes on songs associated with him.

Orbison adopted his trademark accessory — the dark Ray-Bans — by accident, when he forgot his prescription sunglasses at an Alabama gig, Kruth reports. They added a touch of mystery to his homely face, and audiences came to expect it.

Born in small-town west Texas, Orbison made it to the famed Sun Studios in Memphis, early home of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. His sound was a poor fit with their more muscular music, though he recorded some credible rockabilly there (Ooby Dooby , Go! Go! Go!). He hit his stride with Monument Records, with Only the Lonely, Running Scared (which Kruth notes was inspired musically by Ravel’s Bolero), Crying , Dream Baby , In Dreams and Oh, Pretty Woman (a rare Orbison classic with a happy ending). String sections, backing singers and additional musicians crowded the studio spaces in his sessions, as Orbison and his production team strove to create a fitting quasi-operatic sound.

Kruth argues that Orbison’s big sound prefigured some of the later studio moves of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and the Boss himself. “Yet for all their divine excess, there was never a wasted note on Roy’s Monument recordings.”

Unfortunately, the hit streak petered out, especially after manager Wesley Rose committed Orbison to an impossible three albums a year for MGM. “Orbison’s MGM records all too often lacked the rarified atmosphere that made his Monument recordings so timeless,” Kruth writes. Cultural changes would no doubt have dimmed Orbison’s star anyway, but Kruth apportions some blame to Rose’s management. As Kruth describes him, Orbison also had a passive streak that sometimes led him to yield decisions to others.

After years on the oldies circuit, Orbison popped back into view with the Traveling Wilburys, surely one of the most relaxed supergroups ever. Fellow Wilburys George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and producer Jeff Lynne shared a genuine respect for their elder in sunglasses. Petty and Lynne also co-wrote with Orbison the singer’s final hit, You Got It.

Kruth is the rare musician who writes well about music for a popular audience. His biography is sympathetic and enthusiastic, though he does not let Orbison and his producers off the hook for the bad albums or the laughable movie he made, The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967).

His previous books included biographies of jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk and singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. “Different as my subjects might seem — all three of these men were great lemonade makers,” Kruth wrote in an email message.

“They took the lemons fate, life whatever you want to call it dealt them and transmuted pain and suffering into something beautiful that refreshed people’s spirits.”