Before Bono adopted his wrap-around "Fly" shades 24/7...before Corey Hart sang, "I wear my sunglasses at night"...even before Jack Nicholson made Ray-Bans the official fashion accessory of the Lakers' courtside...Roy Orbison was the man in black eyewear.
Twenty-five years after his death on Dec. 6, 1988 at the age of 52, Orbison remains almost as well known for his trademark dark glasses as his inimitably operatic pipes. But the reason he shaded his eyes from the world is a mystery to most folks, as evidenced by the thousands of incorrect answers that appear on the Web in conjunction with his name.
Were his reasons the same as Ray Charles's and Ronnie Milsap's — i.e., legal blindness? Was he an albino? Had the spotlights or sun seared his peepers? Or perhaps the answer was the opposite of ocular degeneration. Was his future so bright that he just had to wear them, per Timbuk 3? Did he have a prescient sense that Wayfarers were the way to go if you wanted to be cool as a pop star? Or was he wearing them because of the tragedies in his life, which you could imagine left him eternally — to cite one of his most famous songs — "Crying"?
Interviewers over the years were fascinated by Orbison's impenetrable specs as well. "Tell me, Roy," one TV host asked him in the mid-'60s, "how do you tell a 'pretty woman' with these on?"
When he appeared on the comedy sketch show "SCTC" in the early '80s (long after his heyday, and a few years before his Traveling Wilburys-fueled comeback), Eugene Levy, playing the host of the fictional show "Mel's Rock Pile," asked Orbison the question that had surely been on everyone's mind: "Did you get the idea for those sunglasses from the Blues Brothers?"
Whatever the reason, the opacity clearly made him mythical. Linda Ronstadt remembered meeting Orbison at a party at Emmylou Harris's house in the '70s, shortly after she had a smash with "Blue Bayou," a remake of one of his signature ballads. "We were all so in awe. I tried to peek behind the glasses — it was kinda like looking at Darth Vader, except that Roy was so nice," Ronstadt recalled in the Neil Young biography Shakey.
So how did he become Nice Vader?
The most widely accepted answer is that Orbison accidentally left his regular eyeglasses on a plane in Europe while touring with the Beatles and was forced to wear prescription shades as a substitute in concert. Even Barbara Orbison, his widow, told the story that way before she died in 2011. But the truth, as Roy himself told it, was just a little more drawn out.
"The image, like the voice, came in stages," Orbison told Joe Smith, author of the book Off the Record, published just before the singer's death in 1988. "I never sat down with anyone and said, 'Let's design an image.' I started using sunglasses in Alabama. I was going to do a show with Patsy Cline and Bobby Vee, and I left my clear glasses on the plane. I only had the sunshades, and I was quite embarrassed to go onstage with them, but I did it. Then I took the shades with me to England when I opened for the Beatles...It was an opening night to end all opening nights. I walked onstage with my sunglasses on, and all over Europe we were an instant success. Big time. I probably also wore something black that night, and that’s how the black outfits and dark sunglasses stuck."
In another interview, he added that after the tour with the Beatles, "I was stuck with the dark glasses. They took all these pictures that went around the world. I guess once you become successful, you don't want to change anything too drastically."
But the shades served an invaluable purpose for Orbison besides just being a hard-to-shake novelty. They made him as mysterious visually as he already was musically. Up until that point, his image had been at odds with his songs. He had small, almost squinty eyes that didn't photograph well, and record companies had tended to leave his photo off the album covers altogether, more often than not. The word "homely" was even applied. Now, he had a slightly masked visage as well as a musical vision to sell.
The shades made him look cool, but not at all tough; if anything, they reinforced the wounded quality of his ballads, signifying that here was a guy who needed some protection not just from ultraviolet rays but the harshness of romance and life itself.
Shy, shady, or both? "He enjoyed his privacy but he also wanted to be recognized," drummer Paul Garrison said in the Orbison biography Dark Star. "He was contradictory and torn."
An entire book, Roy Orbison: Invention of an Alternative Rock Masculinity, was devoted to what this image meant not just for the singer but the future of pop culture. "Orbison's dark glasses somehow signified less that he was cool than that the man hidden behind them always looked at the world darkly. There was never, it seemed, a light moment in his life," wrote Peter Lehman. "The Orbison persona wears black to protect a masculinity that is anything but powerful...Black in this sense is a barrier behind which a man hides — from the law, from lawbreakers, from tough guys, from women, from prying eyes, from public scrutiny, from whatever threatens from without."
Here's the part that almost no one remembers: Orbison actually had almost all of his hits before adopting the shades, which came along relatively late in his shelf life as a pop hitmaker.
When he had his first minor hit in 1956 with Sun Records' release of "Ooby Dooby," he was wearing no glasses at all in public —although he desperately needed them — and had un-striking brown hair. By the early '60s, when he was having his biggest hits on the Monument label, his hair had become jet-black, and, in a nod to his visual needs, he was wearing black plastic frames to match, but the lenses were still clear. At that point, Buddy Holly had made specs acceptable, but Monument was still choosing to more or less hide Orbison by not including his photos (or burying small ones on the back cover) on the albums that bore his biggest successes. When his photo was included, he was smiling and wearing a V-neck sweater that was at odds with his soon-to-be-adopted dark look.
After that tour with the Beatles, though, there was no looking back to the sweet brainiac look. "Starting in 1963 Orbison always wore dark glasses during live performances and in public, indoors and out, day and night," writes Lehman. "He was the first mainstream white pop or rock musician to do so, although so many have followed this practice that it can be easy to forget that dark glasses were not always the norm in pop and rock music. Even in the world of '30s and '40s African American jazz, where sunglasses were a common accouterment, no musician was known for wearing them virtually all the time in public."
There was one exception: In 1967, Orbison doffed the shades to star in a major motion picture, a Western called The Fastest Guitar Alive that is remembered as one of the greatest pop-star-to-movie-star miscalculations that side of Cold as Ice. He had about as many Ray-Ban-free public moments after that as he did starring film roles.
The singer's life was beset by tragedy in the late '60s, and that's not even including the flop movie. His first wife, Claudette, died in a motorcycle accident while riding alongside him in 1966. Two years later, his Nashville home burned down, killing two of his three children. Later in his career, it was easy to conflate these events and imagine that he'd adopted the dark look as a reaction to the deaths, though he really adopted the image a few years before.
In any case, his life picked up again in 1969, when he wed Barbara Orbison, a striking beauty who would be the keeper of his flame for decades after his death. As one fan wrote on a comment board: "His eyesight was 20/20 when he married Barbara, that's for sure!"
The unshakability of his image made for some affectionate ribbing. In the late '70s, on "Saturday Night Live," Belushi played Orbison in a sketch where his fictional wife ripped off his sunglasses, only to find another pair underneath, and then another. The skit ended with Belushi-as-Orbison being so stiff in performance that he plopped over like a board while singing, only to be lifted back up by band members as he continued the song.
That stiffness made him hep at a time when every other post-Elvis rocker flirted with seeming to try too hard. Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees commented on "the mystery" that was reinforced by a guy who not only dressed in black but "wasn't moving his body around — he was just singing from his heart." As Bruce Springsteen said: "He was a guy that got more intense by simply standing still."
In a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech in 1987, Springsteen rhapsodized about the impact that winning an opening slot for Orbison had on him. "In 1970 I rode for 15 hours in the back of a U-Haul truck to open for Roy Orbison at the Nashville Music Fair," he said. "It was a summer night and I was 20 years old, and he came out in dark glasses, a dark suit, and he played some dark music.” He became obsessed with Orbison's greatest-hits album when he was preparing Born to Run in 1974. "I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector, but most of all I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison."
Springsteen never did learn to stand still like Orbison, but maybe that's a reticence that's born, not learned.
Dorothy Wolf, the curator of the one-room Roy Orbison Museum in his hometown of Wink, Texas, remembered Orbison both for his staidness and his poor eyesight. "He was pretty shy, pretty introverted, except for his music," Wolf remembered. "The boys would go somewhere, and he'd be the designated driver. And he couldn’t see. He was really blind. So they weren't much better off."
The book Texas Curiosities, by John Kelso, talks about what it's like to tour the tiny Orbison Museum. The highlight, Kelso says, is the ability to try on a pair of the star's actual prescription sunglasses, and have the curator take a photo of you in them, which she then tacks to the wall alongside hundreds of other tourists. Writes Kelso: "If you have average eyes, when you look through his sunglasses, it’s kind of like opening your eyes underwater."
But if you really squint while you're trying on his old shades, maybe you can just imagine yourself in a deeply, deeply blue bayou.
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