John Kruth is the author of Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison (Backbeat Books). The following is part of a Q&A on MusicTomes.com. Please visit their site for the full interview.
You’ve previously written about the life and music of Townes Van Zandt and Roland Kirk, how did you come to choose Roy Orbison as your next subject?
I have pretty eclectic tastes and listen to all sorts of music from Don Cherry to George Jones to Ravi Shankar to Glenn Gould to Captain Beefheart…. but ultimately its passion for my subject when it all comes down to it. You better love your subject! Roy’s classic sides for Monument, to me, are some of the greatest records made in the last century from the way they were written, performed and recorded. Also the story of his life fascinated me, the way he overcame incredible tragedy and managed to continue creating in spite of the devastating cards that fate dealt him. Ultimately he was a sonic alchemist who turned pain into beauty.
Orbison’s widow, Barbara, has a notoriously tight-grip on all things Roy, and as you chronicle in the book, had a lot of control over Roy himself. Did this present any problems in your research or in contacting people who knew and worked with Orbison?
In my earlier 2 biographies I worked closely with both of the widows. I wish I could have spoken with Barbara but I was warned by a number of people that she would want to control the contents of the book. So I avoided any contact and just quietly forged on. There were a few people who declined interviews with me because the book is unauthorized. Sadly Barbara was ill and has since passed away. I was hoping that she might’ve liked my book and I could have interviewed her for the 2nd edition.
What did you run across in your research that surprised you?
Writing a biography is kind of like going out on a date with someone you really like but you don’t know all that well and the relationship is suddenly on the fast track and things are unfolding at an alarming rate. There are plenty of surprises, some set backs but you made the commitment. Perhaps it’s more like a shot-gun marriage – cause you gotta see it through at least until the baby arrives! Surprises? How great (and how lame) some of the MGM tracks were – check out the Hank Williams record that Roy made. I never heard it before, and most of the musicians don’t even recall recording it. Its wild, sounds like a Lee Hazelwood production.
Keep reading this interview on MusicTomes.com!
About the Book
Orbison’s singing has inspired everyone who has heard it, from Springsteen to k. d. lang, and laid the very foundation for goth. While fascinating from a pop culture standpoint, it is Orbison’s life’s journey that makes a great story that has yet to be told to its fullest. Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison doesn’t shy away from or trivialize the personal pain, alienation, and tragic events that shaped Orbison’s singular personality and music. Roy Orbison wasn’t merely a singer but a sonic alchemist who, in the end, transformed unfathomable human misery into transcendent melody and platinum records. Rhapsody in Black contains new interviews with over 20 people who worked closely with Orbison throughout his life.