Lonesome Onry and Mean: Roy Orbison and Odessa

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Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings

Opening the mail the other day, I found a four-disc set of Roy Orbison recordings, Columbia/Legacy's Roy Orbison: The Soul of Rock and Roll, going all the way back to his West Texas bands the Teen Kings and the Wink Westerners. Disc 1 is filled with old demos and home recordings, and did that stuff ever take me back.

I grew up in Odessa, and the first live music I ever remember seeing was Roy Orbison. I was four years old. Not far from our house on the south side was an ice cream store called Otto’s, and several times during the summer Otto’s would have “Nickel Cone Night.” Your parents handed you a quarter and an hour later you had a stomach ache but a smile on your face after downing five cones.

Otto’s spiced up these promotions with live music, so there I stood one hot summer evening with grape sherbet dripping down my hand as Roy O and his little band rocked it out on the back of a flatbed truck in the parking lot. He was already doing songs like first hit “Ooby Dooby,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Go! Go! Go!” and “Cat Called Domino.” It was loud, it was sexy and it was truly life-altering.

Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings

I saw Orbison once more, about a year after the Otto‘s gig. The local dairy, Foremost Milk, used to have live music shows occasionally at the Ector movie theater on Saturday mornings, and when I found out Orbison was playing one, I begged my Mom to let me go. The price of entry? Two half-gallon Foremost carton tops.

Yes, those truly were the days. By then, Roy was playing regularly on the Pioneer Furniture show from KMID in Midland. That later turned in to a weekly show on KOSA in Odessa. This was more like a concert than the outdoor gig had been. The band wore those shiny white cotillion suit jackets and ties. That show was my first contact with the teenage pandemonium that rock and roll could cause.

There's lots of Odessa laced in Orbison's history. His first wife was Claudette Frady of Odessa. She was the subject of “Claudette,” a huge hit for the Everly Brothers (above), and died tragically in a motorcycle accident outside Nashville when she was only 25. Supposedly Orbison also wrote “Pretty Woman” about her.

Her dad owned a place called Frady’s, a barbeque ‘n’ beer joint in downtown Odessa. According to my father, who knew the Fradys well, his cousin Cliffie New was a regular at Frady’s and bought Roy O the first beer he ever drank one warm evening at Frady’s when Orbison was performing there.

Another significant Odessa/Orbison connection is Joe Melson. Melson was from Midland, but attended Odessa College and fronted a rockabilly outfit called The Cavaliers. In 1957 (I was in third grade), Orbison heard Melson’s tune “Raindrops” at a show in Odessa and insisted that he and Melson work together.

Their first successful collaboration was “Uptown,” considered to be the first example of the operatic-style rock ballad. Orbison and Melson’s early rock ballads like “Only the Lonely,” “In Dreams“ (featured in David Lynch‘s 1986 movie Blue Velvet, above) and “Running Scared” were cited as the impetus behind Elvis Presley recording the ballad “It’s Now or Never.” Melson and Orbison went on to write lots of songs together, including the immortal ballad “Blue Bayou.”

My buddy Lindel Dempsey’s father Tommy, the premier jeweler in Odessa, used to honky-tonk a bit, and he had a wonderful snapshot of himself, Roy, and Waylon Jennings standing with arms around each other’s shoulders in front of the Orbison house in Wink (about 50 miles west of Odessa). They were young and brash and had that we-could-get-in-trouble look about their eyes.

"Oh, Pretty Woman," from 1988's Roy Orbison: A Black and White Night

Anyway, if you’re an Orbison fan, this new four-disc set should satisfy your cravings and then some. I still can’t get Disc 1, with all the sounds of my childhood, out of my player. - William Michael Smith

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