Roy Orbison’s ‘Mystery’ Success : The story behind his posthumous hit

What’s behind the spectacular sales of Roy Orbison’s posthumous “Mystery Girl” album?

The 10-song package, released just eight weeks after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member died Dec. 6 of a heart attack in Nashville at age 52, has sold more than a million copies in the United States alone.

That brisk pace has pushed “Mystery Girl” to No. 6 on the national sales chart--the first time Orbison has been in the Top 10 on his own since a greatest-hits package in 1964.

For most of those 25 years, the former Malibu resident--whose ‘60s hits such as “Only the Lonely” and “Running Scared” are among the most prized rock records ever made--was written off by the record industry. He attempted comeback albums in 1977 and 1979, but both flopped.


Why the outpouring of affection now?

Is it another example of the pop world’s getting caught up in the emotion of a star’s death (echoes of the sales spurts that followed the passings of Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Jim Croce)?

Jeff Ayeroff, co-managing director of Virgin Records, which released “Mystery Girl,” believes several factors contributed to Orbison’s comeback.

Among them: the prominent use of an Orbison song in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” film, Bruce Springsteen’s eloquent salute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner in 1987, an acclaimed cable-TV special last year, and the teaming with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty on the “Traveling Wilburys” album.


“Roy’s death may have pushed the album to the million mark a little faster,” Ayeroff said, sitting in his Beverly Hills office. “But over the long run, the album would have sold more copies if Roy had lived because he would have gone on tour and a whole generation of people who have never heard him sing live would have been amazed.

“You can talk about the Hall of Fame, the Wilburys, the TV show and . . . his death, but the thing that made this album a hit was Roy’s singing. After we signed Roy, we had him sing at a company convention and people were so excited that they were standing on their chairs. Who else ever had a voice like his?”

One of the most respected figures in pre-Beatles rock, Orbison--a native of Wink, Tex.--started recording rockabilly in the ‘50s for the same Memphis company that also introduced Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. He was best known, however, as the master of the epic rock ballad. Among his nearly two dozen Top 40 hits in the early and mid-'60s: “Crying,” “It’s Over” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

Possessing a purity and range that led him to be called “the Caruso of Rock,” Orbison conveyed the anxiety and even paranoia of romantic relationships with an intensity and scope that prompted hundreds of critics to apply such words as haunting and chilling to his records.


Coupled with trials in his personal life (his first wife was killed in a motorcycle accident and two of their sons died in a fire), the songs’ themes of loneliness and heartbreak made millions of fans think of Orbison as a tragic, reclusive figure. His shyness and his fondness for dark glasses on stage reinforced the image.

None of that history, however, guaranteed a return to the charts. Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Little Richard and Bo Diddley were also inducted into the Hall of Fame and weren’t rewarded with any resurgence on record.

Why Orbison?

In separate interviews, his widow Barbara Orbison (who also managed his career in recent years) and Virgin’s Ayeroff traced the factors that helped make Orbison’s final rock ‘n’ roll dream a reality.


For the first 10 years of their marriage, the singer was interested in simply enjoying life after the personal tragedies.

Barbara Orbison, who comes from a wealthy German family, was 17 when she met Orbison in London in 1968. “We just sort of took each other hostage for the next 10 years,” she said, noting they were married in 1969. “We did whatever we wanted to do . . . went where we wanted to go . . . had a very full life.

“I think most people would kind of like to paint Roy as a somber person, not completely hooked up to life . . . but that’s not the way he was. He had a real spunk for life.”

By the end of the ‘70s Orbison had begun talking about “going for it” musically. Barbara noticed that he spoke in interviews about feeling his best music was still ahead of him.


But the campaign was sidetracked for nearly three years because of Barbara’s bout with agoraphobia, a morbid fear of open places that causes victims to stay at home.

“It was a hard time for Roy,” his widow said, sitting in a Malibu restaurant. “My mother was also gravely ill at the time, our family was left pretty immobile. Roy was very patient and loving. He sort of set aside his plans to take care of me.”

By the mid-'80s, Barbara’s condition had improved and the Orbisons--with their two children--moved from Nashville to Malibu. Orbison was finally ready to make his move.

The candy-colored clown they call the sandman


Whispers to my room every night

Just a stardust sprinkle and a whisper

Go to sleep, everything is alright.

Those lines are from “In Dreams,” one of Orbison’s most famous hits from the ‘60s. Who would have figured that this delicate expression of longing would end up in one of the most memorable scenes in “Blue Velvet,” David Lynch’s brilliant 1986 look the forbidden zones of eroticism and violence? And who would imagine that it would be a key step in reintroducing Orbison’s music to contemporary rock fans?


Certainly not Orbison.

The singer was shocked when he saw “Blue Velvet” at his neighborhood cinema in Malibu. In an interview with The Face magazine in England, he said, “I was aghast . . . because they were talking about the ‘candy-colored clown’ in relation to a dope deal, then Dean Stockwell did that weird miming thing with that lamp. Then they were beating up that young kid. I thought, ‘What in the world?’

“But later, we got the video out and I really got to appreciate . . . how innovative the movie was, how it really achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to ‘In Dreams.’ . . . ‘Blue Velvet’ really succeeded in making my music contemporary again.”

It was the film that convinced Virgin’s Jeff Ayeroff and co-managing director Jordan Harris to sign Orbison. Both men had tried, while working at other record companies, to talk their bosses into signing Orbison, but it didn’t work out. The argument throughout the industry on acts like Orbison was that pop has passed them by, that they are of a different era.


“But Roy was unique,” Ayeroff said. “I thought he could be part of this era, too. There is something timeless about his voice and his music. When I saw ‘Blue Velvet’ at the Paramount in Hollywood, I started thinking the movie made Roy’s music current again. I have absolute respect for David Lynch and if he sees the same thing in Roy’s music, I knew I was on the right track.”

To capitalize on “Blue Velvet,” Virgin released a re-recorded “greatest hits” package that Orbison had been selling by mail-order on television. He also got MTV to play a video of “In Dreams,” incorporating scenes from the film with original Orbison footage.

Ayeroff and Harris then put Orbison together with a T Bone Burnett, a producer whose work with Los Lobos, Elvis Costello and the BoDeans had shown a feeling for classic, roots-oriented rock.

Los Angeles-based publicist Sarah McMullen was hired to bring the media up to date. Orbison had done between 100 and 200 shows a year throughout his career, but he hadn’t played major media markets in recent years.


“There was a lot of interest in Roy, but also a lot of misconceptions,” McMullen said recently. “A lot of people thought he was blind because of the dark glasses. . . . They thought his first wife had just died. It was as if time had stood still. . . . So we got writers out to his shows to meet him. More than anything, they came away talking about his voice. They didn’t think of him as a ‘60s act anymore.”

The Springsteen speech at the Hall of Fame dinner and the Cinemax special, which also featured Springsteen, Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, created an even greater buzz.

Remarked Ayeroff, “I think it is the energy he got from great contemporary artists . . . during the TV show and during the recording of the album . . . that enabled Roy to have the confidence to bring the best out of himself.”

“Mystery Girl” and Warner Bros.’ Traveling Wilburys albums originally had the same release date in November, but Virgin decided to push back “Mystery Girl” to January so Orbison wouldn’t be competing with himself.


Even as they watched the Wilburys album get rave reviews and move into the Top 10, the Virgin executives felt “Mystery Girl” was strong enough not to be overshadowed.

Reviewers agreed. In England, the influential Q magazine gave “Mystery Girl” a maximum five stars, describing it as “a stunning introduction to the magic of Roy Orbison.” In the United States, Rolling Stone gave the album four stars and declared that it “encapsulates everything that made Orbison great.”

And “Mystery Girl” won’t be Orbison’s farewell on record.

There was enough material left from the sessions for a second album, which is now scheduled for later this year. Virgin will also release the sound-track LP from the cable-TV special this summer.


What would Orbison have thought of all this attention and acclaim?

Barbara Orbison--who has a model’s striking looks--considers the question for a moment as she gazes out the restaurant window in Malibu.

“When he finished the album, he was so pleased that it was a thrill to him even if no one had heard it,” she finally said. “He knew it contained some of his finest work. Still, there was a side of him that loved it when people responded to the music. He used to talk about how thrilling it was to write a song in a little room and then play it for the musicians and have your heart light up when someone says they like it.”

Orbison’s widow then spoke wistfully about the tour that never was, including special L.A. dates in February.


“We had booked the Wiltern Theatre for the night before and after the Grammys so that everyone in the industry could see him. He had the look of a rock ‘n’ roller in his 30s. . . . He was down to 145 pounds and . . . had a twinkle in his eye because he was so proud of the album and was so eager to get in front of the public again. It was going to be the start of a tour that we had dreamed about for 10 years.”