How Roy Orbison Became the Original Mr. Ray-Bans
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.