Escanaba resident Jim Bruce, left, had his
picture taken with Roy Orbison when the legendary
rock star performed at the Upper Peninsula State
fair in 1964.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
When Roy Orbison stepped on stage at the Upper Peninsula State Fair in Escanaba on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 1964 he was one of the greatest rock stars in the world.
Since he began a string of hits with "Ooby Dooby" in 1956, Orbison had built an immense audience in the United States. By 1963, his success had grown worldwide.
The No. 1 American artist in England, his popularity demanded Orbison make multiple tours of England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand. He toured Britain with the Beatles as his opening act, although they switched places at some shows.
In fact, during a 16-month period beginning in the summer of 1963, Orbison was the only American to have a chart-topping single in Britain, and he did it with both "It's Over" and "Oh, Pretty Woman."
The 28-year-old Orbison grew up in Wink, Texas where his father taught him to play guitar at age six. He performed as leader of The Wink Westerners and had his own radio program. He was enrolled as a geology student at North Texas State College when he met fellow student Pat Boone who was enjoying his first hit record with "Two Hearts." Orbison soon had his dreams set on a career in music.
Orbison signed to Sun Records in Memphis for "Ooby Dooby," but enjoyed a No. 2 hit in 1960 with "Only the Lonely" on the Monument Records label. More hits followed.
By the time Orbison's tour bus arrived in the U. P., the singer/guitarist had registered 15 more Top 40 smashes, including "Running Scared," "Crying" and "Dream Baby."
The hit-making Orbison was signed to appear in Escanaba by Ray LaPorte, secretary-manager of the Fair, through the Val Campbell Agency.
LaPorte and the Fair Board used Orbison's photo in advertising to promote the exposition, held each August. "Roy Orbison invites you to the gala opening of the Upper Peninsula State Fair in Escanaba on Tuesday, Aug. 18," read a half-page ad in Gladstone's Delta Reporter newspaper on Aug. 12, 1964.
"Roy will give away to six lucky persons, one of his latest personally autographed hit record albums. Be sure to come and see and hear one of today's most popular songwriters and recording stars," the ad promised potential fair-goers.
In addition, more than 3,000 school safety patrol boys and girls from northern Michigan were expected to see Orbison perform as a reward for their service.
Orbison was scheduled to play performances at 2 p. m. and 8:15 p. m. on the stage in front of the original wooden grandstand which also housed a concession stand, Michigan State Police office, first aid station, and a hospitality area referred to as the Pine Room.
Jim Bruce of Escanaba was a fair employee when Orbison appeared in the city. Then 19-years-old, Bruce was contract manager, but had duties as a bartender in the Pine Room for Orbison and other entertainers appearing at the fair. It was the custom of celebrities to sign the wall before leaving the Pine Room, Bruce recalled.
"I don't remember what Orbison drank, but I thoroughly enjoyed his show," Bruce said.
Bruce also had his picture taken with Orbison, who was wearing his trademark dark glasses. The photo was snapped by the late Robert E. "Bo" Olsen, and also shows various autographs in the background, including that of country singer Ray Price.
Bruce's girlfriend, Sally Hansen, got her own souvenir when Orbison signed her program in black ink: "To Sally, Love, Roy Orbison." Sally later became Mrs. Bruce. The 16-page publication includes a biography, discography, career statistics and lots of pictures.
John LaPorte of Escanaba also saw Orbison perform and had his picture taken with the singing sensation. Son of the fair's secretary-manager, LaPorte also got to see many other performers, including Brenda Lee, best known for her recording of "I'm Sorry."
"I loved Roy. He was absolutely the best," LaPorte, owner of LaPorte Studio, said.
In 1964, Roy Orbison, center, and his road
band traveled to gigs on this tour bus. The group
played two shows in Escanaba just as "Oh, Pretty Woman"
was about to chart.
Orbison and his road band, which consisted of Paul Garrison, Billy Sanford, John Rainey Adkins and Billy Gilmore, played many of the Texas balladeer's greatest hits during their two shows in Escanaba, but more than 44 years later, an exact setlist is impossible to determine. Certainly, fans expected to hear "Blue Angel," "In Dreams" and "Mean Woman Blues," among other hits.
Bruce is certain, however, that the band did not perform "Oh, Pretty Woman," the biggest hit in Orbison's career. Written by Orbison and Bill Dees, "Oh, Pretty Woman," first charted in the Billboard Magazine dated Aug. 29, 1964. That's 11 days after the Escanaba shows.
In an editorial headlined "See You At The Fair," in the Aug. 17, 1964 edition of the Escanaba Daily Press, editor Jean Worth wrote: "Roy Orbison is the Tuesday night song star and U. P. radio stations are spinning his 'Pretty Woman' now trying to boost it up the hit chart where his "It's Over" roosted for quite a while."
So it seems clear that promo copies of "Oh, Pretty Woman" were distributed to radio stations, but perhaps Orbison thought the audience wasn't ready to hear a new song, especially since he had so many hits to deliver.
"Oh, Pretty Woman," credited to Roy Orbison and The Candy Men, reached the pinnacle on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on Sept. 26, 1964 and stayed there for three weeks.
With nine Top Ten singles to his credit, "Oh, Pretty Woman" became Orbison's last big hit.
The "Big O," as he was called, left Monument Records in 1965 and signed to MGM. Tragically, he saw his wife Claudette killed in a motorcycle accident on June 7, 1966 and two of his sons died when a fire destroyed their home in 1968.
After a difficult period, Orbison enjoyed a resurgence. In 1980, Orbison recorded a duet with Emmylou Harris, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," which won him his first Grammy. The song returned Orbison to the chart for the first time in 13 years.
During the '80s, Escanaba's John LaPorte saw Orbison perform again, this time at Summerfest in Milwaukee.
Orbison continued on an upswing and was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. The following year, he joined George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in the supergroup Traveling Wilburys.
But just weeks after the "Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1" album was released, Orbison suffered a heart attack and died on Dec. 6, 1988. He was 52 years old. A posthumous solo album on Virgin Records, yielded the hit "You Got It" in 1989.
Orbison was blessed with an unparalleled vocal range, guitar style and songwriting ability which he used to bring joy to fans around the world, including thousands in the Upper Peninsula. It's a legacy we can all appreciate whether you were lucky enough to attend an Orbison concert or have merely witnessed his magnificent recordings.