Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison

I met someone today who said, "Your name is very familiar to me."

It turns out he had seen a story on the Internet that I wrote. The piece was part of a series on famous people from West Texas. If you aren't from West Texas (or even if you are), you may not realize how many very famous people came from there:

Roy Orbison
George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Gen. Tommy Franks, Waylon Jennings, actor Woody Harrelson, his father Charles Harrelson (a convicted hitman who killed a federal judge), actor Tommy Lee Jones, Dan Seals (of England Dan and John Ford Coley), his brother Jim Seals (of Seals and Croft), Brian Presley of General Hospital fame, Buddy Holly, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks (I know, I know, don't start), Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, singer/actor Mac Davis, Richie MacDonald (of LoneStar), and Roy Orbison, just to name a very few.

I interviewed hundreds of people and the stories I gathered were priceless.

Larry Gatlin told me of the time when he and his brothers were small and they were in a talent contest competing against Roy Orbison. By this time Roy was a young adult and the leader of a band called the Wink Westerners. Momma Gatlin knew the winner would be chosen by the loudest audience applause. She told the three boys to smile really sweet and pretty at all the sixteen-year-old girls in the audience like they would a favorite babysitter.

It worked. They won. Larry also told me about watching Roy on local TV when he hosted an afternoon program for teens sponsored by Pioneer Furniture. Ah, the days of live local television.

Larry Gatlin
Raymond Benson, the only non-Brit to write James Bond novels, talked about his work. You might wonder how someone who grew up in the oilfields of West Texas could get inside the head of Bond, James Bond. I did. In addition to learning a lot about writing from Mr. Benson, I also read some really incredible spy novels he authored. I don't know if any are still in print, but if they are, check them out.

I worked for over a year to get permission to interview Charles Harrelson at the Supermax Prison in Colorado. It is harder to get into than Fort Knox, but I was one permission slip away from getting in. And then came the news. Charles Harrelson died of a heart condition.

Charles Harrelson
Harrelson implicated himself as part of the Kennedy Assassination. Whether he played any role is something conspiracy buffs and historians will debate forever.

But the most fun research to do was on the day Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley discovered Roy Orbison and set him on his path to stardom. Cash, Presley, Wanda Jackson, and Floyd Cramer were playing a concert at Midland High School. That afternoon Cash was to appear on the Pioneer Furniture Show to invite people out to the concert. Cash was riding high on his first number one record, "Cry, Cry, Cry."

While waiting to go on, Cash heard Orbison sing. He reported to everyone who would listen that the Wink native had the voice of an angel and was the ugliest human being he had ever seen. Talk about a left-handed compliment.

Working on the story carried me back in time to the homes in Midland that Elvis hung out at whenever he came in concert (he played in Texas a lot before he made it nationally). I talked to former Midland High students who were there for the concert. And I stood at the spot backstage where Cash introduced Orbison to Elvis.

If you want to read the story, it's still online on several websites. Just Google Bear Mills, Elvis, and Roy Orbison.

Bob Dylan says songs are just looking for a ride into town and he's been fortunate enough to give a few good ones a lift. I found the story in my novel, The Ecuadorian Deception, was the same way. But there are other stories that lie hidden like a secret treasure, waiting to be dug up. That's what it was like uncovering the Elvis/Roy Orbison/Johnny Cash story. How many others are out there, just waiting to be discovered?

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