Barbara Orbison was known for finding Nashville talent
Roy’s manager known as talent scout in Nashville
In the 23 years since the death of singer Roy Orbison, his widow, Barbara Orbison, oversaw a musical empire devoted to the twin goals of preserving his legacy while nurturing a new generation of Nashville songwriters, many of whom went on to considerable success.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Orbison, 61, died of pancreatic cancer while hospitalized in Los Angeles. Her death, which took place on the anniversary of her late husband’s death in 1988, caught the music world by surprise and has left three Nashville institutions — Orbison Records, Barbara Orbison Productions and Still Working Music — suddenly without a chief executive who operated with a “take no prisoners” attitude and a “feverish work ethic,” according to music industry colleagues.
The companies also are left without their chief talent scout. Barbara Orbison was noted in the music industry for an uncanny ability to spot and sign songwriters able to write No. 1 hits for performers as varied asTaylor Swift, Reba McEntire and George Strait.
“She was very shrewd and she ran that company from all over the world,” said Mark Wright, president of Showdog-Universal Records, who worked with Mrs. Orbison on songs by Gary Allan, Brooks & Dunn and others. “She was 24-7 and a force of nature. She will be hard to replace.”
Her sons, Roy Orbison Jr. and Alex Orbison, are expected to take over the businesses, company officials said Wednesday.
Roy Orbison Jr., 43, worked with his mother in 2008 to co-produce a four-CD package of his father’s works. Alex Orbison, 36, is a drummer with the Malibu, Calif.-based rock band Whitestarr and was formerly featured on the VH1 reality show The Rock Life. Neither of the men has a formal title or position with the company.
General Manager and Vice President Clay Myers said he expects the company to continue doing business as usual with the Orbison brothers at the helm.
German-born Barbara Ann Marie Wellhoener Jakobs first met Roy Orbison at a London concert in 1968 and married him a year later. She was 18 at the time, and Orbison was a widower who had lost his first wife, Claudette, in the mid-1960s. Two of the singer’s three sons from that marriage died in a Hendersonville house fire not long after he met Barbara.
Wesley Orbison, 46, the only surviving son from Roy Orbison’s first marriage, lives in Texas and isn’t involved in the Orbison music businesses.
During their marriage, Mrs. Orbison became increasingly involved in her husband’s music career, becoming his manager for the last decade of his life. She is credited with reviving what had been a flagging career.
After the singer’s death, Mrs. Orbison retained the rights to all of her husband’s music and launched Still Working for the Man Music — a name that made clear her primary goal of preserving and managing Roy Orbison’s legacy. She later shortened the company name to Still Working Music.
“What she did to preserve Roy’s heritage is something I’ve never seen,” said Mike Curb, chairman of Curb Records, who worked with Mrs. Orbison to release a compilation album of music that Curb and Orbison co-wrote for films. Curb was a longtime friend.
“She was the consummate person in preserving Roy’s image,” Curb said.
Mrs. Orbison also turned her focus to developing new songwriters for Still Working Music, personally signing Nashville songwriters Liz Rose, Billy Burnette and Tommy Lee James — all of whom went on to fame with No. 1 hits for country artists.
“I think I was in a cab in New York when she called me and said she was not going to let me off the phone until I signed a deal with her,” said Rose, the co-writer behind Taylor Swift hits such as “You Belong with Me,” which was published by Still Working. “She was persuasive and had so many great ideas for songwriters. And you couldn’t say ‘no’ to her.”
Still Working won BMI’s 2010 Song of the Year Award for “You Belong with Me.”
In 2009, Mrs. Orbison turned her hand to a new product line, launching a fragrance called Pretty Woman Perfume.
“Barbara could have taught a Harvard Business School course in global branding,” said BMI President and CEO Del Bryant.
Mrs. Orbison also was known for her love of parties, a social butterfly who when not jetting around the globe for business was often seen at Nashville parties and awards shows.
Noted for her physical beauty, she also was remembered for her German accent applied to affectionate nicknames like “baby” used to prop up the sometimes-fragile egos of songwriters.
“I’ve never met such a strong-willed woman who would literally change a room when she walked in,” said Fletcher Foster, a senior manager at Red Light Management.
Mrs. Orbison will be buried next to her husband at Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles. A celebration of life will be held at an undetermined date at BMI.
Tennessean reporter Cindy Watts and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Anita Wadhwani at 615-259-8092 or email@example.com.