Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Barbara Orbison, R.I.P.

By Emmanuel Legrand

Barbara Orbison, widow of the great Roy Orbison, died in Los Angeles on Dec. 6 at the age of 60. She had pancreatic cancer.

When she met Orbison, she was a 17-year-old German student in Leeds. He was 32. They married the year after they met and built a partnership in which she was spouse, lover, mother, friend and manager looking after his business, especially his publishing and recording assets.

Musexpo Europe’s international publishers’ panel:
Barbara Orbison is third from right.
As she explained in June 2009, at Musexpo in London during a music publishing panel that I moderated, it was not always easy to be all of this at the same time. She joked that sometimes the business woman had to make a tough decision that the artist would not like, but they would still be able to continue to operate as a couple or as parents, as if nothing had happened. 

There is no doubt that she helped him put his career back on tracks. She discovered all the intricacies of the music business the hard way. She realised that Orbison had been ripped-off quite a few times and decided to bring some order to his financial situation and took control of the various aspects of his career.

Interviewing her at Musexpo was a blast. She was a fascinating woman, not least because of her incredible life and her beauty. During the panel, she exuded confidence and was straight to the point, eager to share her experience and very much a hands-on executive. She was very grounded and you could see that she was a tough business operator. And she definitely knew what she was talking about: she asked me during the prep meeting some very specific questions about European publishers. 

Overall, she was in charge of Orbison Productions, which included three Barbara Orbison-owned companies: Orbison Records, Barbara Orbison Productions, and Still Working Music, the music publishing unit – fittingly located in the Orbison Building in Nashville, Tennessee. After his death in 1988 she became the custodian of his legacy and was very controlling of Orbison’s image and of the use made of his music. 

Of course, Roy’s copyrights were crucial to the company (she described his catalogue during the Musexpo panel as “a cash cow”) but she was also signing and batting for new songwriters. She was awarded BMI's 2010 Song of the Year for ‘You Belong With Me’, co-written by Taylor Swift (who performed the song) and Liz Rose.

She was very active keeping Orbison's legacy alive. With her son Roy Kelton Orbison Jr., she oversaw the production of the four-CD box set ‘Roy Orbison: The Soul of Rock and Roll’ (Sony Legacy). 

In January 2010, with the organizers of Midem, we tried to lure her to Cannes to talk about her business, but unfortunately she stayed in the US, as she was due to accept a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on behalf of her husband. Can’t compete with that!

She is survived by her sons Wesley Orbison, 46, Roy Kelton Orbison, Jr., 41 and Alexander Orbison, 36.

According to AP, she will be buried next to her husband at Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles. And ‘A Celebration of Life’ will be held at a date to be confirmed in Nashville.


  1. Barbara Orbison helped her husband rebuild his life after a string of personal tragedies, becoming a force behind his musical resurgence in the 1980s and, after his death, working relentlessly to burnish his legacy.

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