George Harrison Said People Didn’t Know Roy Orbison Was Funny Because He Always Wrote Sad Songs

George Harrison said people didn’t know his fellow Traveling Wilbury, Roy Orbison, was funny because he always wrote sad songs. The former Beatle knew what it was like to have people assume things of him.

George Harrison in a multi-colored suit in Germany, 1988.
George Harrison | Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture alliance via Getty Images

George Harrison and Roy Orbison became bandmates in 1988

In 1963, The Beatles were on the same tour as the “Crying” singer. George and Orbison didn’t get close, but Orbison’s influence on him and The Beatles is undeniable.

In 1988, George and Orbison became bandmates in the supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys. Like everyone else in the band, Orbison joined by accident. George needed an extra song for his 1987 album, Cloud Nine. He asked Jeff Lynne to help him while the pair were out to dinner with Orbison. The older singer asked if he could come to watch them work. They headed to Bob Dylan’s studio and picked Tom Petty up along the way.

The five rock stars recorded “Handle With Care” after George realized it’d be silly having them all in the recording studio and not on the song. In May, George got everyone back to record The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. The four felt incredibly lucky to be in a band with Orbison.

However, Orbison died of a heart attack shortly after The Traveling Wilburys released their debut. His bandmates loved his singing. During an interview with MTV, Geoge said, “I’ve known Roy Orbison since 1963, but I must say I haven’t seen him for the last 10 years. Incredible voice. He’s like an opera singer.”

During an interview with MTV (per George Harrison on George Harrison: Interviews and Encounters), Lynne said, “I’d like to say that Roy was one of the nicest people I ever met, and he was the best singer ever. It’s a real loss to the Wilburys, I might say, and to the world really.”

Most of all, the rest of The Traveling Wilburys missed Orbison’s humor.

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George said people didn’t know Orbison was funny because he wrote sad songs

During a 1990 interview with Sunday Sunday, George spoke about how funny Orbison was and how people rarely got to see that side of the musician. All they knew was that he wrote some pretty sad songs.

Songs like “Crying,” “Only The Lonely,” “In Dreams,” “Running Scared,” and “Crawling Back” paint the picture of loss, despair, and loneliness. NPR wrote, “Orbison wasn’t afraid to sing about fear, anxiety, loss or insecurity.”

“Roy’s extreme development of those kinds of emotions and the intensity with which he expressed them certainly went against the grain of the kind of macho, confident, masculine display that characterized so much of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll,” biographer Peter Lehman said.

Orbison tended to write sad songs because he knew about tragedy. His wife Claudette, who he divorced due to her infidelities and later remarried, died in a motorcycle accident. In 1968, while on tour in England, Orbison learned his home burned down, and his two eldest sons had died. Besides all of that, career troubles plagued him. Younger, newer acts constantly pushed him off the charts, including The Beatles.

However, behind his gloomy body of work and tragic life was a very funny, sweet guy.

“Roy is just-he’s very very funny,” George said. “First of all, because his songs were all sad kinda blues songs, people tend to think of him as a sad person. Of course, he did have a lot of tragedies in his life. But to be with him, it was totally the opposite.”

George continued, “He was a complete Monty Python fan, he knows the words to every song, including ‘Sit On My Face’ [Laughs]. He was lovely, he was just really sweet, and he would get a giggle going; he’d suddenly think of something, and he’d start giggling. By the end of it, we’d all just be in hysterics, we’d be laughing because of seeing Roy laughing. He was really sweet.”

Lynne told MTV, “I—well, you know, everybody’s got this impression that it was all sad, but he was so funny. He was really a funny guy and he laughed a lot and had a great time, and he was a pleasure to hang out with, you know, he was really great fun. And that’s like, that was the surprise, really, because I thought he’d be all sad.”

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The former Beatle said people misunderstood him too

Fans misunderstood George and Orbison. People called George the “quiet Beatle” for his whole life, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Many also believed George was serious because he wrote many religious songs, including “My Sweet Lord” and “Awaiting On You All.

George was no more serious than Orbison was gloomy. They were both funny and loved Monty Python.

The former Beatle told Musician Magazine’s Timothy White, “I’ve always had a sense of humor–and I think it’s absolutely necessary. I think what happened is, I was tagged as somber because I did some spiritual things during a sizable phase of my own career, and sang a lot of songs about God or the Lord or whatever you want to call Him.

“You can’t be singing that material laughingly, but if you’re not smiling people draw that conclusion of seriousness. I don’t think anybody’s all serious or all comical, and I’ve seen comedians who are deadly serious when they’re offstage.

“Frankly, I always thought it was very funny when people thought I was very serious! Maybe it’s also because the last time I did interviews back in the 1970s it was all that heavy hangover from the hippie ’60s, when everybody was into this discipline, that doctrine and the other.

“I’ve got a very serious side of me, but even within that, I always see the joke too. That’s why I always liked Monthy Python.”

Maybe that’s why George and Orbison became such good friends; they could laugh about being misunderstood.

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