Brian McCullough

Did you ever have a strange feeling, one where you knew something kind of weird was happening but you couldn’t exactly put your finger on what it was?

One of the things I enjoy working on the most is an interview. I have been tremendously fortunate overall, and have found that the vast majority of people that have been a part of such projects with me have been amazing. (And in today’s case, Brian easily belongs with the amazing participants.)

This isn’t always the case. I have had experiences with people that fill all the categories of potential problems you could imagine. And, before you go too far down the road… keep in mind that people like me, the interviewers, can be a decided part of the difficulties. Betray a trust… get information wrong (especially details that would be easy to have right)… and in so many other ways, you can quickly put a person into a defensive position.

Take the time to get it right though, while working with good material and individuals, and it can be magical.

You meet some brilliant and wonderful people. They are willing to share stories and information with you, and they invest their time in your efforts. Of course, some of it is to assist in promoting their own work. Honestly though… more often than not… I have been fortunate to have some really incredible people act generously toward me for no other reason than they are, in fact, incredible and generous people.

Enter Brian McCullough.

All of the positive descriptions I’ve used so far… amazing, brilliant, wonderful… and more apply to this man. He has been patient and thoughtful in responding to every question and tangent I’ve offered or explored.

And yet something seemed off. Not in a bad way off. But, as I alluded to moments ago, in a weird way I kept feeling a “you’re missing something really good” kind of atmosphere hanging over the project.

While developing the introduction to Brian we’ll arrive at in a moment, it hit me.

One of the most memorable descriptions I ever heard about Roy Orbison went like this: “He was a gentleman, and a gentle man.”

When I came across those words again recently, attributed to Tom Petty, everything kind of clicked. Because what I was experiencing with Brian fit that description as well. Soft-spoken, polite, and presenting a sense of place that gave the impression I had his undivided attention.

When you read about how Brian’s career has moved along the road… twisting and turning on occasion, but always steady… you’ll see the journey of a gentleman and a gentle man. He takes a great deal of satisfaction out of being professional, knowledgeable about his work, entertaining an audience, and enjoying all of the moments along the way.

It has been an honor to work on this project with him, and I simply cannot thank him enough for his patience and his time.

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If you want to trace the professional career of Brian McCullough, there are several ways you could approach it. And virtually all of them offer interesting, exciting, and unexpected details.

For more than two decades, Brian has earned his position as one of the best tribute artists in the world. His efforts in this arena include Conway Twitty, though his more frequent stage presence is made as the man that may just be the best Roy Orbison impersonator in the business. Before we join him onstage singing some of the most recognizable and challenging songs in history, let’s explore a different side of his endeavors…

Brian was born and raised in New England, with a family that includes fifteen generations of its history in the northeastern United States.

A variety of skills and passions came together as he began exploring his options for a career. As you might imagine, you don’t earn the opportunity to successfully portray a man known as “The Voice” without possessing a strong voice of your own. And many people will attest of his love of history, especially musical history.

So would it surprise you to learn that Brian spent years as a radio personality? Probably not. And, for quite some time, that’s exactly how he connected to audiences in and around Massachusetts. But it’s not the only way. As just two interesting examples…

  • Back in 1991 the television show Dallas was making a return on TNT. As part of promoting the broadcasts the network ran a contest asking for lyrics to accompany the legendary theme song. The winner? Brian McCullough.
  • When some friends became involved in a project producing materials for a branch of the Smithsonian covering the US Postal Museum, Brian eventually joined the effort. In his words: “As far as I know, anybody can still punch a button in Washington and hear me describing the plight of mail carriers in the nineteenth century and how great it was when a postal union was developed.”

From just these few examples… if you watched the Dallas return to television on TNT… if you have enjoyed interactive presentations at the Smithsonian (or, as it happens, the First Division Museum in Chicago)… if you listened to the radio in Massachusetts… it is very possible that with little fanfare or notoriety, you have been entertained and informed by Brian.

And that strikes me as exactly the way he would like it—entertained and informed, with little fanfare or notoriety. A few moments ago I said: “Soft-spoken, polite, and presenting a sense of place that gave the impression I had his undivided attention… He takes a great deal of satisfaction out of being professional, knowledgeable about his work, entertaining an audience, and enjoying all of the moments along the way.”

A gentleman and a gentle man.

That works.

And just about twenty years ago, from presence on the radio to his dabbling in network lyric contests… from his on-air announcing to museum presentations… we arrive at a show where someone in the audience is recording his performance. In one of those great scenarios, at the moment unknown to Brian, it is brought to the attention of John Stuart. For those that may not know, John founded the world-renowned leader in tribute performances, Legends in Concert. And he liked what he saw.

Since those early days, beginning with a short run in Illinois, Brian has been just about unstoppable as the Roy Orbison tribute artist. In addition to performing with Legends in Concert, he has designed and produced several of his own shows. He has delivered full-length concerts as Orbison, played both of the featured roles in a show based on Orbison and Conway Twitty, and even worked with a noted Elvis tribute artist to create an unforgettable Sun-Records-themed dream evening combining The Voice with The King. He has worked from coast to coast across the United States, and also border to border (with a few adventures outside the borders to international locations and aboard cruise ships).

It has been a privilege to spend time working with him on this project. And I am honored to bring you the In My Backpack interview with Mr. Brian McCullough.

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Can you tell us a bit about your start in music? Even before you began working professionally in any area of entertainment, I’m wondering about what drew you to music and the radio, and some of your earliest memories of singing and performing.

My mother was a big consumer of music, so I grew up in an environment that was pretty melodic. Her favorites around that time were Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Nat King Cole and most anything that would have been a dance tune from her youth in the Forties.

My earliest on-air experience was in 1967. I was the kid chosen to go to the local radio station, WTTT, and record a testimonial about how terrific our summer camp experience had been. It was mixed into a plea for donations to keep the place going. Twenty years later, I was hired at that station as a full-time announcer.

Do you have any specific musical training? What instruments do you play? And from this I’m looking at everything from early lessons and experiences into any specific habits you may have for rehearsing and practicing today.

I wanted to play the trombone when I was in grade school. It was decided that hauling it onto the school bus would be a terrible chore, so I was instead herded into the ranks of clarinet students. While I probably wouldn’t know which end of a clarinet to blow into today, the education in being able to find my way around sheet music remained useful.

You have a pretty interesting professional career beyond your work as a tribute artist. In fact, exploring your resume can connect a steady job on the radio and announcing with efforts for the Smithsonian and even Dallas.

A friend of a friend owned an audio production company and they bid on the job of providing interactive materials for a new division of the Smithsonian, the US Postal Museum. Since they knew I was on-air, they called and asked if I would be interested in reading a few voice-over parts. As far as I know, anybody can still punch a button in Washington and hear me describing the plight of mail carriers in the nineteenth century and how great it was when a postal union was developed. I’m told the work I did for the First Division Museum in Chicago, a voice-over describing conditions in the trenches in World War One, is still out there.

My understanding is that your performances as a musician, at least in the beginning, were never about professional pursuits. Writing and hosting a radio show were the steady paychecks. Any funny or inspirational stories from those early days?

I really had the best of both worlds. I was on-air all week doing what I loved, and traveled the Northeast on weekends, usually to serve as an opening act for an Elvis show.

I don’t think you ever officially auditioned as Roy Orbison before being offered a position about two decades ago. And while I may be wrong on the timeline and specifics, I think the basics are true enough… you were performing once and someone recorded parts of the show. Eventually, that was seen by John Stuart of Legends in Concert. Can you share some of that story, from my details being right or wrong, and of your reactions to such a surprise?

You do have the outline down pretty well. While doing those weekend shows, some very nice women approached me and asked, since I did not have an official Fan Club, if they could start one. I thought it was very strange, the idea that anyone would want to build a club around listening to me, but I told them they had my blessing. Soon I was appearing on tee shirts, bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs.

It was one of those fan club members who videotaped me without my knowledge and sent the tape and my contact information to Legends in Concert in Las Vegas. Sure enough, my phone rang with a call from John Stuart, who founded the company and was then still in charge. That was early in 1997. They had a show running at the Empress Casino in Joliet, Illinois. They changed up the cast each week and they asked me to appear for six shows. What they did not realize was that a large chunk of the fan club was so thrilled that they drove from Massachusetts to Illinois and bought tickets for all six performances where they screamed and carried on when I took the stage. I think the fans convinced Legends that I was a complete knock-out, but they did not know that all of them had been imported with me.

This turned out to be the first of many, many contracts with Legends in Concert over the years and I still don’t generally let on to other tribute acts just how it all began. I hear stories of people sending in tape after tape trying to get auditions for Legends, and the whole opportunity presented itself to me without my lifting a finger. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I believed I was extra special because of those circumstances.

Continuing with that story, I’m also wondering about how the Roy Orbison connection was fully developed into you being onstage specifically for this, and when you began donning the glasses.

I was a working radio guy, with a beard and long curly hair. It just happened that some folks thought I sounded like Roy.

Someone I knew had a backyard barbecue and engaged a karaoke DJ. While I was singing, I think it was “Crying”, a late arriving guest who happened to be an Elvis act showed up at the shindig. When I was through, he came straight over and said he was looking for openers for his shows. He did say, however, that he could not imagine how I would ever get “the look”. A razor, a bit of hair dye and a pair of Ray-bans convinced us all that it was possible.

It was my pleasure to see you perform as Orbison, and I will gladly attest that your voice is outstanding, and offers a wonderful compliment to The Voice, of which Orbison’s is often credited as one of the greatest of all time. I’ve heard some fascinating stories about Orbison… such as his recording at different times of the day because later in the day he found it more difficult to control the vibrato. Is there any part of Orbison’s range, or some of his songs, that give you particular difficulty?

Some are riskier than others, of course, but I have found that it isn’t simply a question of the range, but often what comes before the high notes that can be problematic. On their own, I can usually hit the ceiling-scraping notes, but in some cases the build-up to them makes them harder to achieve, as they must come from a different part of the voice. Orbison’s songs almost always build to a big finish, so the nerve factor is always there. I have to wonder if I’m going to lead the audience down this long path and then not be able to deliver the “big one” at the end.

I’m generally all right vocally if I get a hot beverage about a half an hour before going on and drink loads and loads of water. Of course, the voice has to be exercised almost daily to keep everything in shape. If I have come off a period of down time, I have to really push that part of the preparations and sing morning and night for several days before a show.

One of my favorite songs from Orbison is “The Comedians” off of Mystery Girl. Honestly, I am a huge fan of Orbison and love all of his work. But I am consistently drawn to many of the lesser known tracks. The entire Mystery Girl album is composed of brilliant songs, and even though several were written by a tremendous cast it is Orbison’s interpretation of each that raises them to another level. I’m wondering if you have any particular favorites from his work. (Either to listen to, or to perform.)

“The Comedians” is a favorite of mine, too. Elvis Costello wrote it with Roy in mind, and it really does reflect on the kind of message Roy had written in his own compositions back in the Sixties. Another favorite off that album is “The Only One”, which was a song written by Roy’s oldest son, Wesley, in the only instance of them doing anything together musically. It was very touching, a few years ago, when I heard Wesley perform the song informally at a gathering of Roy’s fans. He sang alone, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. There’s a line in the song; “you’re the only one whose love is gone”. Wesley sang it that night as, “you’re the only one whose father is gone”. I don’t know if anyone else picked up on the change, but it affected me greatly.

For my own tastes, I like many of the songs that were never “on the charts”. There’s a whole CD put together of covers, for example, that Roy did of the hits others had. He does a great job on things like “Scarlet Ribbons”, Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away”, and “My Prayer” from The Platters.

It’s funny you mention his son and “The Only One”. I didn’t buy this edition of the album, but my understanding is that when Mystery Girl was rereleased a few years ago they added some things including a long-thought-lost Orbison song. Roy was friendly with Johnny Cash, the kids have stayed at least in some contact, and they were able to have Cash’s son and Orbison’s sons play, then they took Roy’s demo vocals, cleaned them up, and added them in.

The Cash and Orbison friendship, of course, went back to them both being on the Sun label at the same time. In fact, it was Cash who suggested Orbison contact Sam Phillips at Sun. They often told the story, too, that Cash told Orbison he’d make out better in a music career if he changed his name and lowered his voice.

They ended up as neighbors on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville. When Roy’s house burned in 1968, killing his two oldest sons, Roy sold the lot to Johnny, since it bordered his own. He built his new home with Barbara just a few hundred feet farther away. Johnny vowed no one else would live there and planted a fruit orchard, which I am told still produces. Johnny was the godfather of Roy’s remaining son from that first marriage, which is Wesley. Johnny later gave the deed to the orchard lot to Wesley.

What are some of the great surprises for you from his history? For example, Carl Perkins tells a story of Orbison tackling “Indian Love Song” on stage and leaving audiences, the band, and those backstage silent and stunned by the brilliance.

It’s taken a while to imagine, but back in the earliest days of Roy’s career, with his bands The Wink Westerners and The Teen Kings, there was apparently a lot of jumping and wild antics going on while on stage. Roy’s song “The Bug”, for instance, had an involved bit of business where the band members would mimic throwing a bug at one another and trying to jump out of the way to avoid having it land on them. The casual fan usually doesn’t know much about Roy’s rockabilly days.

My understanding is you’re pretty well-known as an encyclopedia of musical history. What’s the attraction for you? Obviously it’s fascinating, and I absolutely appreciate how music is an important part of just about any era of history you’d like to explore. In addition, the connections between musicians, stories about some songs (and the stories behind them from the history of their recording to those involved in the process) and more are incredible. And with a character like Orbison, who’s talent was immense and his interaction with others in music borders on jaw-dropping, I’m guessing many people feel the need to test your awareness about him, his life and his career.

I’m usually up to the challenge. I have the most difficulty with folks who style themselves experts, but who have some details wrong and just get adamant about it. Roy has been my primary focus for decades. I wouldn’t expect to come to your job and try to trip you up on the fine points of what you do, but some folks do think they’re going to show me up. They don’t seem to understand that I am more than a wig and a pair of shades.

I did, at one time, have an extensive collection of 78 rpm records and even older Edison cylinders. I love the pop songs of the period from 1900 to 1930. There’s just something so earnest and innocent about them, and they can be terrifically funny. I guess my hero from that time period would be a tenor named Billy Murray. He recorded literally hundreds of songs for dozens of different record labels, most of them in the years before there were electric microphones. He had to be positioned in front of an enormous horn that would transfer his voice directly to a wax master disc.

I don’t know how often you perform as Conway Twitty, and know that there are others areas you pursue professionally. What are some of those and where did they begin?

Conway came into my life through my then landlady. She had become a member of my fan club, but her heart belonged to Conway Twitty. She insisted that the character was one I could do, and pretty much would not take “no” for an answer. I have enjoyed performing the songs for the last few years, as it gives me a chance to do things I would not do as Roy. The voice is generally pitched lower, the lyrics are more blatant in their earthiness, and I enjoy getting the chance to put some color into my wardrobe for a change.

I had the pleasure of asking Brigitte Valdez this question, as she regularly performs it as part of her tribute for Celine Dion. And yet, it is a very unrecognized version by Roy Orbison that I believe became the first recordings of the song. And so… I wonder how you feel about the different versions of “I Drove All Night” and if you perform the song at some of your shows. As I know the story… the song was originally written for Orbison. He recorded it around the time he working with the Traveling Wilburys and also recording his album Mystery Girl. But, it was ultimately left off that album and then he passed away before it was released on King of Hearts. Cyndi Lauper then recorded it and released it before Roy’s version came out. These days, most people know the Celine version. (By the way, full disclosure, I enjoy all three versions of this song that I mentioned, but would rate them Orbison’s, Lauper’s, and then Dion’s. I don’t fault Brigitte at all for being partial to Celine’s.)

When I am in a cast with a Celine, I am just as happy to let her do the song. Roy may have done, to my ears, a more interesting version, Celine did have the recognizable hit with it. Further, Roy never performed the song in front of a live audience, so I don’t feel I am leaving anything out of the experience for the listener if I don’t include it in my set.

What is the biggest draw to the stage for you? What parts of performing do you enjoy the most?

I can’t think of any part I don’t like!

When developing a set list for your full-length shows, what thoughts go into selecting the songs?

For me personally, a set list would include a lot of things that don’t end up being included. The audience came to hear the songs they know from Roy, so one must do the hits. I tell people now that I have performed “Oh, Pretty Woman” probably more than Roy did, as he never had a Legends contract doing it a dozen times a week! Still, I’d be booed off the stage were I to try to do a show without it.

Roy is so well known, overall, for the ballads that it can be a challenge to put together a show that will have some good up-tempo numbers involved. I try to mix things up and I try to put in at least a few more obscure numbers that the truly die-hard fans will know, if no one else does.

What have ben some of your proudest experiences? Do you ever get surprised by the reactions of audiences to your work?

Let me just say, I know a few performers who do not care for post-show Meet and Greet experiences with those hardy audience members who stick around. I absolutely love them! Nearly every session will provide a chance to chat with folks who actually attended one of Roy’s shows or who had some family member who knew someone who knew someone who knew Roy. I once met a woman who told me that Roy had once been her babysitter in Texas, her parents living in the same town as the Orbisons in the 1940s.

Proud moments? Five years ago, at the time of the 75th anniversary of Roy's birth, the Orbison estate, then run by his widow Barbara, sent greetings and door prizes of hats and tee shirts and such to a show I was doing in New York State. We became the only “Official” 75th birthday show in North America, and one of only three in the world, the others being in England and Australia.

Meeting people who knew and worked with Orbison, band members or promoters or the like, is always a thrill. They give me insights into the man’s nature, and while I might not report verbatim what I have been told, I feel like I meld them into what I put out there when I am portraying the man.

What we can we look forward to seeing from you next? How can people keep track of you and your performances?

I’m on Facebook, with show information and lots of other kinds of posts, and a website with photos, audio and video clips, and an up-to-date schedule of appearances can be found at

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It was an absolute thrill to work on this project with Brian McCullough, and I cannot fully express my gratitude for his participation. He has been amazing.

Brian never failed to respond to any of my questions, often with fantastic thoughts and stories that immediately led off along an equally entertaining though totally different path. It has been the kind of experience you never want to see come to a close.

Brian has a busy schedule, with his own full shows, as part of ensemble casts, and as a featured member of Legends in Concert. If you should ever have a chance to see him perform, do whatever you can to get to the show. For more details on upcoming events, his calendar is regularly updated on his official web site.

If you would like any other information about Brian, or to check out our photo gallery, please take a look around…

The official web site of Brian McCullough

Brian McCullough tribute artist page on Facebook

Brian McCullough at Legends in Concert

The Brian McCullough photo gallery at In My Backpack

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at