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?
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.)
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.
the time to get it right though, while working with good material
and individuals, and it can be magical.
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.
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
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.
developing the introduction to Brian we’ll arrive at in a moment,
it hit me.
of the most memorable descriptions I ever heard about Roy Orbison
went like this: “He was a gentleman, and a gentle man.”
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
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.
has been an honor to work on this project with him, and I simply
cannot thank him enough for his patience and his time.
~ ~ ~
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.
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…
was born and raised in New England, with a family that includes
fifteen generations of its history in the northeastern United
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.
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…
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
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.
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.”
gentleman and a gentle man.
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.
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).
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.
~ ~ ~
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
was a working radio guy, with a beard and long curly hair. It
just happened that some folks thought I sounded like Roy.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
is the biggest draw to the stage for you? What parts of performing
do you enjoy the most?
can’t think of any part I don’t like!
developing a set list for your full-length shows, what thoughts
go into selecting the songs?
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
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.
have ben some of your proudest experiences? Do you ever get surprised
by the reactions of audiences to your work?
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.
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.
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.
we can we look forward to seeing from you next? How can people
keep track of you and your performances?
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 www.BrianMcCulloughShow.biz.
~ ~ ~
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.
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.
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.
you would like any other information about Brian, or to check
out our photo gallery, please take a look around…
official web site of Brian McCullough
McCullough tribute artist page on Facebook
McCullough at Legends in Concert
Brian McCullough photo gallery at In My Backpack