Monday, July 21, 2008


by Ronnie Lyon
I arrived at the Travelodge in Anaheim (corner of Ball and Harbor behind Disneyland) at around 5:00 or 6:00 PM. It was still daylight. The hotel manager said Roy would be down in few minutes or so. Roy and his road manager, who also played percussion in the touring band, came out soon after. I had the limo door open and after the usual niceties, the three of us sped off to the venue located a few miles away.
I knew the Celebrity Theater from a couple of shows I'd gone to. It had the revolving stage in the middle, and held five or six hundred people. I pulled the limo around to the artists’ entrance where some security guys whisked Roy into the building. I parked the limo across the street and got the interior squared away. About a half hour later I went to the same backstage door and the security guys let me in. I hadn't driven around a lot of musicians nor had I had much success getting backstage passes in my life, but I knew the routine. Shut up and make friends with whoever was in control.

 Inside, I cruised down the long, wide hallway, walking straight toward the doors that opened to the concert area. At the end of the large hallway, another big hallway opened up to my left. That's where you could see people milling about in front of the dressing rooms drinking and carrying on. Beyond the twenty or thirty people there, at the other end of that hallway, was the Green Room. That was where all the food and drink was. As I was standing there, taking it all in, I noticed a group of six or seven people standing in a small circle in front of one of the dressing rooms. They were chatting and drinking quite innocently. Then one of them cracked a joke and took a step back to light his cigarette. I noticed it was Tom Petty. I said to the security guy I was standing next to "Whoaaa! Dude! Check it out!" Looking a little closer, I saw that the group included Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and three fine looking women. Needless to say I was thrilled to see three of the greatest rock musicians standing not more than forty feet from me. I was a big fan of ELO, the Beatles and the Heartbreakers.
Showtime was approaching so I nonchalantly meandered down the hallway and stood with my heals to the wall just a few feet behind the group. I was within arms length of George Harrison. I tried not to look too conspicuous, but when you're wearing a black pinstripe suit backstage, it's not hard to miss the limo driver. George actually looked over his shoulder at me and nodded, kind of like "'s it going". It was unbelievable!
Shortly thereafter, Roy came out of his dressing room with his wife Barbara and their son, and followed his band mates out the stage door for the show. He played hit after hit. Hearing his voice live was incredible. He was killing it. I came to appreciate instantly what others had known for decades. This man was a true artist and an American treasure.
During the encore,before he came off stage, all the VIPs went back to the backstage area near the dressing rooms. Being the wallflower that I am, I again planted myself close to George, Tom, Jeff and the others. By this time George had taken over the conversation. He told a story of a time back in 1963 when the Beatles were on tour with Roy in northern England. When Roy finally emerged backstage, George broke away from the others, took a few steps, got down on two knees and began to bow his praises. Roy, who was approaching from the other end of the hall, laughed, and then he and George hugged each other.
I hung around awhile, soaking it all up, watching as everyone backstage congratulated Roy on a great show. Soon after, his wife Barbara told me that he would be leaving soon and asked if could I get the limo ready to take him back to the hotel.
As I left the building, I noticed a few dozen fans had gathered outside the artists' entrance. Security had them roped off and an aisle to the curb had been cleared. I brought the limo around and parked it at the curb. I had planned to get out, walk around and open the door for Roy, as is customary. As I stepped out from behind the wheel, the security guards said they would get it and I should be ready to pull away. Just as I got back in the driver's seat, Roy came out the backstage door to a big cheer from the fans.
I realized that the situation could turn out dangerous if I didn’t get him away clean. I wasn’t bonded or registered to carry a weapon for protection, as are most drivers who ferry around celebrities. I instantly became nervous realizing this was the real thing. I would be responsible to get him clear of the venue and back to motel safely. I waited for security to get him to the limo, and then we sped off for the hotel. I noticed a couple of cars were following us so I made a couple moves in traffic to lose them. On our way back to the motel, Roy asked if I could stop and get some cigarettes for him. I pulled into a nearby 7-11, and locked the limo doors as I went in. When I came out, I opened the door and handed him the cigarettes. He offered to pay me but I said they were on me. Luckily, nobody had followed us and I just wanted to get back to the hotel ASAP.
We got back to the Travelodge within a few minutes. I walked him inside and through the lobby. The hotel restaurant cook and several others shouted out to the famous guest as we walked to the elevator. He pushed the button on the elevator and I said to him what a memorable evening it was and that I was honored to meet him. We shook hands. The elevator door opened, he went in, turned around and said thanks for the ride. The door closed shut and off I went.
The bill had been paid beforehand and I didn’t get a tip. I didn’t even care.
Roy died eight months later on December 6.
Not long after, Rolling Stone did an entire issue paying tribute to Roy. One article had quotes from people who knew him and had worked with him. Tom Petty wrote a paragraph in the article where he described the night all the Wilburys (except Dylan) had gone to that show in Anaheim to ask him about joining the group full time. The Wilburys had already cut "Handle with Care" at Bob Dylan's recording studio in the Hollywood Hills. George, Tom, Jeff and their wives had all come down to Anaheim to see his show and ask him to join the group full time, finish the rest of the album and maybe do a tour.
I think I still have that issue somewhere. I kept it because I knew I had seen a piece of rock history happen before my eyes. It is the highlight story from the years I drove limos. 
One night, years later I heard Tom Petty on the radio. He was doing an interview on Rockline. I thought about calling in to remind him of that night, but the interview was half over and I didn't think I'd get through. I’d love to hear his memories of that night. I know l’ll never forget it.

Roy Orbison and Friends at the Celebrity Theater, April 1988