A salute to the Big O

John Stephan. (Supplied)

Matt Hewson

Roy Orbison’s songs are sung around the world by many cover and tribute artists, but only one man is endorsed by the Big O’s family.

John Stephan, Sydney born and raised, never thought much about being a singer; he just was.

“I’ve been singing publicly since I was four; as a child I was in multiple choirs including the Australian Opera Children’s Chorus and the Young Sydney Singers, which is where I was asked to sing for the Queen when she came (in 1988),” Stephan said.

“My two brothers are singers – one is an opera singer – my mum was a singer, her uncles were singers, my father’s uncle was a professional singer. So it’s been in the family for a very long time. I guess it’s no wonder I became a singer.

“It’s probably the most natural thing I can do; I don’t really have to think about it, I just do it. I love the way that it can have an effect on everyone around you.

“I think it has a deep impact on people. It’s that universal language that somehow knows how to unlock emotions… it’s a way of healing.”

After beginning studies in music at university, Stephan decided to move to New York – “All the lecturers and teachers said just go and do it, so I moved to America” – where his demo CD fell into the hands of renowned producer and hit songwriter Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.

“I left the CD in a building I thought was a booking agency, but they didn’t get it,” Stephan said.

“Babyface had an office in the building, he actually owned it. And he heard the CD and loved it.

“We became friends and I ended up living with his family for about two years.”

Some years later, Stephan came to the attention of country superstar Vince Gill and was invited by him to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.

“That was a real honour, not many Australians have been invited to be on that,” Stephan said.

“(Gill) had asked me to sing Crying, so I sang that, among other things. And as I walked off the stage, in the wings was the Orbison family.

“They were impressed. And I became very good friends with Wesley, Roy’s eldest son.”

Soon after, with Wesley’s blessings, Stephan hit Las Vegas with his Roy Orbison: You Got It show.

“(Wesley) was very excited by that, and happy for me do it, mainly because he knew I wasn’t an impersonator; I was an original artist,” Stephan said.

“So he put his name behind it and fully supported it. I was in Las Vegas for about two years doing that show, in 2008 and 2009.”

Since that time, he has continued to return to the You Got It in between original projects, and said there was a reason Orbison’s songs continue to resonate with audiences.

“It’s the honesty in the music, it’s very honest and deeply emotional,” he said.

“(Orbison’s music) isn’t just a good melody, or a good hook, or a rhythm. You could listen to it and come away thinking you’ve watched a movie; it really has story, you know?

“You go and that journey with him as he sings, and hopefully in our show when I sing it. We try to keep the music very much like it was written for that reason.”

John Stephan’s You Got It is at Geelong Arts Centre on Saturday, February 17.