Eighty-three years ago today, Roy Orbison was born in the North Texas town of Vernon. The singer with the darkly operatic voice would shine among the early architects of rock & roll, emphasizing a gift for bold balladry in tunes such as “Running Scared,” “In Dreams” and “Crying,” while also projecting an air of enigmatic masculine swagger on classics like 1964’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.”
While several of Orbison’s songs were covered by artists across several genres during and beyond his lifetime, one cover reignited interest in the entertainer, whose record sales had all but dried up even as he continued to tour the world. In 1977, Linda Ronstadt cut “Blue Bayou,” which was originally recorded by Orbison in 1961 but not released until 1963. The tune was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic coming just months after Orbison had finished a U.K. tour with the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers, and while he was on a Stateside hot streak having already hit with “Only the Lonely,” “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” and “In Dreams.”
While both Ronstadt’s version of “Blue Bayou” and Orbison’s a decade earlier were well-known entries in their respective discographies, there’s another version of the song that has continued to prove exceptionally rare. In contrast to the slower, more deliberately-paced version that would become the Orbison hit, he also cut the song with an entirely different vocal delivery, quickening the pace and effectively removing some of the longing and melodrama. Although the background vocals appear to be identical, the instrumentation and Orbison’s vocals are quite a departure from the familiar version. This one, which appears to have only been released as a single in Italy, even managed to elude Germany’s exhaustive archival record label, Bear Family, and as such wasn’t included on their otherwise comprehensive seven-disc boxed set covering Orbison’s Monument output from 1955 to 1965.
Orbison, who was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987, would begin the Eighties with a Top Ten country hit, “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again,” and experience even more of a renaissance as the decade wound down, taking part in the supergroup Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. In early 1989, he would have his biggest solo country hit with the Top Ten “You Got It” from the LP Mystery Girl. It was his first solo album of the decade, completed just weeks before he suffered a fatal heart attack on December 6th, 1988, at just 52 years old.