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Roy Orbison Remembered

With his stupendous voice, the singer brought a wider spectrum of emotion to rock & roll

Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison, circa 1970

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

In the beginning, Rock & Roll was about sex.

The very phrase was a black euphemism for a good roll in the hay. Chuck Berry wrote three-minute odes to teenage mating rituals, and what Elvis Presley did with his hips onstage most people dared not do even behind bedroom doors. Then a quiet, thoughtful Texan named Roy Orbison came along and proved to the world that rock & roll could also be about love – the cryin’, achin’, heart-breakin’ kind, the once-in-a-lifetime, through-trouble-and-strife variety. Blessed with a rich, mellifluous voice that shivered with operatic vibrato and soared to extraordinary heights, Orbison could sing like a man on the edge of orgasmic ecstasy or on the verge of tears, sometimes in the same song. He brought to rock & roll a spectrum of emotion as wide as his octave range, and he showed not only that it was okay for a grown man to cry but also that one could find strength through sorrow. When Roy Orbison sang “Only the Lonely,” you could hear in his trembling, bittersweet tenor that he was singing for all the lonely. Suddenly, you didn’t feel so alone anymore.

That Orbison touched a highly sensitive nerve among rock & roll fans is evident from his career statistics: twenty-two singles on the Billboard charts, including eight in the Top Ten, between 1960 and 1966; more than 30 million records sold, according to Orbison’s own estimate. But numbers are hardly an adequate measure of his real achievements. Roy Orbison was a pioneering stylist, marrying lush orchestration and propulsive rock & roll arrangements. He created a sumptuous yet eerily introspective sound ideally suited to his minioperas of love and pain – “Crying,” “Running Scared,” “Blue Bayou,” “Leah,” “In Dreams,” “Only the Lonely.” He was fearlessly eclectic, heightening the melodrama with sophisticated rhythmic devices, like the martial bolero beat of “Running Scared,” and elaborate choral flourishes in which a mere “dum dum dum dum-bedoo-wah” (“Only the Lonely”) could speak volumes.

Like his closest contemporary rival, Phil Spector, another would-be Wagner, Orbison brought a splendor to rock & roll that equaled its native energy and liberating spirit. Orbison’s songs expanded rock’s emotional palette and broadened its musical vocabulary. He could also rip it up with the best of them. His biggest hit was 1964’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” a masterpiece of horny prowl ‘n’ growl, and the flip sides of his ballads were often lowdown, swaggering rockers like “Candy Man” and “Mean Woman Blues.” His specialty, however, was the heart in rock & roll. And when he took aim, he rarely missed. To see Orbison in one of the vintage publicity photos from his early-Sixties heyday, it was hard to imagine he was capable of expressing so much emotion, and with such dramatic immediacy. Dressed in black from the tips of his shoes to the imposing crest of his high pompadour, gazing out from behind dark sunglasses with an enigmatic smile, the soft-spoken balladeer looked more like an inscrutably hip mortician than a rock & roll singer.

Orbison began his career at Sun Records in the company of wild cats like Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, first scoring nationally with the rockabilly romp “Ooby Dooby.” But Orbison was an anomaly among the first-generation rockers, awkward in the face of rock & roll’s primal energy, more at home with the melodic comforts of pop and the confessional poignancy of country music. To Orbison, rockabilly was a detour from what he considered his true calling. He grew up on a diet of smooth pop and classic country, and his first band, the Wink Westerners, had a repertoire that included “In the Mood,” “Moonlight in Vermont” and country hits by Webb Pierce. After three years at Sun Records, where Sam Phillips unsuccessfully attempted to mold him into another Presley, Orbison tried his luck at RCA, where he floundered under the misdirection of Chet Atkins. Finally, under the sympathetic aegis of producer Fred Foster at the Nashville-based Monument label, Orbison hit his stride.

His third release, “Only the Lonely,” was a song he had written with his frequent collaborator Joe Melson; it had been turned down by the Everly Brothers. Orbison’s version went to Number Two in 1960 and sold a million copies. That success allowed him to pursue his unique vision of rock & roll balladry. The beguiling beauty of records like “Crying” and “Running Scared” belied the complex feelings of fear and paranoia encoded in Orbison’s lyrics. The love angst of his 1963 single “In Dreams,” for example, borders on the surreal, Orbison’s voice rising in simulated climax as he finally finds romantic solace in deepest slumber, courtesy of “a candy-colored clown they call the sandman.” That surreal quality came to the fore in Dean Stockwell’s bizarre miming of the song in David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet.

Orbison’s hit streak ground to a halt in the late Sixties after he signed with MGM. His records suffered from limp production, and his own songwriting only faintly recalled the eccentric brilliance of his classic work. There were periodic attempts to break his slump – a 1977 LP with Foster; 1979’s Laminar Flow; 1985’s Class of ’55, an anticlimactic Million Dollar Quartet reunion with Orbison sitting in for the departed Presley – distinguished only by the irrepressible dynamism of Orbison’s voice. His fortunes turned in 1980 with “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again,” a duet with Emmylou Harris that became a country hit and won a Grammy. At the time of his death, Orbison was finally back in the Top Ten – for the first time in over twenty years – as one-fifth of the Traveling Wilburys.

Mystery Girl, Orbison’s debut album for Virgin Records (not counting In Dreams: The Greatest Hits, a double album of re-recordings issued in 1987), was to have been the capper of this remarkable comeback. The album was written and produced with a supporting cast of all-star acolytes, including Elvis Costello, Bono, T Bone Burnett and fellow Wilburys Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. Orbison turned his singular voice loose on a classy selection of ballads and rockers combining the epic gestures of his old Monument hits with the earthy production of the Traveling Wilburys album. Mystery Girl is classic Orbison, a timely reminder of– and now a final monument to – the enduring power of his singing. “Now everybody knows that nobody sings like Roy Orbison,” Bruce Springsteen declared when he inducted Roy Orbison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Nobody ever will. 

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