The moment came early in every concert Roy Orbison gave for the last two decades of his life; in a way, it was as electric a moment as the instant Elvis Presley stepped onto a concert stage and found himself blinded by the glare of a thousand Instamatic flashbulbs. In Orbison’s case, though, that instant of recognition, the tremor that came when audience members were reminded why they’d come, happened not when he ambled onstage, and not when his backup singers sang, “Dum dum dum dum-bedoo-wah” — the nonsense syllables that began the opening song, “Only the Lonely.”
At a Roy Orbison show, the moment of epiphany came when Orbison stepped up to the microphone and sang, “Only the lonely/Know the way I feel tonight.” Every night, in clubs and concert halls and auditoriums and state fairs, you’d hear an audible gasp, a wave of applause. Every night, the audience would be full of people thinking exactly the same thing: “My God, he sounds just like he did in 1960.”
And from the early to middle Sixties, when he recorded twenty-two Top Forty hits, to his death of a heart attack on December 6th, 1988, he always sounded just like the Roy Orbison of our memories and dreams: the pure, aching melancholy, the bursts of passion that were invariably called “operatic,” the overwhelming power of a lonely man in black singing about lost loves and midnight fears. Night after night, he’d take the stage, stand dead still in the spotlight, speak barely a word to the audience and spin out one teenage passion play after another: “Crying,” “Running Scared,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “In Dreams.” The lyrics told you that love was at stake; the voice could convince you that lives were at stake.
And then he’d walk offstage, and the singer who’d unleashed such tremulous passion became shy, soft-spoken, gentle: if Elvis Presley once called him the best singer in the world, just about everyone else who knew Roy Orbison would add that he was also the sweetest man in rock & roll.
When he had his hits, he toured steadily. When his career faltered after personal tragedies and professional malaise, he kept on touring. And even in 1988, as he worked on one record that would be his first Top Ten LP in decades (Traveling Wilburys: Volume One) and another that seemed certain to seal his full-scale comeback (Mystery Girl), he still toured, playing the old songs on weekends and working on new ones during the week.
In late October he was a featured attraction at the Arizona State Fair, in Phoenix. While outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum families rode the Ferris wheel and gambled along the midway, inside Roy Orbison sang his hits. “Cover for me on any notes I don’t hit,” he said to his bass player backstage before the show, and the line got a big laugh; everybody in the room knew he’d hit every note of every song, and he did.
Afterward, he relaxed in the limousine carrying him back to his hotel, looking through the window at the bright neon and flashing lights of the fair. The Phoenix show marked the beginning of a series of Rolling Stone interviews with Orbison, conversations intended not for an obituary but for a story on the celebrated past and promising future of a rock & roll legend. And as Orbison peered through his thick glasses at the fairground sights, he began to reminisce.
“Ever seen a real medicine show?” he asked. “I played at one when I was ten years old, in Vernon, Texas. They just set up a bunch of benches in the dirt and strung up lights. And they told jokes and did skits and had a talent contest and sold this magic elixir. I was co-winner in the talent contest. Won $7.50, but my buddy went with me and carried my guitar and rooted for me, so he figured he ought to have half.” He chuckled softly. “That was my first taste of a manager.”
Roy Kelton Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, on April 23rd, 1936. When he was six, his parents gave him a guitar; at eight, he showed up so often at auditions for a local radio show that they made him a regular. Orbison loved Lefty Frizzell, Frankie Laine’s pop hit “Jezebel,” the odd instrumental and, after the family moved to Wink, in West Texas, Mexican music and the rhythm & blues songs that would soon coalesce into rock & roll. In high school, Orbison led a band called the Wink Westerners, later renamed the Teen Kings. A few years later the group recorded “Ooby Dooby,” a nonsense rockabilly track written by some of Orbison’s college classmates, in a Dallas studio. That version wasn’t released, and neither was a version cut in Clovis, New Mexico, with future Buddy Holly producer Norman Petty. But Sun Records head Sam Phillips heard the song and invited the Teen Kings to his history-making studio in Memphis. They cut it one more time, and it became a minor hit.
A handful of rockabilly-style tunes followed; none were hits. All along, Orbison had wanted to sing ballads. He also wanted a better deal on his songwriting royalties, and when Nashville publisher Wesley Rose said he could get the Everly Brothers to record a tune Orbison had written for his college sweetheart and wife-to-be, Claudette, Orbison left Sun and, like Elvis Presley, signed with RCA. Unlike Elvis, he didn’t sell many records, and in 1959, after a pair of singles, he moved to producer Fred Foster’s label, Monument Records.
This time, everything clicked. Orbison’s third Monument single, “Only the Lonely,” began a string of lushly arranged, inventively structured pop ballads: “Running Scared,” for instance, was a rock & roll bolero that slowly built to a pitch of lover’s paranoia before its dramatic, happy ending.
In the early Sixties, the anguished grandeur of those songs was rivaled only by the work of producer Phil Spector and his stable of girl groups. From the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen, young rockers and young dreamers were listening to the sound of Roy Orbison, the heartbreaking balladeer — and, on tunes like “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Working for the Man,” Roy Orbison, the rocker.
But Orbison’s momentum faded when he left Monument for a big-money deal with MGM Records in 1965. Subsequent producers, it seems, didn’t have the Fred Foster touch. The records were good but not great; a movie for MGM, a Civil War musical titled The Fastest Guitar Alive, didn’t do well.