Let’s talk about one of the most talented and inventive pop music stars that ever existed: the extraordinary Roy Orbison. Born in Vernon, Texas in 1936, the emotional operatic ballad singer-songwriter Roy Kelton Orbison was at heart a true rock ‘n’ roller.
What was it about the Big O (as he was called) that made him such a unique and popular artist? His voice? His guitar work? His glasses? His appearance? His unusual songwriting? His aloof stage presence? All this and more, including an incredible spirit.
His chart success—10 top ten hits and two number ones—only tell a small part of a huge story that starts in the west Texas town of Wink, where Roy grew up. Heavily influenced by country music, he formed a rockabilly band called The Wink Westerners, later to become The Teen Kings, whose first record hit the charts at Number 59 in 1956:
Ooby Dooby was one of several sterling sides that Roy cut with Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis, whose roster included Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Despite recording some great rockabilly singles and an album for Sun, Roy wasn’t promoted, and he left Sun in 1958 for RCA, where he concentrated on songwriting. His career was kept afloat by a tune he wrote about his wife Claudette Frady, which was a huge success for the Everly Brothers:.
Roy left RCA in 1960 after cutting seven singles that went nowhere. Roy’s career suddenly turned around when he met fellow songwriter Joe Melson and Monument label owner Fred Foster. Their first record together was an upbeat tune called Uptown. Orbison and Melson pitched their second song to the Everlies and to Presley, but were turned down. So Roy decided to record the song himself, using Nashville’s A-team of session musicians plus strings. It was produced with the rhythm in the background and the vocals up front, and it was the first of many songs where Roy’s operatic singing range was featured:
The only record keeping Only the Lonely out of the top spot on the charts was another Nashville-sound offering: Brenda Lee’s I’m Sorry. The next two Orbison-Melson songs were both very similar to Only the Lonely: Blue Angel and I’m Hurtin’. And both were constructed with Roy’s smooth and steady voice in mind, showcasing its range and power. One of the first artists to realize Roy’s gift was none other than Elvis Presley himself, who bought boxes of Roy’s records for his friends and who would later admit that Roy was the greatest singer he ever heard.
At the beginning of his career, which lasted from 1953 to 1988, Roy never thought much of his voice, relying more on his guitar chops. But as he progressed, and especially towards the end of his career, Roy acknowledged that he did like the sound of his voice. He once told Rolling Stone that he liked “making his voice sing, making it ring, and I just kept doing it. Somewhere between the time of Ooby Dooby and Only the Lonely it kind of turned into a good voice.”
Roy next single, was his first number one, and the one that changed the predictability of pop music. For one thing, it was based on the rhythm of Revel’s Bolero. No rocker had achieved that. For another, the lyrics revealed Roy’s stoicism, about a man terrified his previous girl’s boyfriend would take her away. And still for another, Roy feared he was unable to reach the song’s highest note without breaking up. His producer put him in the corner of the studio in a makeshift isolated booth. When the time came to sing the final note, Roy abandoned his falsetto and hit the note naturally, which caused all musicians present to stop playing in amazement.
Running Scared sounded like a production that Phil Spector might have come up with. So could Roy’s next single, which achieved the Number Two position on Billboard in August of 1962. Eighteen years later it would be a huge hit for Don McLean and help revitalize Roy’s career, and it would reveal a lovely duet with Roy and k.d. lang a few years later. It featured an unusual chord structure, starting out softly and culminating in thundering tympani and strings. The fifth Orbison-Melson composition was again produced by the Nashville A-team of session musicians.
On the flip side of Crying was an upbeat number written specifically for Roy by folk artist Fred Neil, known for his song Everybody’s Talking, and Beverly Ross, who wrote Lollipop. It was a departure in many ways, in that it was an uptempo blues number scored by a new backing group Roy had found, with a female chorus to match and a lyrical tune not about fear but about pleasing one’s woman. If you thought that Roy was just a dramatic ballad singer, his next two songs would prove otherwise.
If Roy had a problem, it was one of image that did not reflect his personality. That’s because he had no publicist, or someone to market him properly. He had little presence in fan magazines and hardly any on his record sleeves. Lifemagazine dubbed him the anonymous celebrity. Add wearing thick sunglasses on stage and what do you have? An image of mystery. It is said while on the first tour with The Beatles, Roy forgot his regular prescription glasses and had to use his sunglasses. The story continues with Roy being shy and suffering from stage fright, so he hid behind his sunglasses. This persona made him a star. And a rocker.
Roy continued to write songs with an unorthodox structure. Forever the dreamer, In February of 1963 Roy wrote a song about love lost. And if his voice in his previous songs didn’t convince you that he could wail with conviction, his range of two octaves he employs will blow your mind and your senses. The song certainly affected film director David Lynch when in 1987 he used the song in his movie Blue Velvet. It begins with what sounds like a lullaby that puts him to sleep, when he starts dreaming as the musical tempo picks up and leads to an incredible climax.
Following In Dreams, which reached Number 7, Roy recorded Falling, followed in September 1963 by the two-sided hit Mean Woman Blues backed with Blue Bayou, made famous again years later by Linda Rondstadt. Mean Woman Blueswas a real rocker. Written by Claude Demetrius, Elvis Presley recorded it in 1957 for the soundtrack of the movie Loving You. Roy never shared the stage with Elvis as performers, but he and the King hung around one-on-one. Roy’s version of the song is a kick-ass romp featuring a terrific female chorus along with a backing band that doesn’t quit. It reached Number 5.
Joe Melson got together with Roy to compose the ballad Blue Bayou, the A-side of Mean Woman Blues. The songwriting duo actually wrote the song in 1961, and Roy recorded it later in that year. It wasn’t released until 1963, where it charted at Number 29. It fared much better in the UK, whose adoration for the singer was unparalleled. The song appeared in Roy’s LP In Dreams. In 1963 Roy toured with The Beatles in the UK, not knowing who they were. Opening night, he went on stage before The Beatles, who had to drag him offstage because he was so popular. “What’s a Beatle, anyway?” he asked.
Roy also wrote with Bill Dees, whom he had known in Texas. A Number One hit in the UK, Number Nine in the states, It’s Over, released in 1964 during the onslaught of The Beatles, would become one of his signature songs for the rest of his career. Roy has said that he always was contented when he wrote songs about loneliness or tragedy. “When I was unhappy, I couldn’t eat or sleep, and I certainly couldn’t write songs. All the songs I wrote that were successful were written when I was in a contented state of mind.”
Roy’s best known and most popular song has always been Oh, Pretty Woman, Number One for three weeks in September of 1964. One time when his wife Claudette walked into a room where Roy and Bill Dees were writing, Roy asked her if she needed any money. Dees replied a pretty woman never needs any money. Forty minutes later, the tune was completed. His playful growl in the song came from a Bob Hope movie, and his use of “mercy” he uttered because he was unable to hit a high note. The “yeah yeah yeah” in the song probably came from The Beatles. The beat is irresistible and contagious:
Roy’s career took a turn for the worse when he left Monument and signed with MGM, who promised him a movie deal as well. That never happened, and his recording career at MGM for the remainder of the contract suffered immensely. He no longer recorded at RCA studios in Nashville, his writing partners were second rate, and the production of his songs paled in comparison to his work at Monument. Add to this the direction of pop music was shifting dramatically. His first song for MGM was his best:
Roy suffered two major tragedies in the late sixties. In June of 1966, his wife Claudette was killed in a motorcycle accident while riding with Roy in Gallatin, Tennessee. In September of 1968, while on tour in Britain, Roy learned that his two oldest sons had died in a fire that destroyed his house in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He met his second wife, Barbara Jakobs, a few weeks before his sons’ deaths. Roy’s recording career in the seventies practically disappeared. His health declined as well as he underwent major heart surgery in 1978. But in the eighties, Roy’s fortunes turned dramatically. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and not long after, cream of the crop top musicians and stars of the day celebrated with a taped concert, Roy Orbison and Friends: a Black and White Night. In 1988, Roy joined forces with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Bob Dylan, creating the super-group The Traveling Wilburys, formed after the hit song they all wrote led to an entire album. ELO founder Jeff Lynne said each and every band member was in awe of Roy Orbison:
- Handle With Care, The Traveling Wilburys
Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty helped Roy produce his next album, a solo effort called Mystery Girl. The single from that LP became a number nine hit for Roy. It would be Roy’s last chart entry. He was delighted in getting the second chance to pursue a refurbished career, saying “It’s very nice to be wanted again, but I still can’t believe it.” In the final weeks of his life he was in constant demand, touring and making videos. He was on top again.
In November of 1988, Roy Orbison confided to Johnny Cash he was having chest pains. He continued performing right up until he suffered a fatal heart attack at his mother’s house in Hendersonville on December 6 at the age of 52. Mystery Girl was released posthumously in January 1989. According to Rolling Stone, “Mystery Girl cloaks the epic sweep and granduer of his classic sound in meticulous modern production. The album encapsulates everything that made Roy Orbison great, and for that reason makes a fitting valedictory.”
:: King Harris