Roy Orbison is known for his unique operatic voice and emotional ballads. His distinctive baritone and melancholy vocal and songwriting style had a great influence on American rock and pop music.
Among rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers, Orbison was different. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had that pound the piano self confidence. Elvis Presley had his sexy hip shake swagger. Chuck Berry had one of a kind guitar riffs to go with his trademark duck walk.
But Orbison, with his thick glasses, salesman looks and stiff stage presence stood out.
He had that “geek chic” style that expressed and connected to what he sang about and how he sang it.
Orbison started his music career in the mid 1950s, recording the songs “Ooby Dooby” and “Go! Go! Go!“, but We’ll skip the 1950s and jump to his break: he landed a record deal with Monument Records in 1960 and after the Everlys Brothers and Elvis rejected his composition “Only the Lonely,” he recorded it himself for Monument. The song became a huge hit – going all the way up to No. 2 in the U.S.
The lyrics in “Only the Lonely” were typical Orbison:
There goes my baby
There goes my heart
They’re gone forever
So far apart
But only the lonely
Know why I cry
Only the lonely
And that takes us to another point:
His writing style
While most male rock and roll performers in the 1950s and 1960s projected a defiant masculinity, Orbison wasn’t afraid to sing about fear, anxiety, loss or insecurity.
Many of his songs rejects the verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure of the majority of rock and roll and instead the lyrics arranged in a way that mirrors the story being told in the song.
In addition, he used his voice to fill in the lyrics with emotions that correspond with the story, usually starting the song half-spoken and half-sung (Sprechgesang fashion) and rising until the powerful climax. “In Dreams” is a really good example for all the mentioned above:
He calls These songs “climax songs” – they start quietly enough, but the music swells, Orbison`s voice goes into the higher octaves, the drums get louder and all the other elements build to a crescendo.
Noted for being a song written without a chorus, “Running Scared” builds in the lyrics, arrangement, and vocals to a climax that demonstrates the power of Orbison’s clear, full voice.
The song’s template was unusual, a unique form of pop song that really hadn’t previously existed. (this song is worth further reading)
More about his songs structure here.
Rise to fame and career decline
Orbison have had great success in the early 60s.
Between 1960 and 1965, he recorded nine Top 10 hits and another ten that broke into the Top 40.
Funny story –
in April 1963, Orbison was asked to go on a tour of the UK in top billing with the Beatles. promoters were wary of Orbison as a draw; he was not conventionally attractive or animated while performing, and they wondered if audiences would walk out. The tour sold out in one afternoon, however. Orbison’s first meeting with John Lennon was awkward because Orbison was overwhelmed with the amount of advertising devoted to the Beatles when it was he who was supposed to headline the show. He had never heard of the Beatles, and annoyed, asked rhetorically, “What’s a Beatle, anyway?” to which John Lennon replied, after tapping his shoulder, “I am”.
On the opening night, Orbison opted to go onstage first, although he was the more established act. The Beatles stood dumbfounded backstage as Orbison sang through 14 encores. Finally, when the audience screamed for a fifteenth encore, Lennon and McCartney physically held Orbison back from re-entering the stage.
In 1964 he released “Oh, Pretty Woman” that rose to number 1 in both the US and the UK. Orbison was the only American artist to have a number-one single in Britain and He did it twice, with ‘It’s Over’ on June 1964, and ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ on October 1964.
Although the first half of the 1960s saw the rise of Orbison’s star, the second half of the decade brought harder times. Tragedy struck when Orbison’s wife was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966, and again when his two oldest sons died in a house fire in 1968. Following those incidents, a devastated Orbison failed to generate hits—and with the rise of the psychedelic movement in rock ‘n’ roll, the market for rockabilly had all but dried up anyway.
Orbison continued touring and recording albums in the 1970s, but none of them sold well.
By the mid-1970s he stopped recording music altogether and his career sank.
Orbison returned to his musical career in 1980, however, when the Eagles invited him to join them on their “Hotel California” tour. That same year, he performed a duet with Emmylou Harris which went on to win a Grammy Award (“That Lovin’ You Feeling Again”) and also Don Mclean’s cover of Orbison’s 60s hit “Crying” went number 1 in the UK.
By the late 1980s, Orbison had staged a successful comeback and in 1987 was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and was initiated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The same year Orbison had filmed a concert and was joined by TCB band, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, k.d. lang and more.
(The sharp-eyed will also spot Kris Kristofferson and Leonard Cohen in the audience)
Go! Go! Go!(Down the line), 1987 Black&White Night concert
(All i can do is) dream you, 1987 Black&White Night concert
Traveling Wilburys and his last years
In 1988 Orbison began collaborating with ELO’s Jeff Lynne on a new album. Jeff Lynne himself had just completed working with George Harrison on his Cloud Nine album, and one day all three ate lunch together when Orbison accepted an invitation to sing on Harrison’s new single. They subsequently contacted Bob Dylan who allowed them to use a recording studio in his home. Along the way, Harrison made a quick visit to Tom Petty’s residence to obtain his guitar. By that evening, the group had written “Handle with Care”, which led to the concept of recording an entire album.
They called themselves the Traveling Wilburys.
(George Harrison talking about forming the Wilburys.)
Traveling Wilburys – Handle With Care
Orbison sings here the line “i’m so tired of being lonely…” that references to his 60s hit “Only The Lonely”
The making of “You Got It”
Sadly, Orbison died of a heart attack on Dec. 6, 1988, at the age of only 52, just before his new album release, and just as a new generation rediscovered him and embraced his music and voice.
He achieved great posthumous success being the first deceased musician since Elvis to have two albums in the US Top Five at the same time, with the Traveling Wilburys, and with his own “Mystery Girl”.
His untimely-death stopped his revived career at its peak, but Orbison left an incredible legacy that will always be a important part in the history of rock and pop music.