I close my eyes,
Then I drift away.
He never did really fit in. He wore all black and he never removed those dark sunglasses while he would hit those high notes, like a girl: A very ugly girl who would have made a great Goth chick these days. I always suspected that he was a heroin addict, since I never saw his pupils and long sleeves or a coat jacket always hid his arms. This is not meant to imply that Mr. Orbison actually was a junkie; only that this was my impression of him later on in life when I was staring at my big toe, over there on that couch. But anyone who thinks Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis or Buddy Holly were the most important folks in the evolution of popular music have not really understood the big picture.
Mr. Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, on April 23, 1936. It has been said that those born under the sun sign of Taurus are normally placid, calm and contented. I think that fits Mr. Orbison quite well. When on stage, you could hardly see his mouth move as he sang those chilling ballads. He never looked at his hands as he played his huge black Gretsch Project-O-Sonic with a Gibson Super 400 neck.
I first heard him on the radio in 1960 when I was a ten year old kid, driving to Florida on a vacation with my parents and my older female cousin. We were in a lime green 1959 Chevy Impala; the ones with the huge teardrop tail lights. No uglier car was ever made in Detroit, but no more beautiful music had ever come out of a car radio. I'm sure Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel) was a huge hit, because we heard it several times on that long drive. My cousin and I would sing along, at the top of our lungs, as Mr. Orbison wailed "But that’s a chance you've got to take" and the colored girls sang "dum, dum, dum, dum de do waa." Well, they were really white guys who sounded a whole lot like The Everly Brothers, but it sounded better to imagine them being the colored girls. Research shows that this song did reach #2 in the States and #1 in Britain. It sold over 2 million copies.
He was signed with Monument Records at that time, and after Only the Lonely, his best work followed: Running Scared, Crying, Dream Baby, In Dreams, and It's Over are my favorites. Oh, Pretty Woman was his biggest seller, but that never was a favorite of mine. It sounds hackneyed and forced when compared to the real gems.
He had begun as a country singer, and Johnny Cash put him in touch with the folks over at Sun Records. Mr. Orbison sent them a demo of Ooby Dooby, a silly little throwaway number which became a hit in 1956, and this was followed by several similar records. He was always leaning closer to writing the ballads which would become his trademark. He left Sun Records in 1957 and moved to Nashville where he began working with Joe Melson. They co-wrote most of the songs you know, if you listen to Roy Orbison's music very much.
Mr. Orbison and Elvis both seemed to have listened to a lot of opera. I think both of them would have been loath to admit it, but just listen to Elvis sing It's Now or Never, the traditional Italian melody better known in Europe as O Sole Mio. And listen to Mr. Orbison sing those ballads with the crescendos that give you the chilliest of chillbumps.
When he left Monument Records and signed with MGM in 1965, it as if he'd dropped off the planet. I didn't think about him for several years, except when I'd hear one of his songs on the oldies station. He was steadily working in all those lean years, but the sad fact was that his songs were starting to all sound like rehashed versions of what he'd been so successful with early on. The royalties from worldwide sales of his old material kept him comfortable, but it must have been hard on him to fade away like some old soldier, at such an early age.
He had several personal tragedies during these lean years. He tried his hand at acting and made a fool of himself doing so, playing himself on such dramatic mistakes as The Dukes of Hazzard. He was attempting a reconciliation with his estranged wife, Claudette, when she died in a motorcycle wreck in 1966. A couple of years later, his house burned down and two of his sons died in that fire.
Somewhere along the way, a most unlikely thing happened. A very strange little man who made insane movies used a couple of his songs in a film called Blue Velvet. It must have had something to do with their common fascination concerning dreams. Then T-Bone Burnett produced an album of re-recordings of his best work.
The epiphany of just how marvelous he had always been, for me, was when he fronted the extraordinary TV special recorded at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles called Roy Orbison and Friends: a Black and White Night. I taped this when it first aired in the late 1980's and watched it many, many times. Several current stars made guest appearances; folks such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, k.d. lang, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Jennifer Warnes, Elvis Costello and some others. I learned how much admiration Elvis Costello had for Mr. Orbison when I saw him perfectly content to just sit there and play rhythm guitar in the background with the look of total admiration in his eyes. Some others, like Tom Petty, tried to steal the show. But the man in black just stood his ground and did what he did best. He was in control and everyone (except maybe the most butt-ugly man in rock and roll) knew it.
By this time, he had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and had tried his hand at the semi-mess that was The Traveling Wilburys. This was some sort of SuperGroup with him, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison. I tried to avoid listening to this mess, even though some have told me they enjoyed parts of their work.
Possibly due to the work load after so many years of living a fairly inactive life, on December 6, 1988, at the age of 52, he died suddenly from a heart attack at Hendersonville Hospital in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He was at his mother's house and had been complaining of chest pains prior to the trip to the hospital.
For some of the most important listening you will ever do, find a copy of the duet with k.d. lang and Mr. Orbison on his song, Crying. For another perspective, find the version that my hero David Lynch included in his film, Mulholland Drive. Angelo Badalamenti arranges for Rebekah Del Rio to perform an a cappella version in Spanish and it will curl your toes if you have toes to curl. It's a wonderful scene where the magician has convinced the audience that nothing is as it seems, but it does seem as if the actress is singing this song. That is, until she either faints or drops dead as the last few bars continue to play as if nothing has happened. David Lynch is going to be remembered as the Federico Fellini of America. You may not live to see the acclaim he'll get in history, but I am telling you that it'll happen. And this use of Roy Orbison's music in is films will be one of the reasons. He's used Orbison before, as you probably know. The Candy Colored Clown (They Call the Sandman) was a very large part of Blue Velvet.
If you'd like to hear the current singer/songwriter who sounds as if he owes the most to Mr. Orbison, try listening to Chris Isaak.
"Roy's songs were not so much about dreams as like dreams." –Tom Waits