Monday, July 31, 2006

Roy Orbison

Well, in case any of you are wondering, I am still unhappy. I feel as if my life has just ended and that now I merely exist for no real reason and with no real purpose. I certainly do not think I will ever be happy again. I guess this is what happens when one loses his hopes and dreams, when his fondest desires are utterly crushed. He becomes one of the living dead.

Anyhow, today I thought I would discuss a musical artist whose music I'll probably listening to quite a bit in the coming months: Roy Orbison. Orbison was a legendary pioneer in rock 'n' roll and a songwriter of some note. He was perhaps best known for his many, often sad ballads. Despite this, his biggest hit and best known song is purely rock, the classic "(Oh) Pretty Woman."

Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas on April 23, 1936. His family would eventually move to the town of Wink, Texas where he would spend much of his childhood. Orbison attended North Texas State College in Denton, Texas and Odessa Junior College in Odessa, Texas.

Orbison became interested in music very early and he formed his first band he was all of 13. The Wink Westerners proved successful enough to have their own weekly show on Kermit, Texas radio station KERB. They would even appear on TV on shows that aired on KMID and KOSA, both in the Midland-Odessa area. In 1956, with the Wink Westerners renamed "The Teen Kings," Orbison headed to Memphis, Tennessee to try to break into the recording industry. Orbison signed with Sun Records, founded by legendary producer Sam Phillips. Today many of Roy Orbison's songs recorded at Sun are considered classics, but at the time he saw very little success. His only hit while he was at Sun Records was the song "Ooby Dooby," a minor hit from 1956. Orbison eventually moved from Sun Records to RCA. It was in 1959 that he was signed by Monument Records, where his biggest hits were recorded.

Orbison's first song, a rockabilly tune titled "Uptown," was only a moderate success. It would be the song"Only the Lonely" that would be his first major hit. Released in May 1960, the song would eventually reach #2 on the United States Billboard charts and #1 on the United Kingdom singles charts. The song displayed his signature vocal range and his practice of incorporating instruments usually reserved for orchestras (vioins, for instance) into rock music. His next single, "Running Scared," would go to #1 on the Billboard charts. For the next several years he would be among the biggest rock artists of the era, with several hit singles to his credit. Indeed, his best known songs, "Crying," "In Dreams," and "Oh, Pretty Woman" would all be included in Rolling Stone Magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" in 2004.

Orbison's songs were characterised by his nearly operatic vocals. They were also often characterised by sounds that as of yet had not been heard in rock 'n' roll. His classic "In Dreams," with its nearly epic quality, eschewed the typical structure of a pop song of the era. While most songs of the era tended to repeat certain sections of their music, "In Dreams" progresses through different musical sections that are not repeated. Of course, Orbison is probably best known for the lyrics of his songs, which are often about lost love. "Only the Lonely," "Crying," and "In Dreams" all paint portraits of men who have lost love and are not the better for it.

Of course, Orbison's biggest success would come with a happier song. "Oh, Pretty Woman" was released in 1964 and was the first American record to break The Beatles' stranglehold at the top of the Billboard charts. Indeed, the song not only went to the #1 spot, but sold more copies than any other single in its first ten days up to that time. Unfortunately, Orbison's career would virtually collapse following the success of "Oh, Pretty Woman." While his music was still popular throughout much of the rest of the world, the British Invasion insured Orbison remained hitless in his home of America. To complicate matters, the Sixties saw tragedy visit Orbison several times. His wife of 11 years, Claudette, died in a motorcycle crash in 1966. His home in Henderson, Tennessee burned to the ground in 1968, killing two of his sons.

Although Orbison would see success outside of the United States, his career would not be revived here until the Eighties. In 1980 he performed a duet with bluebrass singer Emmylou Harris, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again." The song saw some success on the Billboard country charts. Nineteen eight six saw the release of the movie Blue Velvet, which included the song "In Dreams." With new interest in his early work, Orbison was once more in demand. He recorded a special for Cinemax, Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night in 1988. The special featured such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and so on, performing as back up to the legendary Orbison. With its success Orbison would go onto record with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne (of ELO), Tom Petty, and George Harrison as part of The Travelling Wilburys. The Traveling Wilburys were fairly successful and Orbison went onto record the solo album Mystery Girl. Sadly, just as his career was once more getting underway, Roy Orbison died from a heart attack on December 15, 1988. Shortly after his death, the song "You Got It" would become one of his biggest singles.

Roy Orbison was one of the greatest rock artists of all time. In fact, for the early Sixties, his songs were far more sophisticated rhythmically, melodically, and lyrically than other songs released at the time. His songs often broke with pop songwriting tradition and, listened to today, were obviously well ahead of his time. His voice spanned an impressive three octaves, perhaps making him the greatest singer in the genre of rock. Roy Orbison also proved to be an influence on other classic rock artists. He had an incredible influence on the British Invasion bands, particulary both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (in 1963, while touring in Britain, he encouraged The Beatles to go to America). Among other artists Orbison would have an influence were Bob Dylan, The Bee Gees, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, lyricist Bernie Taupin, the Electric Light Orchestra, U2, and, most obviously, Chris Isaak ("Wicked Game" sounds as if it could have been both written and sung by Orbison). I rather suspect that if a top ten most influential artists of rock music was ever compiled, Roy Orbison would most certainly have to be included.


RC said...

very interesting, i enjoyed reading this piece very much b/c while I recognize some of the songs, I've never heard anything about Roy Orbison before...

thanks for sharing and taking the time to put that information out in words.

--RC of

David Kirk said...

Hello from Kermit, Texas!

Terence Towles Canote said...

Cool, where Roy had his first radio show!