35 Years On: The Legacy of Roy Orbison

No one else has ever done with pop music what Roy Orbison did; he touches the hearts of listeners in a way that no other singer ever achieved.

Not even Elvis could match the strength, the passion and the pop opera supremacy of the Big O. Consider these tributes from his peers:

I‘d be two feet away, and when he hit those high notes, it was quiet and heartfelt. But the emotion would go through you like a power drill.” ~ Dion DiMucci

The thing people don’t talk about enough as far as I’m concerned is how innovative this music was, how radical in terms of its songwriting. As I become more interested in songwriting, you hit a wall where Roy Orbison is standing.” ~ Bono

“With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. He sang like a professional criminal … his voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it’. ~  Bob Dylan

“He made emotion fashionable, that it was alright to talk about and sing about very emotional things. For men to sing about very emotional things… before that no one would do it.” ~ Robin Gibb.

Bruce Springsteen tells of listening to Roy Orbison up in his bedroom all those years ago, while dreaming of his escape from the working class life in New Jersey.  In 1987, at Roy’s induction into the Rock and Hall Hall of Fame, Springsteen confessed that Roy’s music had been a deep inspiration to him. That, he said, was how he tried to sing when he made Born To Run.

Elvis Presley himself was so impressed with Orbison‘s singing that he went into the studio to record one or more of his tunes. Elvis gave up after several long days, saying he couldn‘t match the originals.  On more than one occasion, Elvis called Roy “the greatest singer ever”.

Roy was the writer, or the co-writer on most of his songs. He didn‘t compose songs like most people did: verse, verse, chorus, verse, verse. Roy‘s songs mostly started slow and built from a diminuendo to a crashing crescendo, but their structure wasn‘t easy to follow, even for the experienced musicians who played with him. Listen to “Running Scared” or “In Dreams” and you‘ll hear something that has more in common with symphonic bolero music or opera than with rock and roll, with the emotional support of the Anita Kerr singers as backup, alternated by a group of talented backup singers called The Candymen.

His producer at Monument Records, Fred Foster, made with Roy some of the best-sounding records ever. Their collaborations still stand as prime examples of recording studio artistry more than 60 years later. Here‘s the killer: Roy had a semi-operatic voice that fooled you time and again. He started his songs in a whisper. In live performance and in the studio, people wondered if he would even get through the song. He seemed to gather strength with every verse, with every emotional twist and turn of the lyrics. By the time the song was over the chances were pretty fair that you would be reduced to tears. The only thing to do was move the record player needle back to the beginning and listen to the song again.

The music Roy created not only resonated with men and women of all ages; it stayed with them for a lifetime, serving as something rare in pop music, an emotional guidepost with power that increased as the years went by.

He was a modest, quiet man who spoke of his own talent as a gift from God. Pitch-perfect, with a three octave range, suited both for ballads and rock. He was also a first-rate guitarist. From his humble beginnings in a little Texas oil town, he was heavily influenced by country artist such as Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. Beyond music, he had a great love of automobiles and motorcycles, owning several dozen. He even moved from Nashville to Malibu to allow himself year-round use of his many convertibles.

Roy recorded some great neglected material in the 1970s, lacking only a producer of Fred Foster‘s talent to bring drama and polish to his newer material. Roy found such a producer in Jeff Lynne in the late 1980s, when he recorded the album Mystery Girl, the title of which was written by Bono, one of Roy‘s biggest fans. 

The album takes its title from the chorus of a song that Bono wrote for Roy, “She’s A Mystery To Me”. And here’s the thing: after having left Monument Records for MGM for a million dollar advance in the mid ’60s, Roy was never properly recorded again until this album. The magic that Monument producer Fred Foster and engineer Bill Porter achieved with all the great Orbison singles was never captured at MGM. Roy’s career floundered for decades simply because that great voice of his required spectacular sound and great orchestration – things that Burnett and Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra) understood perfectly. Listen to Mystery Girl today: the sonics are first-rate, the engineering approaching perfection, and Roy’s voice is as dynamic and as powerful as ever.

The Mystery Girl album includes the masterpiece “A Love So Beautiful”; this is a song that can only be appreciated later in life, when one realizes the immense tragedy of losing what should never have been lost. His everlasting theme from his first to his final album? – courtship and romantic love. No one ever did it better.

In 1988 T-Bone Burnett produced the live performance of Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night, that showcased Roy singing with Bruce, with Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and many others. This show is remarkable for the love shown to Roy by some of the most talented singers in music. Among them was k.d. lang, with whom Roy recorded a 1988 Grammy-winning recreation of his famous song “Crying”. She said that singing with Roy was an electrifying, unforgettable experience.

 Roy also began working with Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison in a collaboration that became The Traveling Wilburys. That album and Mystery Girl both surged into the Top 5 in early 1989, and Roy became the first since Elvis to have, simultaneously, two top-ranking posthumous recordings.

By the way, Roy’s greater success in the UK charts with Mystery Girl should have surprised no one, for Roy was always a bigger star in Europe than he was in America. Ask Macca or Ringo, for whom Roy famously opened in the mid ’60s when The Beatles were at their peak. A couple of days into the tour they called Roy aside and requested that they trade concert placement and that The Beatles open for him. No one, they said, can follow Roy Orbison.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Roy’s death as well as the posthumous release of Mystery Girl.  He passed away at the of 52 in December, 1988 from a massive heart attack, in the midst of a career revival unlike that of any other pop artist from the 1960s. 

No one else has ever done with pop music what Roy Orbison did; he poured out his heart the way Hank Williams did; he wrote simply the way Don Gibson did, and he sang the way Pavarotti sang. But he did more than that. Roy touches the subconscious mind in a way that no other singer ever attempted. He wrote and sang about dreams, what dreams mean, how they can affect your life, how they can haunt you, how they can remind you that love is truly the heart of the matter.

Brian Miller

Brian Miller is the Publisher and Editor of Vivascene, which he founded in 2010. A former record store owner, business executive and business writer, he is devoted to vinyl records, classical guitar, and b&w photography.

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