Roy Orbison‘s voice might have been enough, as strong and versatile as ever to grace American roots music. But stack that voice next to the songwriting prowess and the stage presence of the yearning introvert with the thick glasses and the jet-black pompadour, and we remember why this kind heart was one of the early giants of rock and roll.
Like other such giants, Elvis and Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins and Little Richard, Orbison knew that rhythm was the bedrock of this new American form, this artistic and political tsunami, this child of R&B and blues. But he also understood, or at least intuited, that the rhythm was only the beginning, that the form could be taken in a thousand different directions. With this understanding he helped build the stage for the work of folks like, say, The Beatles.
His two most revered compositions show the range of Orbison’s talent. “Pretty Woman” is one of the best, and most famous, rock and roller albums of all time, gritty and driving and joyous and unforgettable, not even for a moment. The finest of the genre and a completely original marker that would liberate what was to come. “Crying” was at the other end of love’s spectrum, a composed wail of lost love that built to a powerful crescendo of grief and release.
Raised in Vernon, Fort Worth and Wink, Texas, Orbison was an awkward kid with bad eyes and a shy disposition. But he was an artist, through and through, and lived a life of music that began with a high school rockabilly and country band in West Texas, the “Wink Westerners”. Early on, having figured out that rock and roll was as much attitude as substance, he dyed his hair, picked up some dark Ray-Bans and became “The Man in Black”.
His career began with the legendary Sun Records in 1956 and ended with his death in 1988, and the road between was in turns brilliant and dismal..meteoric stardom and complete professional obscurity, lots of money, and unbelievable tragedy. His true love taken from him by his wife’s death in a motorcycle accident and the loss of two of his children in a house fire. Through it all Orbison remained both a brilliant artistic and an exemplary human being.
Early on he befriended the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and his influence on their work was both obvious and acknowledged. Like fellow West Texan Buddy Holly, he helped steer the ship of rock and roll in the early years, lighting the path to the future, whatever that would be.
The year 1964 saw the release of “Pretty Woman” and was the apex of his career. Then, in an array of personal tragedies and professional missteps, the wheels came off the tracks. Orbison fell into an obscurity that lasted into the mid-eighties. Then, in an almost meteoric series of events that commenced in 1986 and continued beyond his death in 1988, Roy was graced with the success he had earned and the legacy he deserved. In 1986, David Lynch released Blue Velvet, a disturbingly beautiful film that featured a perverse obsession with Orbison’s song “In Dreams”. The following year he was welcomed by Bruce Springsteen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, released In Dreams: The Greatest Hits, an album of fresh versions of his old songs, and recorded a stunning duet of “Crying” with the great k.d. lang.
In January of 1988, Springsteen honored Orbison with Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, a filmed Los Angeles concert featuring performances by Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, k.d. lang and, of course, The Man in Black. Finally, Orbison joined the Traveling Wilburys with Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, and was there on their first album, released in October 0f 1988. Roy was also creating his last solo album, Mystery Girl, a magnificent piece and proof that his talent had neither faded nor diminished.
Roy Orbison’s many professional friends had succeeded in returning him to the public stage, but the satisfaction would not last long. Roy died of a heart attack on December 4, 1988. Mystery Girl would be released posthumously.
Three things to know about Roy Orbison: (1) he was neither blind nor albino, (2) he was introduced to music by listening to Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell, and (3) in 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Springsteen.