Roy Orbison almost gave away the song that started his successful career.
Roy Orbison was born in Texas in 1936. He made his way to Sun Records in Memphis in the mid ‘50’s to join other Rockabilly singers like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Orbison saw very little success at that time (his recording of “Ooby Dooby” only made it to #59 in ‘56), but in 1958 he wrote a song about his wife, “Claudette”, and The Everly Brothers took it into the Top 30 as the flip side to “All I Have To Do Is Dream”.
So, when Roy wrote “Only The Lonely” (with Joe Melson), he offered it to The Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. They both turned it down, which was really fortunate, because the song kick-started Roy Orbison’s career. Roy had moved to Monument Records, and began recording with Nashville musicians. The magic was there, and “Only The Lonely” became Orbison’s first hit. It went to #2 in 1960, sold over half-a-million copies in the U.S., and was an international success.
From 1960 to 1963, Roy had 15 Top 40 hits, including “Running Scared” (#1), “Crying” (#2), “Dream Baby” (#4), “In Dreams” (#7), “Mean Woman Blues” (#5), and “Blue Bayou” (#29).
In 1963, Roy Orbison went to England to co-headline a tour with some English bands.
The Beatles hadn’t broken in the U.S. yet, but when Roy realized how popular the group was over there, he decided to let The Beatles close the shows. However, his performances were so strong, he would get multiple encores, even though The Beatles would be on when he finished. Roy became friends with all four of The Beatles. His friendship with George would be especially important for him later.
That trip to England also provided Roy Orbison with his signature look. He had accidentally left behind his regular glasses, so when he got off the airplane in London, he wore his prescription sunglasses. The photographers took shots of him like that, and he decided to wear the sunglasses for performances in England, and then for his entire career.
The next year, 1964, would be the peak of popularity for Roy Orbison. In April he hit #9 on the charts with “It’s Over” (#1 in England), and then in September, Roy was #1 all over the world with his signature hit “Oh, Pretty Woman”.
I was in high school back then, and bought Roy Orbison’s singles of “Crying”, “It’s Over”, and “Oh, Pretty Woman” (Nearly everyone just called the song “Pretty Woman”). In my room, I loved singing along with the records. I could hit the notes back then, but I knew I wasn’t sounding anything at all like that amazing voice coming through the speakers.
Interesting trivia: There is a one word difference between the single and the album version of “Pretty Woman”. The single says…”Come to me baby, be mine tonight.”, but the album version has…”Come with me baby, be mine tonight.” Why the difference? My guess is that Monument Records (or maybe Roy) thought that changing the “with” to “to” would make it sound a little more innocent. That way, no one could possibly read anything salacious into it. (“Why does she have to go with him, and what does he mean by ‘be mine tonight’?”) Remember, in 1963 some radio stations banned “Louie Louie”, because they thought it might have “dirty” lyrics. Roy sang “to” when he performed the song live.
Professional musicians were awed by Orbison’s voice. He got the nickname “The Big O”, because of his vocal power, and the almost operatic style of his songs. He wrote efficient 3-minute stories that sometimes defied the verse-chorus-verse style of most songs. Instead, his recordings often built to dramatic crescendos. Elvis Presley called Roy Orbison “The greatest singer in the world”. Bruce Springsteen said that when he went into the studio to record “Born To Run”…“I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison. Now, everybody knows that nobody sings like Roy Orbison.”
Orbison’s songwriting showed emotions more openly than many other performers. He wasn’t afraid to express loneliness (“Only The Lonely“), fear (“Running Scared”), or physical sadness (“Crying”), hardly the persona of some rock singers.
Roy Orbison seemed to have it made, but that whole British Invasion thing of 1964 knocked down all of the male vocalists (like Roy, Ricky, and even Elvis) to the lower part of the charts. Although he continued to release albums (for MGM), his career languished for years.
There were also two major personal tragedies in the mid-sixties. Roy lost his wife Claudette in 1966, when her motorcycle struck the side of a truck that had pulled out in front of her. Then in 1968, while Roy was on tour in England, his home in Nashville burned, and two of his three sons died.
Roy later remarried, and he and his wife, Barbara, had two sons.
The music side of things very slowly began to return Roy Orbison into the public consciousness. In 1977, Linda Ronstadt released what would be the definitive version of Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”. It went to #3 and sold over a million copies, just in the U.S. Then in 1986, Director David Lynch featured Roy Orbison’s recording “In Dreams” in his movie Blue Velvet. Although the way the song was used was kind of creepy, Roy was again getting public attention.
In 1987, Roy Orbison was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame by long-time admirer Bruce Springsteen. Later that year, Roy began work on a new album with Producer Jeff Lynne. Jeff was also producing albums for George Harrison and Tom Petty. When George asked Roy, Tom, and Bob Dylan to help him with a track, it resulted in “Handle With Care” and formation of The Traveling Wilburys.
This “Super Group” fully returned Roy Orbison to the spotlight, and the songs showed off his strong voice. His vocal soars in “Handle With Care” as he sings a section written specifically for him: ”I’m so tired of being lonely, I still have some love to give. Won’t you show me that you really care?” He also has an appropriate solo song, “Not Alone Anymore”. He sounds great.
The album, Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 and “Handle With Care” put Roy back on the charts after nearly 20 years. Then two months after the success of The Wilburys, Roy Orbison died of a heart attack. It was December 6th, 1988, and Roy was just 52 years old.
The Jeff Lynne produced solo album, Mystery Girl, was released in January of 1989. The album and the single “You Got It” (written by Roy, Tom Petty & Jeff Lynne), made the Top 10 on the Billboard charts.
Fortunately for his fans, Roy Orbison had also recorded a live concert with some A-list musicians, including Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Elvis Costello and many more. This is not some “take turns singing Roy’s songs” album. No, all of these stars are paying tribute to Roy by backing him.
Naturally, the concert starts with Roy’s first big hit, “Only The Lonely”. The Black & White Night album/video has most of Roy Orbison’s best songs, and these versions are very good. Some are even better than the original hits. The only song that didn’t quite reach the impact of the original is “Oh, Pretty Woman”. It’s still good, but they tried too hard to make it an “event” with extended guitar solos.
It was wonderful that Roy Orbison made the return to his rightful place as one of the best artists of the Rock era. Based on his excellent passionate vocals on his last three albums (Wilburys, solo, and live) it’s obvious he still had “some love to give”.