(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Roy Orbison was, in many ways, the man he sang about in his songs: alone. Certainly, he didn't imitate anyone or write any trends. Although he started out as a rockabilly performer on Sun Records, he didn't really find his identity until he signed with the small Nashville label, Monument, in 1959. There he cut 17 singles that put him and Monument on the map.
Heres rock historian Ed Ward.
(Soundbite of song, "With The Bug")
Mr. ROY ORBISON (Singer-songwriter, musician): (Singing) Well down through the ages, woman's had a time. Tryin' to get her man to walk the chalk line. To keep him on a string with a kiss and a hug. But there's never been a man who wasn't bitten by the bug.
Yeah rockin' and rollin' with the bug. Rollin' and strollin' with the bug. Itchin' and twitchin' singin' and swingin.' Yeah with the bug.
Well Delilah loved Sammy, but he wouldnt stay home..
ED WARD: When Fred Foster signed Roy Orbison in 1959, his label, Monument, had already had a smash hit with Billy Grammer's "Gotta Travel On." At first, it seemed he wasn't sure what to do with Orbison and tried a rock 'n' roll novelty, "With the Bug," which flopped, not least because the backup band - the cream of Nashville sidemen, including Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland on guitar, Floyd Cramer on piano and Buddy Harmon on drums - sounds so uncomfortable.
Nashville, though, was changing, and rock 'n' roll wasn't part of the plan. Pop music was.
(Soundbite of song, "Uptown")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Uptown. Uptown. Uptown in penthouse number three. Uptown, there lives a doll just made for me. Shes the finest thing that youve ever seen, Oh ho ha. oh ho ha. Oh ho ha.
WARD: Orbison had written his own material so far, and in Nashville, he took on partners; including Joe Melson, a friend from Texas. "Uptown" was their first collaboration, but it was their next one which established Orbison's career.
(Soundbite of song, "Only the Lonely")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah. Ooh-yay-yay-yay-yeah. Oh-oh-oh-oh-wah. I'm Only the lonely. Only the lonely.
Only the lonely. Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah. Know the way I feel tonight. Ooh-yay-yay-yay-yeah. Only the lonely. Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah. Know this feelin' ain't right. Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah.
There goes my baby. There goes my heart. They're gone forever. So far apart. But only the lonely...
WARD: He also joined The Anita Kerr Singers for the dum dum dum dooby-doo-wah. Orbison began to explore what his voice could do. It wasn't very powerful yet, and for the recording he stood behind an improvised isolation booth made from the musicians' coats. The stark, miserable lyric hit home with teenagers, and shot to number two on the pop charts. An album, "Lonely and Blue," was quickly recorded, and legend has it that when Fred Foster saw the cover, showing Orbison leaning his head on his arms while seated in the front seat of a car, he was shocked at how close together the singer's eyes were. Get some dark glasses on him, he said. An image was born, although Orbison claimed it was due to a mistake in choosing glasses to wear onstage one night.
It was a time of extreme teen pop, with songs of death and alienation cloaked in strings and backup vocals. Roy Orbison led the way.
(Soundbite of song, "Running Scared")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Just runnin' scared, each place we go. So afraid that he might show. Yeah, runnin' scared, what would I do.
WARD: "Running Scared" was one of the most radical pop records yet: Orbison's voice changed register over the bolero rhythm, but there was no chorus, and all the release comes at the end. It was his first number one record. And, as if to tempt fate, he followed this with another extreme performance.
(Soundbite of song, "Crying")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) I was all right for a while. I could smile for a while. But I saw you last night you held my hand so tight. As you stopped to say hello. Oh, you wished me well, you couldn't tell that I've been crying over you, crying over you. And you said, so long, left me standing all alone. Alone and crying, crying...
WARD: "Crying" winds up in the stratosphere, with Orbison's falsetto getting a workout. It was something he was beginning to use a lot, as on this an odd bit of exotica.
(Soundbite of song, "Leah")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Le-Leah, Leah. Le-Leah, Leah. Here I go, from the hut to the boat, to the sea, for Leah.
WARD: "Leah" was a hit, and, since he was also popular in England, he was offered a tour there in 1963, after headliner Duane Eddy dropped out. By the time he got there, the opening band, The Beatles, were ending the shows.
What's a Beatle, anyway? was Orbison's reaction. John Lennon, who overheard him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, I am. But he soon found out that "Please Please Me," their current hit, was partially intended as an homage to him.
And, unlike what happened to many pop performers, The Beatles didn't threaten Orbison's hold on the charts. In the height of Beatlemania and the British Invasion, he had time for one more number one record, one of his greatest performances.
(Soundbite of song, "Oh, Pretty Woman")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Pretty woman, walking down the street. Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet. Pretty woman. I don't believe you, you're not the truth. No one could look as good as you. Mercy.
WARD: Astonishingly, not long after this triumph, Orbison left Monument for MGM Records, where his career would eventually wither, albeit not forever. When he died in 1988, he had two albums sitting near the top of the charts.
DAVIES: Ed Ward reviewed "Roy Orbison: The Monument Singles Collection on Legacy Recordings.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of music)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.