Roy Orbison: A Great Voice, A Lonely Sound
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Roy Orbison was one of the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll.
(Soundbite of song, "Rock House")
Mr. ROY ORBISON (Singer): (Singing) Well, rock it in the morning, rock it in daylight, rockin' through the evening, and I won't be home tonight...
NORRIS: Orbison could rock hard, but it was his distinctive baritone and melancholy songwriting that deeply influenced American pop and rock music.
For our series, 50 Great Voices, NPR's Eric Westervelt has this appreciation.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Among rock 'n' roll pioneers, Roy Orbison was different. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had that pound-the-piano self-confidence. Elvis had his sexy hip shake swagger. Chuck Berry had one-of-a-kind guitar riffs to go with his trademark duck walk. But Orbison - with his thick corrective glasses, insurance salesman looks and stiff stage presence - stood out. He and Buddy Holly shared what you might call geek chic: a unique style expressed in what Orbison sang about and how he sang it.
(Soundbite of song, "Only the Lonely")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Only the lonely know the heartache I've been through. Only the lonely know I cry and cry for you...
WESTERVELT: Orbison wasn't afraid to sing about fear, anxiety, loss or insecurity. His song titles alone tell part of the story: "Crying," "Only the Lonely," "Running Scared" and "Crawling Back."
Mr. PETER LEHMAN (Director, Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture, Arizona State University): Those kinds of emotions and the intensity with which he expressed them certainly went against the grain of the kind of macho, confident, masculine display that characterized so much of mainstream rock 'n' roll.
WESTERVELT: Orbison biographer Peter Lehman directs the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University. Lehman argues that Orbison frequently utilized an almost masochistic stage persona in such songs as "Crawling Back" and many others, a persona that, he says, seems to embrace and almost revel in pain and loss.
Mr. LEHMAN: That that character brings upon himself, that he seems to almost long for. There's even a kind of public spectacle aspect to this pain and suffering. And the title "Crawling Back" even points to that.
(Soundbite of song, "Crawling Back")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Only you and no one else can keep me crawling back. You know I can't help myself and now I'm crawling back.
WESTERVELT: Orbison had a one-of-a-kind voice with a three-octave range plus occasional falsetto. Singer K.D. Lang, who shared a Grammy with Orbison in 1987, says what made him such a moving singer was the juxtaposition of his strong unique voice with a dark vision.
Ms. K.D. LANG (Singer): And yet this powerful, high, flowing voice, liquid voice came out of him. I think it was that contrast that really moved people. And he was such a gentle, gentle spirit that you felt like you could share your vulnerability in listening to him.
(Soundbite of song, "In Dreams")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) A candy-colored clown they call the sandman tiptoes to my room every night just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper, go to sleep, everything is all right. I close my eyes, then I drift away...
WESTERVELT: Orbison grew up in the small Texas oil town of Wink, a town he once described as dominated by football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand. Orbison told the BBC in 1985 that he forged his guitar and singing styles by listening incessantly to West Texas radio stations that drifted into town. There was country, a little rockabilly, Tex-Mex and zydeco, but mostly country.
(Soundbite of archival audio)
Mr. ORBISON: I listened to the radio all the time. That was the big thing when I was growing up. I learned all of the songs, and all of those influences probably just settled into one thing, and I'm the result of whatever that was.
(Soundbite of song, "Blue Bayou")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) I'm going back someday, come what may, to blue bayou. Where you sleep all day and the catfish play on blue bayou. All those fishing boats with their sails afloat, if I could only see that familiar sunrise through sleepy eyes, how happy I'd be.
WESTERVELT: Friends say Orbison's brooding song persona didn't match his real character. He was, they say, a fun and life-loving guy. The signature dark glasses were an accidental marketing tool. While on tour with The Beatles in 1963, he left his regular glasses on the tour plane. So, that night, he had to wear his thick prescription sunglasses onstage.
Mr. ORBISON: Everyone was at the show, and they took these pictures. And they flashed around the world, and we became very popular after that. So I just - I was stuck with the dark glasses. It was embarrassing at the time.
WESTERVELT: Orbison certainly wasn't afraid to express his pain if he got dumped or didn't get the girl. Yet even when he got the girl, there was no look-at-me boasting. There was still often a sense of longing, a hint of surprise, or even downheartedness mixed with triumph.
Mr. ORBISON: I always have to remind people that half of the songs at least are up songs or happy songs. Even when I sing a song like "Running Scared," I get the girl; "Pretty Woman," I get the girl. There still seems to be a melancholy quality to my voice.
(Soundbite of song, "Pretty Woman")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) I guess I'll go on home, it's late. There'll be tomorrow night. But wait, what do I see? Is she walking back to me? Yes, she's walking back to me. Oh, oh, pretty woman.
WESTERVELT: Orbison's voice was largely ignored in the 1970s, but he came back with a vengeance in the '80s with several collaborations, including the all-star band the Traveling Wilburys.
(Soundbite of song, "Handle Me with Care")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) I'm so tired of being lonely. I still have some love to give. Won't you show me that you really care?
WESTERVELT: Roy Orbison died of a heart attack in December 1988, just as a new generation was busy rediscovering and embracing his music and voice. The Wilburys had just won a Grammy, and Orbison had just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was only 52 years old.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Dreams")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Sweet dreams, baby. Sweet dreams, baby. Sweet dreams, baby.
NORRIS: You can hear more of Roy Orbison singing and you can guess the next voice in our series, that's at nprmusic.org.
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