Following the stellar enthusiasm that greeted my Zombies post a few weeks ago (over 1,000 hits that day, my most ever!), I feel more comfortable promenading out a few other of the oldie/goodie variety of folks currently in residence inside my iPod.
So you’ve heard Pretty Woman (like, a thousand times), and Only the Lonely is a bona fide crooner classic. But do you know the depth and quality of the musician that was Roy Orbison? Not as camera-friendly and rico suave as some of his other counterparts, Roy nonetheless made some absolutely superb music that still sounds good and fresh and eminently listenable 50 years later.
Born in Texas in 1936, Roy asked for a harmonica (but received a guitar) for his 6th birthday (I think my 6th birthday was more about the My Little Ponies and the Rainbow Brites. That’s awesome). His daddy taught him to play, and Roy used to love to stay up late with the grown-ups and play songs like “You Are My Sunshine.”
Roy worked his way up from winning a radio contest for jingles in 1946 to forming his own band that same year, called The Wink Westerners (right). Their band started playing on a weekly local radio show, as well as providing the tunes for dances at the local community center. As Roy entered college, he and his bandmates began playing less country and more rock’n'roll, covering greats such as Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry. They also had a weekly television show in Odessa, and in the fall of 1955, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley appeared on his show. Roy asked Johnny for advice on how he could get some of his music produced onto a record, and Johnny gave him Sam Phillips (owner of Sun Records) phone number in Memphis. He was promptly hung up on.
March of 1956 brought the opportunity at last for Roy to make his record with a local businessman by the name of Weldon Rogers. Under the name of Roy and the Teen Kings, the music was recorded and the single was released two weeks later. Roy took a copy to a well-known record dealer in West Texas, who liked it instantly and played it over the telephone to one of his connections in Memphis. His “connection” loved it as well and asked him to send a copy to the Sun Records offices. Indeed, it was none other than Sam Phillips, who had hung up on Orbison just a few months before.
After recording with Sun, Roy’s music grew in popularity in the ensuing years. He had a string of #1 hits of his own recordings, and his songs were recorded by many artists in the day such as Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rick Nelson. In May 1963 he was tapped to open for The Beatles in England, before they had hit big in the States. The tour was a runaway success and sold out in one afternoon. On the first night, Roy did fourteen encores before The Beatles could get on stage. He also toured with the Beach Boys in ’64 and the Stones in ’65. The man was versatile and unique in his sound, and the audiences loved him. Let’s listen why:
“Claudette“ – rollicking harmonica with tasty guitar licks floating over the top, this song was actually popularized by The Everly Brothers after they needed a song for their new single and Roy scribbled the lyrics for Claudette (which he had written) down on the back of a shoebox for them. As recorded by the Everly Brothers, it was the B-side to All I Have To Do Is Dream, and climbed the charts up to #30.
“California Blue“ – my favorite song by Roy. I listened to it over and over last month when I was in California, namely as I walked along the pier in Santa Cruz in the sunshine. Picture it. Uh huh. It’s that good.
“Heartbreak Radio“ – here we go all rock’n'roll, and this song makes me think of big, fast, old cars racing on a Saturday night, or sock hops and things like that.
“Pretty Paper” (live) – cover of a lovely Willie Nelson song, one that Chris Isaak also covered on his recent Christmas album. I know I am going about this backwards, but I have been more of a Chris Isaak fan in the past 10 years or so than a Roy Orbison fan, and I am amazed at just how much Isaak sounds like Orbison. Like, almost identical. Also extremely pronounced on this next track:
“Blue Bayou“ – I like the slight Latin backbeat, and, again, the nice harmonica. This song makes me happy. No, seriously, I have to keep checking to make sure that I really am NOT listening to Chris Isaak. Sorry if that’s heretical to some of you, but really.
“Crying” (live) – this performance is from his Black & White Night live album (1987), which I find interesting because it kind of shows the respect and admiration he has among today’s musicians. Appearing on the stage with him for this CD we have Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, etc. In fact, Bruce Springsteen once said he wished he could write like Bob Dylan and sing like Roy Orbison, and here he plays guitar.
eMusic has a solid selection of Roy Orbison stuff, if you are still looking for ways to spend those 50 free downloads you hopefully got from clicking that little banner on the right side of this very blog. Props also to the interesting and informative Orbison biography on his website, which also has some great audio interview clips with Orbison answering questions such as “Is it true that you have written entire songs in thirty minutes?” and “Sunglasses are your trademark, how did that happen?” Classic.
It’s all so, so good, isn’t it? You’d be hard-pressed to have a bad weekend with this on the stereo.