A love letter to Roy Orbison from Castlebar

Midwest Radio was always on in the back ground in my family home. Dad would tell me that there was no better radio station to be found in the west of Ireland than Mid West Radio.

Obviously  because it included all the GAA sports updates and the aul country tune or two.

But all was not lost, there used to be a show on Saturday evenings between 6-8pm on Mid West that would play all the old rock n roll favourites and this was where I heard the big O for the first time.

Over the years I have remained a loyal fan of Orbison’s and I do not think any artist has even come close to perfecting his voice.

The iconic singer had lots of tragedy in his life

Rock N Roll music was simply a big part of the Hoban household when I was a kid. The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke.

You name it. They were all there, thanks to my dad. So you may understand by now why rock was a big inclusion in my childhood.

Many critics described Roy Orbison’s music as operatic, nicknaming him “the Caruso of Rock” and “the Big O”. While most male rock-and-roll performers in the 1950s and 1960s projected a defiant masculinity, many of Orbison’s songs conveyed vulnerability. He performed standing still, wearing black clothes to match his dyed black hair and dark sunglasses.

 

Experimenting with a new sound, Orbison and Joe Melson wrote a song in early 1960 which, using elements from “Uptown”, and another song they had written called “Come Back to Me (My Love)”, employed strings and the Anita Kerr doo-wop backing singers.

It also featured a note hit by Orbison in falsetto that showcased a powerful voice which, according to biographer Clayson, “came not from his throat but deeper within”.The song was “Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel)”.

Orbison and Melson tried to pitch it to Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers, but were turned down.

They instead recorded the song at RCA’s Nashville studio, with sound engineer Bill Porter trying a completely new strategy, building the mix from the top down rather than from the bottom up, beginning with close-miked backing vocals in the foreground, and ending with the rhythm section soft in the background.

This combination became Orbison’s trademark sound.

“Only the Lonely” shot to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit number one in the UK and Australia. According to Orbison, the subsequent songs he wrote with Melson during this period were constructed with his voice in mind, specifically to showcase its range and power.

He told Rolling Stone in 1988, “I liked the sound of [my voice]. I liked making it sing, making the voice ring, and I just kept doing it. And I think that somewhere between the time of “Ooby Dooby” and “Only the Lonely”, it kind of turned into a good voice.” Its success transformed Orbison into an overnight star and he appeared on Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beechnut Show out of New York City.

 

When Presley heard “Only the Lonely” for the first time, he bought a box of copies to pass to his friends,  and Orbison followed it with the more complex “Blue Angel”, which peaked at number nine in the US and number 11 in the UK. “I’m Hurtin'”, with “I Can’t Stop Loving You” as the B-side, rose to number 27 in the US, but failed to chart in the UK.

Orbison was now able to move to Nashville permanently with his wife Claudette and two sons Roy DeWayne and Anthony King.

Back in the studio, seeking a change from the pop sound of “Only the Lonely” and “I’m Hurtin'”, Orbison worked on a new song, “Running Scared”, based loosely on the rhythm of Ravel’s Boléro; the song was about a man on the lookout for his girlfriend’s previous boyfriend, whom he feared would try to take her away.

Orbison encountered difficulty when he found himself unable to hit the song’s highest note without his voice breaking. He was backed by an orchestra in the studio and Porter told him he would have to sing louder than his accompaniment because the orchestra was unable to be softer than his voice.

Fred Foster then put Orbison in the corner of the studio and surrounded him with coat racks forming an improvised isolation booth to emphasize his voice. Orbison was unhappy with the first two takes. In the third, however, he abandoned the idea of using falsetto and sang the final high ‘A’ naturally, so astonishing everyone present that the accompanying musicians stopped playing. On that third take, “Running Scared” was completed. Fred Foster later recalled, “He did it, and everybody looked around in amazement. Nobody had heard anything like it before.”

 Just weeks later “Running Scared” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and number 9 in the UK.

The composition of Orbison’s following hits reflected “Running Scared”: a story about an emotionally vulnerable man facing loss or grief, with a crescendo culminating in a surprise climax that employed Orbison’s dynamic voice.

“Crying” followed in July 1961 and reached number two; it was coupled with an up-tempo R&B song, “Candy Man”, written by Fred Neil and Beverley Ross, which reached the Billboard Top 30, staying on the charts for two months.

 

While Orbison was touring Australia in 1962, an Australian DJ referred to him affectionately as “The Big O”, partly based on the big finishes to his dramatic ballads, and the moniker stuck with him thereafter. Orbison’s second son was born the same year, and Orbison hit number four in the United States and number two in the UK with “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)”, an upbeat song by country songwriter Cindy Walker. (Orbison’s producer later formed the Candymen quintet, which was Orbison’s backing band from 1965 to 1970 and released a few singles and two albums of its own).

Also in 1962, he charted with “The Crowd”, “Leah”, and “Workin’ for the Man”, which he wrote about working one summer in the oil fields near Wink.

His relationship with Joe Melson, however, was deteriorating over Melson’s growing concerns that his own solo career would never get off the ground.

Orbison eventually developed an image that did not reflect his personality. He had no publicist in the early 1960s, therefore he had little presence in fan magazines, and his single sleeves did not feature his picture.

Life called him an “anonymous celebrity”,After leaving his thick eyeglasses on an aeroplane in 1963, while on tour with the Beatles, Orbison was forced to wear his prescription Wayfarer sunglasses on stage and found that he preferred them.

His biographers suggest that although he had a good sense of humor and was never morose, Orbison was very shy and suffered from severe stage fright; wearing sunglasses helped him hide somewhat. The sunglasses led some people to assume he was blind.

His black clothes and song lyrics emphasised the image of mystery and introversion.

His dark and brooding persona, combined with his tremulous voice in lovelorn ballads marketed to teenagers, made Orbison a star in the early 1960s. His string of top-40 hits continued with “In Dreams” (US number seven, UK number six), “Falling” (US number 22, UK number 9), and “Mean Woman Blues” (US number five, UK number three) coupled with “Blue Bayou” (US number 29, UK number three).

According to the official Roy Orbison U.S. discography by Marcel Riesco, a rare alternate version of “Blue Bayou” was released in Italy. Orbison finished 1963 with a Christmas song written by Willie Nelson, “Pretty Paper” (US number 15 in 1963, UK number six in 1964).

 

As “In Dreams” was released in April 1963, Orbison was asked to replace Duane Eddy on a tour of the UK in top billing with the Beatles. When he arrived in Britain, however, he realized he was no longer the main draw. He had never heard of the Beatles, and annoyed, asked rhetorically, “What’s a Beatle, anyway?” to which John Lennon replied, after tapping his shoulder, “I am”.

On the opening night, Orbison opted to go onstage first, although he was the more established act. The Beatles stood dumbfounded backstage as Orbison sang through 14 encores.

Finally, when the audience began chanting “We want Roy!” again, Lennon and McCartney physically held Orbison back. Starr later said, “In Glasgow, we were all backstage listening to the tremendous applause he was getting. He was just standing there, not moving or anything.” Through the tour, however, the two acts quickly learned to get along, a process made easier by the fact that the Beatles admired his work.

Orbison felt a kinship with Lennon, but it was Harrison with whom he would later form a strong friendship.

Touring in 1963 took a toll on Orbison’s personal life. His wife Claudette had an affair with the contractor who built their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Friends and relatives attributed the breakdown of the marriage to her youth and her inability to withstand being alone and bored. When Orbison toured Britain again in the fall of 1963, she joined him.

He was immensely popular wherever he went, finishing the tour in Ireland and Canada. Almost immediately, he toured Australia and New Zealand with the Beach Boys and returned again to Britain and Ireland, where he was so besieged by teenaged girls that the Irish police had to halt his performances to pull the girls off him.

He travelled to Australia again, this time with the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger later remarked, referring to a snapshot he took of Orbison in New Zealand, “a fine figure of a man in the hot springs, he was.”

 

rbison also began collaborating with Bill Dees, whom he had known in Texas. With Dees, he wrote “It’s Over”, a number-one hit in the UK and a song that would be one of his signature pieces for the rest of his career. When Claudette walked in the room where Dees and Orbison were writing to say she was heading for Nashville, Orbison asked if she had any money. Dees said, “A pretty woman never needs any money”.

Just 40 minutes later, “Oh, Pretty Woman” was completed. A riff-laden masterpiece that employed a playful growl he got from a Bob Hope movie, the epithet mercy Orbison uttered when he was unable to hit a note, it rose to number one in the fall of 1964 in the United States and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks. It rose to number one in the UK, as well, spending 18 weeks total on the charts.

The single sold over seven million copies. Orbison’s success was greater in Britain; as Billboard magazine noted, “In a 68-week period that began on August 8, 1963, Roy Orbison was the only American artist to have a number-one single in Britain.

He did it twice, with ‘It’s Over’ on June 25, 1964, and ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ on October 8, 1964. The latter song also went to number one in

America, making Orbison impervious to the current chart dominance of British artists on both sides of the Atlantic

 

Orbison continued recording albums in the 1970s, but none of them sold more than a handful of copies, and by 1976, he had gone an entire decade without a charting album. Aside from a few minor hits in Australia, he also failed to produce any charting singles after the 1960s. His fortunes sank so low that he began to doubt his own talents and several of his 1970s albums were not released internationally due to low US sales. He left MGM Records in 1973 and signed a one-album deal with Mercury Records.

Author Peter Lehman would later observe that his absence was a part of the mystery of his persona: “Since it was never clear where he had come from, no one seemed to pay much mind to where he had gone; he was just gone.”

His influence was apparent, however, as several artists released covers of his songs, which proved popular. Orbison’s version of “Love Hurts”, a song composed by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and first recorded by the Everly Brothers, was remade by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, again by hard rock band Nazareth, and by blues adept Jim Capaldi. Sonny James sent “Only the Lonely” to No. 1 on the country music charts.

Bruce Springsteen ended his concerts with Orbison songs, and Glen Campbell had a minor hit with a remake of “Dream Baby”.

A compilation of Orbison’s greatest hits went to No. 1 in the UK in January 1976. The same year, he began to open concerts for the Eagles, who started as Linda Ronstadt’s backup band. Ronstadt herself covered “Blue Bayou” in 1977, her version reaching No. 3 on the Billboard charts and remaining in the charts for 24 weeks. Orbison credited this cover in particular for reviving his memory in the popular mind, if not his career.

He signed again with Monument in 1976 and recorded “Regeneration” with Fred Foster, but it proved no more successful than before.

Orbison with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis for a televised 1977 Christmas special

In late 1977, Orbison was not feeling well and decided to overwinter in Hawaii. While there, he checked into a hospital where testing discovered that he had severely obstructed coronary arteries.

On January 18, 1978, Orbison underwent a triple coronary bypass. He had suffered from duodenal ulcers since as early as 1960 and had been a heavy smoker since adolescence.

He felt revitalized following the triple bypass, but he continued to smoke, and his weight fluctuated for the remainder of his life

Before he passed away in the eighties Orbison made a come back.  Orbison who n originally declined David Lynch’s request to allow the use of “In Dreams” for the film Blue Velvet in 1986. Lynch used it anyway (although his first choice was “Crying”); the song served as one of several obsessions of a psychopathic character named Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper)

. It was lip-synched by an effeminate drug dealer played by Dean Stockwell, after which Booth demanded the song be played over and over, once beating the protagonist while the song played.

During filming, Lynch asked for the song to be played repeatedly to give the set a surreal atmosphere.

 Orbison was initially shocked at its use: he saw the film in a theater in Malibu and later said, “I was mortified because they were talking about the ‘candy-colored clown’ in relation to a dope deal … I thought, ‘What in the world …?’

But later, when I was touring, we got the video out and I really got to appreciate what David gave to the song, and what the song gave to the movie—how it achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to ‘In Dreams’

Before his death in 1988 he also recorded a feature length album with the Travelling Wilbury’s that included, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynn and Bob Dylan. The album we   Vol. 1 was a critical and commercial success, helping to revitalise Dylan’s and Petty’s respective careers.

In 1990, the album won the Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group.

The band came together in April 1988, when Harrison was in Los Angeles to oversee the filming of his HandMade production Checking Out. At that time, Warner Bros. Records asked Harrison for a new song to serve as the B-side for the European release of his third single from Cloud Nine, “This Is Love”. 

During a meal with Lynne and Orbison, Harrison asked Lynne to help him record the track and invited Orbison to attend the session, which he then arranged to take place at Dylan’s garage studio in Malibu. 

One of my favourite live performances of Roy Orbison was when he got together with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, K.D. Lang and members of Elvis Presley’s band called “Black and White Night” , you can purchase the album on dvd and Cd now.

As you were Castlebar…

 

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