Roy Orbison—rock and roll’s greatest singer, a crooning rockabilly Caruso who brought opera’s high drama to the malt shop jukebox, broke the hearts of bobbysoxers, and redrew the emotional power and possibility of pop—started out in a dust-covered oven called Wink. He was a West Texas sensation by the time he was 17, playing to crowds as big as 10,000 in 100 degree heat, hosting his own radio show, and fighting his friend and rival Buddy Holly for gigs in towns like Odessa, Lubbock, Midland and Amarillo. Pale and wiry, with thick glasses, Orbison had a voice big enough to fill the flat scorched emptiness that stretched out all around him. When he welded it to his mean, skittering electric guitar, he shot sparks. Orbison knew what he had, and he rode it like a rocket all the way to Memphis. He graduated from Wink High in 1954. By ’56 he was in Sun Studios, crying, Hey baby, jump over here, when you do the ooby dooby I just gotta be near, as Sam Phillips, rock and roll’s wild-eyed prophet, watched from the other side of the glass.
There is poetry in history—especially in the strange, explosive symmetry of early rock and roll. Around the same time the great Muddy Waters was introducing a young part-time hairdresser and housepainter named Chuck Berry to Leonard Chess in Chicago, a failed vacuum-cleaner salesman named J.R. Cash appeared on Roy’s radio show in Texas. Dubbed “Johnny” by Phillips himself in order to young him up a little, the novice Cash was touring behind his first single on Sun, “Hey Porter b/w Cry, Cry, Cry.” Cash and Orbison hit it off, and Cash passed along Phillips’ phone number at Sun. When Orbison made the long-distance call to introduce himself, and pass along Cash’s recommendation, Phillips screamed, “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my company!” and slammed down the phone. Soon after, though, Phillips changed his mind, thanks to some demos Orbison had recorded at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where Buddy Holly had cut his chart-topping early singles.
Just like he had with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash, Charlie Feathers and Carl Perkins, Phillips signed Orbison reluctantly, and only after changing the name of his band from the Wink Westerners to the Teen Kings. Phillips’ heart belonged to artists like the 300-pound blues powerhouse Howlin’ Wolf—who Phillips championed as the most significant artist he ever recorded, proclaiming Wolf’s music “where the soul of man never dies.” But with the gale force of Elvis howling all around him—and with Wolf gone to Chicago to join Waters and Berry at Chess—Phillips knew he could make lightning strike twice in his slapback-slathered Memphis echo chamber. And he did—again and again—but not with Roy Orbison.
It was not for lack of talent. Or trying. Orbison unleashed a string of blistering Sun singles that to this day stand as rockabilly Rosetta stones. “Ooby Dooby,” “Go! Go! Go!” “Domino,” “Rockhouse,” “Claudette,” “Devil Doll.” Just saying the titles out loud feels like dancing. But where Elvis and Jerry Lee were perfect matches for Sun—their white shoes stomping mercilessly on the pent-up sexual and racial repression of the 1950s—something feels a little out of place on Orbison’s cuts. His voice sounds trapped inside all that rockabilly clatter, like it’s yearning to fly into the otherworldly edges that Elvis flirted with on “Blue Moon” and Charlie Rich skirted in “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” But that’s not what Sun was about—and plus, he wasn’t charting. “Ooby Dooby” scooted up to No. 59, but that’s about it. His days at Sun were numbered.
Orbison left Memphis in 1958 and moved to Nashville, where he landed a job as a songwriter for Acuff-Rose publishing and a short-lived contract with RCA. When the RCA deal fell through, it seemed like the Texas teen king, who started out at just 13, would be washed up at 23. Nobody seemed to know what to do with Roy Orbison.
Enter Fred Foster. In the spring of 1959, Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose, Roy’s defacto manager, called Foster and asked him to sign Orbison to his fledgling Monument label as a personal favor—and what’s more, Rose wanted an answer immediately. Foster wasn’t sure; all he knew about Orbison was the two or three Sun singles that had stalled on the charts. But then—in one of rock and roll’s pivotal but lesser-known moments—Foster said one word that would change the sound of popular music forever. He said yes to Roy Orbison.
Foster heard the power and depth in Orbison’s voice, knew nobody had been able to capture it, and decided to frame it with the sweet, string-heavy Nashville sound pioneered by Chet Atkins at RCA. It’s a production style that could smother a singer, but it was time for Orbison to take some chances, and he trusted Foster. After a couple cuts that bridged the sound of Sun and what was to come (“With the Bug,” “Pretty One,” “Uptown”), it became clear that Orbison had about one more chance with radio and the public. Foster told him the next song would be the most important of his career. He was right.
On March 25, 1960, Roy Orbison entered the RCA-Victor studio in Nashville for a session with guitar greats Hank Garland and Grady Martin, pianist Floyd Cramer, the Anita Kerr singers and a full string section. It was a far cry from his stripped-down Sun sessions. But the song they were cutting bore little resemblance to his earlier material.
Over a happy dum-diddy-doo-wah vocal, bouncing guitar and sugary strings, Orbison steps up to the mic and sings like a man coming out of a dream. His voice is thick with honeyed sadness as he sings one of rock and roll’s most famous opening lines.
Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight.
Orbison starts softly, almost sighing along with the production. He rides the dry, cheerful sway of the music, waiting for his moment. Suddenly, it comes. With full force, Orbison hits the high falsetto in the line “That’s the chance you have to take…” and jolts the song to a standstill. The sound of that “you” is stunning. It stops time and transcends everything else in the song, everything else Orbison had ever done. It is equal parts heartbreak and hope, a cry of pure musical freedom, bursting past the strings and the singers and the whole Eisenhower era for one incredible time-stopping moment before floating back down as the song ends humbly, shuffling to the fade with no fanfare or even acknowledgement of what just happened.
On playback, everyone knew what they had captured. Everyone except Orbison, that is. Foster offered to pay him for a million copies upfront if that’s all he’d ever owe on the song, but as a friend, urged him not to take the deal. Within weeks, “Only the Lonely” was a hit all over the world.
It was a magical session, but perhaps the most extraordinary moment happened with no tape rolling. Early in the day, as the musicians were learning their parts, bass player Bob Moore suggested they needed to put the song into meter so kids could dance to it.
Orbison responded: “I don’t want people to dance to my songs.”
What a declaration. It was 1960. Rock and roll—watered down and on the wane after a series of deaths, arrests and scandals—was and had always been dance music. With one sentence, Orbison revealed his artistic vision: This music could be about more than dancing; it could move people emotionally as well as physically. With the string of singles he recorded after “Only the Lonely,” he proved it. “Running Scared,” “I’m Hurtin’,” “In Dreams,” “Crying,” and perhaps the song that most seamlessly combined Orbison’s ability to rock and pine at the same time, “Oh, Pretty Woman.”
These are the seeds that would bloom into popular music as we now know it. While Chuck Berry begat the Rolling Stones and punk, and Howlin’ Wolf begat Led Zeppelin and metal, and Johnny Cash begat Merle Haggard and outlaw country, it was Roy Orbison who inspired the next generation to write rock and roll that reached for the heart’s limits. If you listen, you can hear Roy Orbison everywhere: From the Beatles—whose “Please Please Me” was directly inspired by “Only the Lonely” and who claimed that Roy Orbison was the only artist they never wanted to follow onstage—to Bruce Springsteen, who listened to Orbison every night before recording the epic Born to Run and who pays tribute to him on the album’s very second verse (Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely, hey that’s me and I want you only.) Orbison’s influence can also be heard in the great writers of the Brill Building—it is not far from “Only the Lonely” to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, performed by the Shirelles but written by Carole King, who would go on to recut it on her groundbreaking album Tapestry. All this incredible pop and rock, sweet and stark and sad, dreamily plunging headfirst into lost love and loneliness: It all started with Roy Orbison.
But don’t go measuring Orbison solely by the weight of his influences. That’s not what makes “Only the Lonely,” “Oh, Pretty Woman” or any of his other songs jump from the speakers nearly fifty years later. His music lives today, just as vibrantly as the day it was cut, because he was an unbelievably powerful singer, writer and performer. Who else could lead a band featuring Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, James Burton, and k.d. lang—as Orbison did in the incredible Black and White Night concert, filmed when he was in his 50s—and hold both the audience and the band spellbound, not just with his voice, but with his very presence? And who else could form a band with the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and George Harrison, and provide the vocal hook that rocketed the band’s song to the top of the charts, as Orbison did in the Traveling Wilburys?
That vocal hook that Orbison sings on the Wilbury’s “Handle with Care” is, I’m so tired of being lonely, I still have some love to give. Sadly, Orbison died soon after, in December 1988. But that line he sings, like all his heartfelt music, is utterly devoid of irony. His last album, Mystery Girl and its single “You Got It,” were released after he died. They were both hits.
Today, the classic look of Roy Orbison: skinny, with a slick-backed black pompadour and dark sunglasses, is one of rock and roll’s truly iconic and timeless images. But it is his music, the amazing songs he wrote and performed, and his haunted and haunting, beautiful singing that allow him to live forever as one of the most influential and powerful artists of all time. Once you hear Roy Orbison, his voice never leaves you. Just close your eyes and listen, you’ll hear him now.
Roy Orbison, “Only the Lonely” from A Black and White Night, 1988