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Roy Orbison: A Great Voice, A Lonely Sound

Roy Orbison's melancholy style had a tremendous influence on American rock and pop music.
David Redfern
Getty Images
Roy Orbison's melancholy style had a tremendous influence on American rock and pop music.

Roy Orbison was one of the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll. And, boy, could he rock. But it was his distinctive baritone and melancholy vocal and songwriting style that had the greatest influence on American rock and pop music -- and that make him a natural candidate for NPR's 50 Great Voices series.

Among rock 'n' roll's pioneers, Orbison was different. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had that pound-the-piano self-confidence. Elvis Presley 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 he sang about and how he sang it.

Orbison wasn't afraid to sing about fear, anxiety, loss or insecurity.

"Roy's extreme development of 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," Orbison biographer Peter Lehman says.

Orbison's song titles alone tell part of the story: "Crying," "Only the Lonely," "Running Scared," "Crawling Back."

Lehman, who directs the center for film, media and popular culture at Arizona State University, says Orbison frequently utilized an almost masochistic stage persona, which Lehman says seems to embrace and almost revel in pain and loss.

"[Feelings] that that character brings upon himself, that he seems to almost long for," Lehman says. "There's even a kind of public-spectacle aspect to this pain and suffering. And the title 'Crawling Back,' of course, even points to that."

Sweet Voice, Dark Vision

Orbison had a one-of-a-kind voice with a three-octave range and what one writer called a 'glass-shattering falsetto.' No less than Elvis Presley called Orbison "the greatest singer in the world." Canadian singer k.d. lang -- who shared a Grammy with Orbison in 1987 for their remake of the Orbison/Joe Melson classic "Crying" -- says that what made Orbison such a moving singer was the juxtaposition of his beautiful voice with a dark vision.

"And yet this powerful, high, flowing liquid voice came out of him," lang says. "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."

Take the lyrics for "In Dreams":

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.'

Orbison was shy and soft-spoken, but his childhood was pretty normal. He was born in Vernon, Texas, on April 23, 1936. He spent his earliest years there and in Fort Worth. After World War II, the family moved to the small Texas oil town of Wink, a town Orbison 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 the West Texas radio stations that drifted into town. He heard country, a little rockabilly, Tex Mex and zydeco. But mostly country.

"I listened to the radio all the time," Orbison said. "And so 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."

He wanted a harmonica for his sixth birthday, but his father bought him a guitar. He wrote his first song, "A Vow of Love," when he was about 8.

Rejected Songwriter, Shy Star

By the 1950s, Orbison was in Nashville, where he worked as a staff writer for Acuff-Rose Music. He'd already made a few recordings for the Je-Wel and Sun labels and earned some royalties for "Claudette," which was recorded by the Everly Brothers.

But the Everlys and Presley rejected "Only the Lonely," so Orbison recorded it himself for Monument Records. The song became a huge hit, going to No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 4 in the U.S.

The lyrics were typical Orbison:

There goes my baby There goes my heart They're gone forever So far apart But only the lonely Know why I cry Only the lonely

Friends say Orbison's brooding musical 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 plane. So that night, he had to wear his thick prescription sunglasses onstage.

"Everyone was at the show, and they took these pictures. And they flashed around the world, and we became very popular after that," Orbison told the BBC. "And so I was stuck with the dark glasses. It was embarrassing at the time."

Orbison certainly wasn't embarrassed 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 often a sense of longing, a hint of surprise or even downheartedness mixed with triumph.

"I always have to remind people that half my songs at least are upbeat and positive," Orbison said. "And even when I sing a song like 'Running Scared,' I get the girl. 'Pretty Woman,' I get the girl. [Yet] there still seems to be a melancholy quality to my voice."

That voice was largely ignored in the 1970s, but Orbison came back with a vengeance in the '80s with several collaborations, including the all-star band The Traveling Wilburys.

Roy Orbison died of a heart attack on Dec. 6, 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.