Roy Orbison: Rock’s Candy Coloured Clown

‘The Big O’, as he was often known, was a singular Rock’n’Roll artist whose influence can be seen throughout the history of popular music.

When Roy Orbison broke into the mainstream the concept of Rock’n’Roll was quite rigid.

The spirit of Rock’n’Roll was then synonymous with the sultry scowl of James Dean, whose Rebel Without A Cause had single-handedly popularised the notion of teenage rebellion and the hip-swinging sex-appeal of Elvis Presley, who came to fame at about the same time. At a time when Rock’n’Roll seemed to be settling into its firm masculine spirit, Orbison represented a completely different side to the coin.

Instead of the strutting and macho demonstrating that was fast becoming the staple of the rising Rock star, Orbison’s stock-still performances, combined with his emotionally rich voice provided an alternative approach to Rock, with his operatic voice often soaring far beyond any note that his contemporaries could have dreamed of reaching. Orbison took a direct hand in the writing of many of his songs, co-writing a string of 22 hit singles between the years of 1960-66, most of which made extensive use of his three-octave vocal range.

Even before his life was dogged with tragedy, Orbison wrote music that was tinged with sadness. Vulnerability was his unique selling point, despite producers at the start of his career insisting that he would ‘never make it as a ballad singer’, this would be the style of song that he would become famous for. Although he often took to the stage with an electric guitar (usually jet-black to match his outfit) his records would frequently feature the lush instrumentation of an orchestra, elevating his ballads beyond those of his peers.

His first hit was ‘Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel)’ in 1960 and typified the style of music that be his trademark over the course of his chequered career. Orbison’s success, although stratospheric, was short-lived. The fast-paced, racy rock tunes of the  British Invasion drove Orbison and his slower-tempo music out of the charts in the US.

As Orbison’s records began to fail commercially, his personal life also suffered a series of setbacks. He divorced his wife over a series of infidelities in November 1964, although they reconciled 10 months later their union was short lived. In June 1966, his partner’s life was cut short in a motorcycle accident, the loss of which sent Roy into a depressive downturn – he threw himself into his work and, despite no longer releasing commercially successful material, stayed financially stable thanks to some smart real estate investments. This wasn’t the end of his woes though. In 1968, his home in Tennessee burned to the ground, the flames taking his two older sons with it.

Despite these tragic setbacks, Orbison was able to return to prominence, albeit not until nearly 20 years later. Although he had by and large been forgotten by the A&R men of the music industry and the record buying public, his fellow still artists remembered The Big O. Numerous covers of his hits were released over this time, by performers as wide-ranging as Van Halen, Don McLean and Nazareth. His music made a complete cultural return to the spotlight when his hit, ‘In Dreams’ was featured in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet. Lynch had used the song without Orbison’s permission and, although he was initially shocked by the use of the song in the film, he soon grew to appreciate the ‘otherworldly quality’ that the director had imbued the song with.

The revival of interest in his music led to his re-recording many of his hits, as well as working on new music with The Travelling Wilburys and ELO bandleader Jeff Lynne. He completed work on his last studio album, Mystery Girl, with Lynne just weeks before his death of a heart-attack in 1988 at the age of 52.

Ever a man of mystery, Roy Orbison is said to have appeared, much like his hauntingly expressive voice, out of nowhere. Perhaps fittingly, his music lives on today performed live around the world by a state-of-the-art hologram with a full orchestra providing the epic instrumentation that his music always demanded.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: Shock Rock Innovator

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: Rockabilly Legend & Influential Glam Rock Pioneer

Despite the continued popularity of R’n’R in the UK, it’s safe to say that there aren’t really any Jive performers today attempting to emulate the wild cat antics of one of Rockabilly’s weirdest performers.

James Hawkins, as we he was born, did not have the easiest of starts in life yet you could say that his diverse upbringing helped him achieve the kind of orginality and style that other performers could only wish they thought of at the time. Abandoned by his mother at birth, he was raised in an orphanage until he was adopted by a Native American family at 18 months old. During his early years he developed an affinity with music, teaching himself to play the piano and learning to read music by the age of six. At fourteen he had picked up the saxophone and was also developing a considerable talent with his fists.

Hawkins took home the top prize at the Golden Gloves Championship in 1943 at the age of 14, but his love for musical eclipsed his natural talents as a fighter. That same year he enrolled at the Ohio Conservatory for Music to follow in the footsteps of his idol Paul Robeson and learn to sing operatically. Hawkins did not complete his education there, soon he’d dropped out to join the War effort and found himself entertaining tired soldiers with his unique brand of blues.

Hawkins was often known to tell outlandish tales of his times in the army including stories of parachuting behind enemy lines and becoming a POW. One particular story, which remains completely unsubstantiated, details a grisly encounter between Hawkins and one of his captors, involving the forced swallowing of a live grenade. This kind of bizarre, shocking humour was very much apart of Hawkins’ nature and would prove to be both his undoing and his making.

After his discharge from the army and a brief return to boxing, Hawkins began playing music professionally for a number of renowned jazz performers including Charlie Parker and the Art Tatum Trio. His career as a session musician soon came to and end when he was fired by Fats Domino for attempting to perform in a leopard skin suit. Although his wild-man style did not sit with the traditional jazz band leaders of the time, he soon caught the eye of Okeh Records who signed him. His first record with them did not sell well but has come to be recognised as a true cultural landmark in popular music.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, as he was now known, is said to have recorded an early version of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ in 1956 whilst in the midst of a booze-fuelled binge. The next day, when going over the take, all involved agreed that the wildness of his vocals was something that should be replicated again. The record did not perform well, but laid the foundation for his identity as a shamanic, ritualistic performer who drew ire from groups as disparate as the NAACP and the National Coffin Association.

Hawkins continued performing right through to the mid-90s, opening for acts that he had influenced such as Nick Cave and The Clash. During his period he scored his one and only UK hit, a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Heart Attack and Vine‘ which peaked at number 42 in 1993. Screamin’ Jay might not have been appreciated during his heyday but it’s a testament to his ingenuity as an artist that he was able to be recognised by his peers later in life.

Filmmaker Nicholas Triandafyllidis made a documentary based on Hawkins’ life and featuring his last ever performance, which you can watch below:

B.B. King: From Cotton Picker to Grammy Award Winner

Born on a cotton plantation in 1925, you could argue that the start of Riley B. King’s life was far from illustrious.

King’s parents were both sharecroppers, an occupation that was not far removed from the enslaved lives that their parents would have survived.

They were tied to the land that they lived on and constantly indebted to the owner of the land – escaping the system that they were entrenched in was near enough impossible. Before Riley B. King became the legendary B. B. King he worked as a sharecropper too, becoming indebted to a farm owner at the age of 14 and being forced to work long hard hours picking cotton, in addition to attending school.

Left to fend for himself after the death of his Grandmother, he would later be reunited with his estranged Father, but this would not be a relationship that lasted. He married in 1944, whilst still struggling to make ends meet, an accident with a broken tractor sets him back even further and left him working to repay another debt. It’s not until late 1948 that the burgeoning guitar player lands his first professional gig selling an alcoholic health tonic Peptikon.

Regional stardom soon follows as ‘The Peptikon Boy’s‘ popularity begins to snowball. King cuts four tracks for Bullett Records in 1949 and is rechristened as the ‘Blues Boy’, which is soon abbreviated to ‘B. B.’ King. In 1952 he signs with Universal Attractions and proceeds to tour extensively playing to huge crowds, however his audience remains entirely black. Blues music has yet to break into mainstream American culture and despite his success he is still struggling for money.

Tax problems, divorces, bus theft and fires dog B. B. King’s career throughout the 60s, but the national sentiment towards his music is changing as well as the social acceptance of black people in America. In 1968, he is introduced on to the stage of the Filmore Auditorium to the sound of a standing ovation from an audience of predominantly white people – his arrival into the mainstream is quickly followed up by the recording of two seminal albums: Live and Well and Completely Well. The last track on Completely rocketed King to fame: The Thrill Is Gone took B. B. to the Grammy Awards in 1970 and claimed his first of 15 in his long fruitful career.

A man that exemplified and popularised the blues as we know it today, B. B King influenced countless Rock’n’Roll artists that we now know and love.