‘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.