“Roy Orbison’s voice sounded like an angel falling backwards through an open window.”
That was country singer Dwight Yoakam, commenting on the haunting, utterly unique, and unmistakable sound of Roy Orbison.
With his midnight black hair, impenetrable sunglasses—stage fright, not blindness, as some assumed—and awkward, vulnerable stage presence, Orbison was the wounded soul of country. Many country songs and singers relate tales of heartbreak, but Orbison’s aria-like compositions with a voice that tore the soul were something quite apart from the work of other artists. His songs lived in a clouded world of desperate regret and desperate hope. (Even his most optimistic hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman” leaves the listener on edge. Is she really “walking back to me?” The ache in Orbison’s voice is not as confident as his lyric.)
Born in Texas, Orbison’s initial work was frenetic rockabilly fare—he began, as so many did, at Sun Records, the initial blast-off for Elvis Presley. But it was not until he moved on to Monument Records that Roy began to develop the sound—and the physical persona—that made him iconic. Although he continued to record up-tempo songs, it was the dramatic ballads—“Crying,” “Running Scared,” “In Dreams,” “Only The Lonely,” “It’s Over”—that established him as a star. More than that—a male singer who was open to his own vulnerability; so piercing, so real. Little arias of exquisite agony.
The singer’s own life was itself material for any number of Nashville-themed heartbreak city songs. Success troubled his first marriage to Claudette Frady, but after a reconciliation she was killed in a motorcycle accident. Several years later, two of their sons would die in a house fire. (In 1969 he would marry a young German girl, Barbara Jakobs. They would have two children and remained wed until Roy’s death in 1988.)
His career suffered inevitably as times changed, but of his fallow period he once remarked: “I kind of stood there like a tree where the winds blow and the seasons change, and you’re still there and you bloom again.”
And he did bloom again, although one aspect of his comeback initially irked him—director David Lynch’s use of Orbison’s haunting “In Dreams” in Lynch’s controversial 1986 movie, Blue Velvet. (Orbison flat-out refused to allow the song; Lynch ignored him.) But, in time, Roy came to see that audience exposure to the 1963 hit not only helped reintroduce him, but also gave the song—“performed” by a loony drug dealer in the movie—a different, even more striking resonance.
Orbison was in the full flower of his renaissance in 1987. His duet “Crying” with k.d. lang (then courting a country audience) was epic, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He was omnipresent and adored as never before—concerts, documentaries, feature stories. His voice was once again analyzed and marveled over. His quiet manner, the hushed mystery of his presence, was the epitome of cool, just as it had been when he’d ruled the charts in the 1960s. He had come full circle, through the fire of personal tragedy and professional indifference, with all his ability intact, and honed even finer.
Roy Orbison died of a heart attack in Hendersonville, Tennessee, at the age of 52. He had perhaps worked too arduously on his comeback. His last album, the posthumously released “Mystery Girl,” was a hit.
Roy Orbison’s life and his art will be brought to the screen as a feature film next year. As of this writing, no star has been announced. It is not known if the actor chosen will lip-sync to Roy’s recordings or attempt to imitate his sound. I suggest the former.
I leave the final word on Orbison’s art to Bruce Springsteen: “He was the true master of the romantic apocalypse you knew was coming after the first night you whispered ‘I love you’ to your first girlfriend.”