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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Sunday, December 07, 2008


. . . died 20 years ago - 20 years ago!! - today. He was 52. Here's the entry on him from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:

Orbison, Roy [1936 - 1988]
Roy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, on 23 April 1936. He first recorded in 1956 (‘Ooby Dooby’) and wrote the EVERLY BROTHERS hit ‘Claudette’. He and his early group the Wink Westerners regarded one side of Texas as their terrain, enjoying a rivalry with BUDDY HOLLY & the Crickets from the other side. Orbison had his own local-TV show sponsored by a local furniture store, one which an early guest was ELVIS PRESLEY. But it was after signing to Monument Records that Roy began to have his long run of huge hit singles, beginning with ‘Only The Lonely’ and taking in ‘Blue Angel’, ‘Runnin’ Scared’, ‘Cryin’’, ‘Blue Bayou’, ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Dream Baby’, ‘In Dreams’, ‘It’s Over’ and ‘The Crowd’.

When hip snobbery was rife in the late 1960s and 1970s, not one music paper or magazine would publish such a thing as a Roy Orbison interview, despite the fact that, uniquely, he had worked both at the Sun studio in Memphis and at Norman Petty’s in Clovis, New Mexico in the crucial mid-1950s. And despite the further credentials of his voice and those early-1960s singles, Orbison’s mid-70s live appearances were perforce in cabaret clubs. No-one was listening or respectful of his artistry then. He was widely dismissed as a clapped-out, tawdry pop star, as passé as hair-cream and condoms, neither of which we thought we’d see again. When he died (of a heart attack in Hendersonville, TN, December 6, 1988), everyone said how they’d always loved him.

By then he had enjoyed a second wave of success, winning a grammy for a duet with Emmylou Harris (‘That Loving You Feeling Again’), his re-recording of ‘In Dreams’ becoming pivotal to David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, re-recording his masterpiece of soaring heartache, ‘Cryin’’, as a duet with K.D. Lang, having an album of new material produced by Elvis Costello (which Orbison unfortunately died before the release of, and which gave him a posthumous hit single, ‘You Got It’ and became his highest-charting album), and standing alongside Dylan, GEORGE HARRISON, TOM PETTY and JEFF LYNNE as one of the TRAVELING WILBURYS (Lefty Wilbury, in fact).

He was the oldest Wilbury, with the best rock’n’roll credentials, and his lovely voice gave an invaluable counterweight to the gruff touch of the others. On the first Wilburys album it was the major track on which Orbison took lead vocals, ‘Not Alone Anymore’, that brought Bob Dylan back into the hit-singles chart for the first time in two decades.

Dylan paid him a less than fulsome tribute after his death (especially in contrast to how grandiloquent he waxed in tribute to Gerry Garcia and JOHNNY CASH). Dylan said of Orbison only this: ‘Roy was an opera singer. He had the greatest voice.’ He made up for it in sheer garrulousness in his comments in Chronicles Volume One, where he takes a series of fumbled lunges towards pinning Orbison down. In the course of them he includes this: ‘[He] transcended all the genres… His stuff mixed all the styles and some that hadn’t been invented yet… With Roy you didn’t know if you were listening to mariarchi or opera. He kept you on your toes… He sounded like he was singing from someOlympian mountaintop and he meant business… singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal.’

Perhaps Dylan had paid him a more proper tribute at his appearance at the 2nd Isle of Wight Festival of Music on 31 August 1969 - for the versions he sang that night of the traditional ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and his own ‘To Ramona’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ were all strongly redolent of Roy Orbison’s distinctive vocals - and all exquisite.

[Roy Orbison: ‘Cryin’’, Monument 447, 1961; Mystery Girl, nia, 1988, Virgin 791058 1, 1989. Roy Orbison & K.D. Lang: ‘Cryin’’, nia. Bob Dylan: ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, ‘To Ramona’ & ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, Isle of Wight, 31 Aug 1969, all unreleased and only ever circulated in particularly poor quality, despite many attempts to ‘upgrade’ them. Bob Dylan quoted from Chronicles Volume One, p.33.]


Blogger joe butler said...

when I was younger, I couldn't get passed the brylcream hair and the milk bottle bottom specs .I just didnt get him, he seemed desperately uncool. Now I can hear the quality of the voice yet I still hate the guitar lick in pretty woman and remember how it used to clog the airwaves. the dum dum dums in "only the lonely" give doowop a bad name."Crying" makes me weep tear of exasperation.
Like Elvis he could have been much more than just a beautiful voice.

12:08 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Well, Joe, I'm shocked. I'll concede that Pretty Woman is not his finest moment, but as for the rest...

Yes, he looked "uncool": he wasn't the handsomest stallion in the stable, but then as Carl Perkins said, "Elvis was the only one of us who didn't look like Mister Ed."

You were too young not to be callous back then, but surely now you can feel a humane kindness toward those kids in school who wore geeky glasses - the people tenderly borne in mind by another wonderful singer of greater contemporaneity, the tremendous Paul Buchanan of the great Blue Nile. (Wish I could see them live.)

And anyway (a) what's cool can change in a trice - I can remember when the uncoolest male name in the world was Bruce; then Springsteen came along... (and we'd laughed at "Bruce" because it was so Australian, and Australia was the uncoolest country outside of South Africa... until it became cool), and (b) dividing everything into what's cool and what's not is a tedious process; I'm waiting for the word Cool to become Uncool.

As for "the dum dum dums in Only The Lonely give doowop a bad name", er, that's outrageous. Can you listen to more than about four tracks of doo wop from the 50s without wanting to bite your own ears? With Only The Lonely, Orbison came out with a sound the like of which had never been heard before - a sound of shimmering beauty, within which the dum dum dum doobee doowahs rescued doo wop from the dreary wet hole it was stuck in. And as for Cryin', despite the strain and the wobble on the last high note, that is self-evidently a small masterpiece. Ditto Blue Angel, Blue Bayou and The Crowd, to name but a few.

1:13 pm  
Blogger joe butler said...

horses for courses Michael, you can't force me to like him. yes i was a brute to think him uncool, so sue me.
I was chased round Corpus Christi playgound derided as "holy joe"... people who are bullied think they should bully.
however Ive just listened to "only the lonely" on u tube circa 1960 and it does have something so does he, brylcream and all.
revisionist thoughts. could i paint him?

3:11 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Peace, Joe.

12:34 am  
Blogger Theokie said...

Joe Melson who co-wrote many of Roy's earlier hits, said on the BBC Radio 2 documentary that he supplied the 'dum dum dummy do-wahs.' Some people said it was The Everly Brothers and others thought it was the Kalin Twins, or even Tompall and the Glaser Brothers! I had a 45rpm of Joe Melson's called 'No one really cares.' He came in too early during part of the song but they left the mistake in, thereby validating the title!

5:48 pm  

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