Written by Ryan Hilligoss and Shawn Poole (Expanded version of text used for broadcast on E Street Radio, Sirius/XM channel 20 Thursday April 21 at 5:00pm EST, Friday April 22 at 7:00am EST and Saturday April 23 at 6:00pm EST.)
“Roy made a little town in New Jersey feel as big as the sound of his records. I’ll always remember what he means to me and what he meant to me when I was young and afraid to love.” Bruce Springsteen
Roy Orbison’s Singing For The Lonely
This week we celebrate what would have been the 80th Birthday of the late, great Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roy Orbison, also known as “the Big O.” Bruce Springsteen’s music has been influenced over the years by many of his musical heroes including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Eddie Floyd, Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore and many others, but maybe none more than Roy Orbison. Roy has been described as “the most brilliant white male voice of the 50s and 60s “, the world’s only operatic rockabilly singer, The Caruso of Rock, and Elvis once said of his Sun Record label mate, “Roy Orbison is the best singer in the whole world.” His voice ranged from baritone to tenor, and music scholars have suggested that he had a three- or four-octave range. During performances, he was known for standing still and solitary and for wearing black clothes and dark sunglasses, which lent an air of mystery to his persona.
Roy Orbison was born April 23, 1936 in Vernon, Texas and grew up mainly in the west Texas oil town of Wink. On Roy’s sixth birthday, his father gave him a guitar. He later recalled that, by the age of seven, “I was finished, you know, for anything else.” As a young boy, Roy was exposed to many musical artists and styles including orchestral arrangements, Tex-Mex, bolero, country western, and Cajun. The classic Jole Blon was one of the first songs he sang in public. Some of his favorite artists included Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, Glen Miller, and Montavani. At the age of 8, Orbison had his own weekly radio show. While in high school, Orbison formed The Wink Westerners and played at school dances, radio programs and honky tonks. Roy once saw Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash perform, and Johnny was the one who told Roy to come to Sun Studios and see Sam Phillips about a recording contract, which Roy promptly did and recorded his one hit at Sun Records, “Ooby Dooby”.
Speaking of Cash, in the liner notes of his 1996 album, Unchained, Johnny writes on giving advice. “Don’t ask me for advice. Whenever someone does, I’m reminded of the worst advice I ever gave to anyone. Thank god Roy Orbison ignored it. Roy and I became friends from Day 1. When he came to Memphis from West Texas. I had met him in Odessa where he and the Three Kings did a show on local TV, He was a little discouraged by the lack of progress he was making and asked me what I thought he should do. I said, ‘Change your name and lower your voice. You sing too high and no one will ever remember Orbison.’”
After becoming disappointed with the recording advice of Sam Phillips and the limited publicity of Sun Records, Roy left Sun shortly after Elvis and Johnny Cash did and signed a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose Music and sold one song to the Everly Brothers, “Claudette”. He then attempted to work with RCA but producer Chet Atkins and Orbison never got on the same page and Roy left with little to nothing to show for his efforts. Orbison then moved to Monument Records and under the production of Fred Foster, recorded his great masterpieces of “Uptown”, “Oh Pretty Woman”, “Crying”, “Running Scared” and many more. Frequent Orbison writing partner Joe Meleson said of their writing technique, “When we were writing, we’d fall asleep on the guitars. While writing “Only The Lonely”, we dozed off in my room. We’d stay up real late sometimes, trying to get the mood of the song and they feel of it, the right lyrics. Then we’d play it in the daytime to see if it held up. Our philosophy was, if it sounds good in the broad daylight, think what it’ll sound like when those people are lonely at night.”
Orbison’s recordings had great influence on other artists like Springsteen and on Elvis Presley. In 1960, Roy offered “Only The Lonely” to Elvis who turned it down, probably due to publishing rights issues which he frequently had due to the control of Colonel Parker and RCA’s publishing house. It is reported that when Elvis first heard Roy’s version on the radio, he was blown away and went out and bought boxes of the single and passed them out to friends and family. Elvis then went into the studio shortly thereafter and recorded his version of “O Sole Mio(It’s Now Or Never)” which contains a lot of Orbisonesque vocals inflections and lush orchestral strings in the background.
As the U.S. arena leg of Bruce Springsteen’s The River Tour 2016 opens its final stand, we’ve found the perfect Throwback Thursday item: a River-era 1981 television appearance by Bruce Springsteen discussing the importance and impact of “The Big O’”s music. It’s a very interesting historical snippet, most likely marking the first time that Bruce ever appeared on television elaborating on the significance of one of his major musical influences. Much of what Springsteen touched upon in this ‘81 clip would be included and expanded in his 1987 speech inducting Orbison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As befitting something associated with Roy Orbison, there’s also an aura of mystery around this clip. As of this writing, we still haven’t been able to determine its exact origin. Was this part of an awards-show’s Orbison-tribute segment? A television special on early rock-and-rollers or on Orbison himself? Or possibly even part of an episode of an ongoing series? *Update: On 4/21/16 Robert Bader wrote in to Backstreets.com: “I can solve the mystery of the clip you have up today. Bruce shot this for a Roy Orbison pay-per-view concert broadcast. I think it was after the Rolling Stones’ December 1981 Hampton, Virginia pay-per-view, which was one of the first live concert PPV events, so my guess (without digging through the boxes of VHS tapes in my garage) would be that it was shot in 1981 and broadcast in early 1982. These PPV concerts were regular monthly things in those days. I recall watching the Stones event, and later the Who doing Tommy from Atlantic City, and lots of others. In between the mega-acts like the Who and the Stones they would have stuff like Teddy Pendergrass and Roy Orbison.”
So let’s get this Big O Birthday party started with one of Roy Orbison’s greatest hits, “Only The Lonely”, followed by Bruce Springsteen performing a beautiful acoustic version of “Thunder Road”, the Springsteen song that name-checks both Roy and “Only The Lonely”, taken from the February 26, 2014 Brisbane, New Zealand on the High Hopes tour.
Roy Orbison and Friends
“Thunder Road” was followed by “Dream Baby”, performed by Roy Orbison and Friends, featuring Bruce on harmony vocals and guitar, from A Black and White Night. The Black and White Night special was filmed for Cinemax television in September 1987 at the Coconut Grove Nightclub in Los Angeles and featured Bruce, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes and KD Lang on backing vocals and powered by the rhythm section of Elvis Presley’s TCB band with Ronnie Tutt on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, Glen Hardin on piano and the world-class James Burton on lead guitar. After the concert, Bruce said, “When I was a kid, his music took me out of my little town. And you don’t always get a chance to sing harmony with Roy Orbison and play guitar next to James Burton. That’s a dream.” Roy was later interviewed about the show and had these kind words to say, “We had a rehearsal and Bruce had obviously taken the chord sheets home and practiced. As we went on stage Bruce said, ‘Should I be nervous?’ I said, ‘No, I’ll take care of that.’ It was terrific to look around and Bruce playing guitar and Elvis Costello doing his bit. I really loved every moment of it. The thing was to see these guys working so hard as musicians, as opposed to being front men. Bruce Springsteen is a solo type of singer. He’s a wonderful person to work with. I was expecting someone like him to be a little difficult, but he was great.” Springsteen has said that when talking to fans and other artists, he is asked more about the Black and White night more so than any other one performance he’s every been involved with.
No One Sings Like Roy Orbison
Over the years, Bruce has inducted many members into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and U2, but I think his favorite may have been in 1987 when he inducted Roy Orbison. On that night, Bruce said about his hero, ““I’d lay in bed at night with just the lights of my stereo on and I’d let Crying, Running Scared, Love Hurts, It’s Over and Only The Lonely fill up my room. Well, some rock and roll reinforces friendship and community, but for me, Roy’s ballads were always best when you were alone and in the dark. And I always remember laying in bed and right at the end of It’s Over, when he hits that note that sounds like the world is going to end. And lay there promising myself that I was never going to go outside again and never talk to another woman. Right about then my needle would slip back to the first cut and I would hear…dud dud dud duh. I carry his records with me when I go on tour today. In 75, we went into the studio to make Born To Run. I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan, that sounded like Phil Spector, but most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison. Now everybody knows, no one sings like Roy Orbison. So all I want to say is congratulations, thanks for the inspiration, and rrrrrllll mercy.”
In a Rolling Stone interview, Roy was asked what he thought about when he was inducted, “I looked around, looked up into this big room at huge pictures of all the guys who were coming in. And I remember seeing some pictures of guys who weren’t there and couldn’t be there because they were gone. And I got into the spirit of the thing. I was really cool until I had to stand on the side of the stage during Bruce’s speech. He said so many nice things, I didn’t know what in the world to say. But I took the speech from him. He had it written down, and I said, “Can I take this speech?”
On Springsteen’s Devils and Dust studio album released in 2005, one track included was “Leah’, the title taken from the Orbison song of the same name. On the acoustic tour that followed, Springsteen often introduced the song with this, ´´Well, we all carry along with us, uh, the seeds of our destruction, it´s kind of the merry part of the human package, you know (chuckles) along with the seeds that allow us to, uh….if we´re fortunate and thoughtful, build things but, uh, that´s kind of a tug-of-war that can go on for a long time (chuckles) this is a song about a guy that just figures out how to come down on the right side of that equation…just barely….this song´s called ´Leah,´ I took the title from a Roy Orbison song….Roy Orbison´s song was about a pearl diver, I´ve been telling the folks that Roy was one of those guys….could write about, could sing about anything, he just had a voice that made everything sound believable, he had this song about the pearl diver, the pearl diver dives into the ocean to get the pearl for a girl (?) a pretty hokey bit of business but he made it so beautiful….and I got to meet him and I got to know him a little bit before he died and I went to his house one afternoon and, uh….(?) ´I got this new song about windsurfing´ ….´Windsurfing, oh´….I didn´t say that but that´s what I was thinking….and, uh, I was thinking ´You can sing about a lot of things, you could certainly sing about surfing….but windsurfing, that´s, that´s, that´s the no-go area, that´s….it can´t be done, that´s all there is to it, I don´t care who you are…..and, uh….you know, and so on his next record came out this, this beautiful song called ´Windsurfer´….and uh, I remember, it, it almost made me wanna windsurf (chuckles) but, uh….you gotta have faith….that´s what this is about too (chuckles) …´´
Crying/Lift Me Up
While the music of Roy Orbison was an important part of Bruce Springsteen’s life starting at an early age, the connection didn’t become close and personal until Bruce inducted Roy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, followed closely by the filming of the Black and White Night special and then becoming personal friends with him after that. Prior to his 52nd birthday, Roy was interviewed and was asked who he would like to have sing “Happy Birthday” to him. “Bruce Springsteen”, he replied. We heard the live event at the top of the show but what most people don’t know is, later that same year, Roy flew to San Francisco on September 23, 1988 to wish Bruce a happy birthday while they were touring behind the Amnesty International event. Roy Orbison passed away on December 6, 1988 at the age of 52. Just a few weeks later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony of 1989 was held and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner dedicated the night to the memory of Roy Orbison. At the end of the show, during the jam section, Bruce sang a version of Roy’s hit, Crying. Following are Springsteen’s cover of “Crying”, performed on the Tunnel of Love tour on May 16, 1988 at Madison Square Garden in New York City and Bruce’s beautiful recording of his song “Lift Me Up”, taken from the soundtrack to the movie Limbo and released on The Essential Bruce Springsteen. It was recorded in 1999 and has a very Roy Orbison-esque falsetto vocal and feel to the music.
Probably more than any other major music writer, rock critic Dave Marsh has spoken and written extensively about how many of Roy Orbison’s greatest records sound deeply influenced by the grand tradition of Mexican ballad singing. Dave once got to ask Roy Orbison himself about this influence, and Roy confirmed for Dave that the Mexican influence was a strong one indeed. Roy Orbison’s music helped to spread that Mexican influence to younger listeners and artists across the country and around the world like Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom performed with Roy on the Black and White Night television special. To demonstrate this influence is Roy’s version of “Yo Tia Amo Maria” followed by Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa covering Jackson Browne’s Mexican-influenced song “Linda Paloma”, followed by Roy’s “It’s Over”. Lastly, in this segment is Springsteen’s “Breakaway” taken from his Darkness On The Edge of Town era outtakes released as The Promise in 2010. The Orbison influence is unmistakable from the vocals and phrasing, the structure of the song, the castanets and all the down to the drumbeat, taken directly from “It’s Over”.
What Dreams May Come In The Real World
Thanks for joining us on our Roy Orbison extravaganza as we celebrate Roy’s 80th birthday. After Roy passed away, Bruce was interviewed and had this to say:
“Roy’s music to me, was always very psychological ‘Running Scared,’ ‘Crying,’ ‘It’s Over.’ There was always that strange paradox. Almost always he dealt with some sort of devastating loss that seemed unbearable. And then he had that voice in its very beauty, for me, always resonated with hope.
On the one hand, I realize he died; on the other hand, I think I’ve carried around what he’s done inside of me for so long that in some ways I don’t feel the loss as great as maybe I thought I would. What he’s done has been so alive for me and so consistent in my life for such a long time. Every few year I’d go back and become re-infatuated with those records. I’ve had endless drives with buddies of mine where we would play the records and talk about them.
If you play his records, they don’t sound like oldies records. At the time they were recorded they were tremendously modern. In my earlier records, where I had more of an operatic construction in a lot of the music, it just came directly from the basic idea that a pop song did not have to be two verses, a chorus, a verse, a chorus. That was the Roy Orbison idea.
That sense of longing that he could convey. That endless longing for something. The music was so dark and beautiful. Look at those hits. Just the introductions. The way he would synthesize everything down in those introductions. The introduction to ‘It’s Over:’ ‘Your baby doesn’t love you anymore.’ When he sang that opening line, you knew all you had to know, I used to tease him. I said, ‘Man, if the record stopped right there, people would have gotten their money’s worth.’”
Before Roy passed away in 1988, he was back on top with the album The Travelling Wilburys Volume I recorded with friends Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. His album Mystery Girl released in February 1989 reached the top 5 albums Billboard charts, contained songs written by many of his younger fans including Petty, Bono, Elvis Costello and others. In Ellis Amburn’s biography of Roy entitled Dark Star. Roy stated that he and Bruce worked on the lyrics of one song. However, he did not name the song and there is no credit to Springsteen on the album information so we would be very curious to know if there is a partial recording of an Orbison/Springsteen penned song out in the ether somewhere.
Unfortunately Roy Orbison passed just as his career was rebounding after floundering during the 70s and early 80s, and before he received the recognition he deserved from younger fans and critics. In an interview given to Rolling Stone months before he died, Roy was asked what he wanted his legacy to be and in his own humble manner, simply replied, “I just want to be remembered.” Well, 80 years after he was born and almost thirty years since he died, music fans all over the world still remember Roy Orbison, his beautiful voice, his songs and his dreams. And as long as music is played, people will always be listening to Pretty Woman, Crying, It’s Over, Love Hurts, and Only The Lonely. Thanks Roy for inspiring Bruce and giving us the gift that was your voice and songs and music.
We’d like to close out today’s show with a double-shot featuring one of Roy Orbison’s final recordings, “In The Real World,” followed by Bruce Springsteen’s solo-piano version of his own song entitled “Real World.” Interestingly, Bruce’s song also contains the Orbisonesque phrase “running scared” in its lyrics. There’s a much deeper connection, however, between these two songs than just the lyrical nod and their similarity in titles. Among rock-and-roll’s pioneers, Roy Orbison wrote and sang some of the most adult, psychological songs about love, loss, human relationships and fantasy versus reality. And both Roy’s “In The Real World” and Bruce’s “Real World” are among the best of their songs to continue and extend that tradition. As you’ll also hear, right up until the end, Roy still had that beautiful voice that he shared with anyone willing to listen. His music lives on and continues to have a lasting impact on so many of us here in the real world. Happy Birthday, Big O. Rest in peace.