Sunday, May 29, 2022


Dum dum da dooby dum dum, is that how it goes? You know it does, of course, one of those terific songs that, no matter your age, evokes simpler times, perhaps in black and white, quiffs, brylcreem and big collars over the top of suit lapels. These are tend to be vague and somewhat inaccurate tropes, for, even I am too young to have been a teen in the Big O's prime. (Or should that be first prime?) But listening to his creamy voice makes me imagine I was.

I wasn't, growing up in the sixties, a big fan of rock and roll. in fact, give or take very early Elvis and Jerry Lee at his hair shaken forward all over his face peak, I found it all a little ludicrous. Bill Haley? Pur-leease. I sorta got Chuck Berry as I grew older, perhaps as the bands I did like covered so much his stuff, but have never taken to Little Richard. Again, I could appreciate the rockabilly styles of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, but not so much the choreographed oddness of Buddy Holly, whom I thought looked a bit of a geek. (It took me decades to realise he was actually rather good...) But Roy Orbison, perhaps not really a rocker, in that grey area when the aggression of the late 50's was morphing into the schlocky easy listening balladeers of the early 60's, something about his shtick appealed to me, and, even aged in single figures, I was happy to sing along with his mellifluous melasma. He looked different, too, with the dark glasses, an air of mystery to the extent I thought him probably blind. (He wasn't, but looked way better in shades than without them, when he resembled a bewildered owl.) Plus he had the tragic side story of his real life, something that even endeared him to my mother, who seemed to want to mother him, and, unusually for her, had an opinion about him, unlike virtually any other performer beamed into our Thursday evenings, via Top of the Pops. (Positive opinion, that is, she having plenty to say about the Stones and the Who!)

I was three when 'Only the Lonely' was first a hit, so my memory is likely subliminal at best, later probably reconstructed as I grew. A number one in the UK, a place above its US pinnacle, it was said to be Orbison's longest lasting tenure in the hit parade. Not bad, when you consider he was also packing 50% of the royalties, it being a co-write of his with Joe Melson. Intriguingly, the idea had initially been to flog it to Elvis, or the Everly Brothers, Orbison only recording it as they turned it down. More fool they? It is astonishing, looking back at this run of hits, throughout the '60s, how big a star he then was, it hardly surprising that, as he dropped out of view and, perhaps, favour, to realise quite how influential he was with the next generation of performers.

Bruce Springsteen was never shy of his admiration, as the song 'Thunder Road' showed, the reference to Orbison a delight for those listening, themselves possibly already in thrall to him. Then, in 1988, came two momentous reawakenings. Firstly the possibly initial shock that greeted the formation of the Travellin' Wilbur's, the faux band of brothers, aka supergroup of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. And Roy Orbison. Who? That old fart, thought the world, ahead of having him blow off their socks with the power of his vocals and his understated and charismatic presence. And listen to what he actually sings in 'Handle me With Care'! (Me, I thought Jeff Lynne the nipple in the woodpile, but hey, his compadres seemed to like his execrable production style.) As Lefty Wilbury, Orbison made that album for me, he then moving straight on, or seeming to, to the Black and White Night video and album This was  from an HBO TV special, actually shown the year before, making it chronologically ahead of the Wilbury's, but I did not know that then. Now, this really was a superstar session, with respect to Otis, Lucky, Nelson and Charlie T. Jr., with Orbison running through a stack of his hits and more. With Presley's old TCB (takin' care of business) band, aka, later on, Emmylou's Hot Band behind him, James Burton, Jerry Scheff, Ronnie Tutt and Glen D. Hardin, how could it not sound great? Add in guests of the calibre of the aforesaid Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Jackson Browne, and this was catnip to me. Hell, even the girly singers were Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Warnes. Shot in black and white, this is a wonderful recordd of what must have been quite a night, and one that still bears repeated plays today.

All to suddenly, the Big O's renaissance ended. In December 1988, having been touring and needing downtime ahead of a trip to London to record some Wibury videos, he retreated to his home, dying, on the 6th, at his mother's house, of a massive heart attack. Astonishingly, in this age of octogenarian rockstars, plus my then thinking him unspeakably ancient, he was only 52. A generation ahead of his fellow Wilbury's, he was barely any older.

Finally, given the theme, and for completeness, here is another Only song he made. This one came from his last album, another posthumous release, Mystery Girl, coming out in 1989, and actually completed a month before he died. Even the Jeff Lynne production cannot hide the quality of the performance. 'The Only One' it is called, and he was, really, wasn't he?

"I'm so tired and very lonely"