Roy Orbison was something of a musical enigma.
He didn’t look like your typical pop singer, dressed all in black, sporting his trademark sunglasses. His music was also far more interested in the emotional buildup and release than other male singers of the early ’60s-namely their general interest in a masculine musical viewpoint. Orbison’s exploration of emotional desperation felt refreshing and a bit operatic, and was a welcome alternative to the overly processed gumball pop that was filtering through the radio.
His songs were clever, cryptic and could drain the emotions from your body before you knew what was happening. There was such a sense of rhythmic inclusiveness that you felt as though you knew him personally after hearing only a few tracks. His music and its innately complex sense of melodicism have influenced generations of future musicians and continue to do so even now. His angelic voice was captivating and could casually shatter those well-placed walls that we build up within ourselves to keep out prying eyes.
Born in Vernon, Texas, to Orbie Lee Orbison and Nadine Schultz, Orbison had a transitory childhood, moving a handful of times when work became scarce and a polio scare at a local elementary school forced the family back to their hometown. All of his siblings had poor eyesight, and he would require thick corrective glasses from a very early age. And because of his nearly white hair, Orbison would begin dyeing his hair black when he was still a child.
His father bought him a guitar for his 6th birthday, and by the following year, Orbison recalled that “I was finished, you know, for anything else.” Drawing primarily from country artists like Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, he started to work his way through a handful of genres (R&B, Tex-Mex, Zydeco) to discover his own inspiration. His first publicly performed song was a Zydeco staple, “Joli Blon.” He began performing on a local radio show when he was 8 years old, and by the late ’40s, he was the host.
He joined a rockabilly/country band in high school called The Wink Westerners and went on to form another band, The Teen Kings, while in college studying geology. And though he did find some measure of success with The Teen Kings-touring with musicians such as Sonny James, Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash, and recording with Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips-it wasn’t until the early ’60s that his career skyrocketed, and he found himself with 22 songs hitting the Billboard top 40 chart.
In 1962, Orbison released his second album, “Crying,” for Monument Records, and helmed by the hugely influential title track, the album was a huge commercial success. But the album wasn’t simply another vehicle to get this song out into the market. The songs spread out across this record were large and orchestral-and were among some of his best songs to date. Obviously, the title song was enough to sell the whole thing, but other songs, such as his cover of “Love Hurts” or the album closer, “Running Scared,” were dramatically emotional and gorgeously arranged.
There was a sense of vulnerability in the sounds and notes, and this was in direct opposition to so many of his peers at the time. Orbison was interested in the cathartic release of emotions and didn’t really care which ones were present, simply that the listener experienced this particular rhythmic release through his music. But it all came back to that voice-that rising, seraphic voice. Pain and sorrow were in his words, but also a joy and love of life that bled through in his music. And it was this split between these two emotional extremes that elevated his music above so much of the monotonous pop that was being released at the time.
In truth, in can be fairly daunting to go back and try to pick a single place to start when attempting to work your way through the vast network of Orbison’s music. Although many people would point to many different records, “Crying,” with its operatic tones and deceptively intricate melodies, seems like the logical point to begin. There is an unexpected force to these recordings that can be a little overwhelming at first. Some people have taken issue with the presence of what they might consider to be distracting strings or some bit of over-the-top production, but these things were all necessary for the music to function and affect us in the way he wanted.
Forget “Oh, Pretty Woman”-at least for the time being-and see that his music was so much more than mere soundtrack and radio fodder. It was polished and shiny, but underneath that glossy façade was a darker and more feral sense of what these songs could mean. Orbison never tried to shy away from these darker impulses, and his music bears their weight without flinching. He was able to sit astride these primal emotions and wrangle some semblance of understanding and acceptance from them.
“Crying” is a collection of confessions, unresolved love and desperation, but it never seems maudlin or bogged down in unnecessary exposition. These songs were drawn directly from his heart, and through them, we get to see a little of how he viewed the world around him. Dark and foreboding but also a cause for celebration, he saw the world as a place of unpredictable natures and unfiltered emotions, and that is exactly what he gave us with “Crying.”
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 6:13 p.m. on 12/20/14 to correct a misspelled name.