Saturday, October 11, 2008

Oh, Pretty Woman, Roy Orbison (1964)

"With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes ... He was now 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 ... His voice could jar a corpse, always leaving you muttering to yourself something like, 'Man, I don't believe it.'" - Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Roy Orbison died on my birthday, December 6, 1988. I was sitting in an establishment in Dayton, Ohio, where I was traveling for work, and the news came in over the TV. (What was to be his final performance had been two days prior, in Akron, where I didn't live then but do now.) I was absolutely stunned and kind of despondent for days afterward. I think I played Mystery Girl, his glorious posthumous album, until the vinyl reverted back to the original resin state.

From the perspective of an 11-year-old girl, Oh, Pretty Woman was a song with startling guitar riffs and a beat you could dance to sung by a decidedly peculiar-looking guy with a killer falsetto. Looking back at it now, really listening to it, I can see that it had a very complex and nuanced arrangement, especially for that particular time in rock's evolution, which is probably why it has stood the test of time and was such a chart-buster.

When he sang, Orbison barely moved a muscle, but the emotion came out in a deluge. It must have been intense being in his presence on stage. He had some similarity to Johnny Cash, in that musicians of considerable talent fell all over themselves wanting to be in his orbit and perform with him. In the above link to the Black & White Night special, watch the sheer delight of the assembled luminaries jamming with him; the Traveling Wilburys were another example of a star-studded crew who basked in being with Roy.

Interestingly with regard to Cash, it was he who may have propelled Roy and his then-band, the Wink Westerners, on to future stardom. They were minor celebrities on various West Texas TV shows, and met Cash on one such show, wherein he encouraged them to seek a contract with the legendary Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis, also Cash's producer. The story goes that they were rejected by Phillips at first, but eventually a relationship was forged and the rest is history.

For as many hits as he had, the full spectrum of his catalogue far exceeded what most of us have actually heard, and is just now being showcased in the new CD box set of 107 cuts, The Soul of Rock and Roll. I guess I should start dropping hints now at what a great gift that would be for the 20th anniversary of Roy's death and my next birthday!


cornbread hell said...

you're breakinG my heart. orbison was the best male vocalist of our time. not merely an echo emanating from the ocean spray of his peers, but the reef.

orbison's was the singular voice encouraging and nourishing the men of his time, men with voices profound, already their own.

don't get me started.

KarmaSartre said...

Roy's resurgence with "You Got It" brought home how much I missed his brilliant voice. Is that contralto? How does he do that? With the Wandering Tillburies, I think on "Handle Me With Care", one or more of the Nasal Brothers (Bob, Tom, George, and Jeff) sings the verse, and Roy comes on to handle the chorus, and he's a man among boys, an alien presence, an angel on Earth.

Wade said...

As a Texan if not a decent human being, I ought to know more about Roy Orbison than the K-HITS! standbys and the Wilburys stuff, but I don't. The voice is so otherworldly it's kind of hard to get past it and into the song--i.e., maybe there's a such a thing as being too good. He had an unimaginably sad life, if I recall right.