Monday, April 23, 2012 at 9:56 a.m.
The hits were immediately accessible and radio-ready at that. The voice that sang them was a mournful croon, operatic in timbre and flush full of desperation and desire. Even the trademark shades couldn't mask the sadness spurred from inside.
Even so, Roy Orbison (born April 23, 1936) was one of rock 'n' roll's noblest forebears and also one of its most resilient. Having scored his earliest hits in the late 1950s, when rock was still in its infancy, his stature only grew stronger as time went on.
He was idolized early on by the Beatles, Springsteen, Dylan, Elvis Presley, U2, and practically all who came to know him, either through his music or personal acquaintance. He was never the flashy kind -- certainly nowhere near as showy as early contemporaries like Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, or Jerry Lee Lewis -- but he embodied instead a shy, self-effacing dignity and humility appropriate for a small-town boy from Wink, Texas, or similarly humble environs.
Orbison's peak period was between 1960 and 1964, when he recorded for Monument Records and released no fewer than 22 songs that made the Billboard Top 40 -- among them "Only the Lonely," "Crying," "Love Hurts," "Running Scared," In Dreams," "Blue Bayou," and "Oh, Pretty Woman."
However, he had hits prior during his tenure with the pioneering Sun Records ("Ooby Dooby," "Claudette") and much later as well, including the recordings he made alongside Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne in the supergroup known as the Traveling Wilburys. His was a voice unlike any other, a rich, impassioned baritone that boasted a three-octave range, one that earned him the nickname "the Caruso of Rock," quite a compliment considering that Caruso was one of the greatest opera singers of all time. Then again, both Billboard and Rolling Stone listed Orbison among the greatest vocalists of all time, one of the main reasons he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its sophomore year.
Although he reflected an image of extreme introversion -- owed mainly to his trademark sunglasses and all-black attire -- Orbison became a huge star overseas, even upstaging the Beatles when they toured as a support band for him in England early on. (It's said that he chose to open the bill in deference to all the attention they were receiving, but when the crowd demanded an encore, Lennon and McCartney literally held him back when he attempted to return to the stage.) His voice seemed to mesmerize his audiences far more than his presence, but ironically that vulnerability was drawn from real-life tragedy. After his divorce from first wife Claudette, they reconciled, but shortly thereafter, she was killed when the car the couple were riding in was struck by a semi. His two eldest sons later died in a house fire while he was overseas on tour. Orbison himself succumbed at a tragically early age as well, suffering a heart attack in the midst of yet another well-received comeback.
Today, more than 24 years after his death at age 52 on December 6, 1988, Orbison's more revered than ever. Despite a fallow period throughout most of the '70s, his fame was resuscitated early in the '80s, when several of his songs were covered by some of the biggest names in music, like Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Linda Rondstadt, K.D. Lang, and Don McLean.
An all-star live concert, released on record as A Black and White Night, gathered the likes of Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, and Springsteen as participants in his backing band. It's little wonder that the other Wilburys were literally in awe -- his vocal contribution to their first hit, "Handle With Care," is especially compelling -- and that following his stint with the band, he capped his career with the album Mystery Girl, which featured contributions from both Lynne and Petty as well as Bono and Costello. The album reaped a massive posthumous hit in "You Got It," which Lynne and Petty composed specifically with Orbison in mind.
In rock, image is everything, and while Orbison hardly epitomized the rock 'n' roll image, his dark glasses helped shape that brooding persona. According to legend, he started wearing shades after he left his regular glasses on an airplane, and lacking any other way to see, he donned his prescription shades instead. Given his lifelong stage fright, sunglasses helped him hide in plain sight, and they soon became a regular part of his signature stage garb. However, he's not alone; other artists have become known for a bespectacled style as well.
Here are a few that immediately come to mind:
Buddy Holly: A fellow Texan, Holly's horn-rimmed glasses gave him an air of modesty and down-home humility, despite the fact that he was one rock's most defining singers and songwriters. In time, they came to represent both the man and his music.
Elton John: During Elton's flamboyant phase that occupied the bulk of the '70s, his oversized glasses contributed heavily to his over-the-top image. An essential element in his garish garb, they became an enduring symbol of both excess and eccentricity.
Bono: So what's with those wrap-around shades? No single fashion statement better defines U2's transition from young Irish insurgents to modern rock megastars.
John Lennon: Lennon's wire rims marked the point where Lennon ceased being the lovable mop top and transitioned into a psychedelic surrogate.
Roger McGuinn: The Byrds' frontman identified himself early on with a pair of "granny glasses" perched at the tip of his nose. And if you know what "granny glasses" are, suffice it to say you're likely of granny age yourself.
Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder
: Both are blind, and both shielded their infirmary with trademark dark glasses. And yet, through those dark lenses, each radiated unrivaled genius and a soulfulness that continues to shine so brightly.
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