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Only the Lonely,
This review is from: The Very Best Of Roy Orbison (Audio CD)
In June 1960, a record was released in the UK that didn't immediately sound much different to others of that period. It started with a few "dum dums" as if it was just another white doowop group like, say, Dion and the Belmonts. It also sounded as if it was going to plough that familiar chord sequence of C Amin F G like a million records before. But as you listened it changed, the voice started to soar, particularly in that dramatic middle eight, "There goes my baby" "bah bah bah bah" (that's punctuation from massed strings and tympani) and the gradual realisation started hitting you that you were listening to something altogether new. There were touches in the arrangement of what Lieber and Stoller achieved with the Drifters on the song - is this a coincidence? - "There goes my baby". On top of it there was a voice with the range of a Jackie Wilson but with the tone of someone who's seen all the misery in the world and who's faced it with resignation. Little did we know that much of this was to come true in the life of the Big O. But at this early stage we could already hear influences in there of R&B, country and doowop but all coming together in a kind of white soul from a man who would cry as much lyrically as Bobby Bland did. Dave Marsh said "(he) stands as (rock's) ultimate stoic. Maybe he wore those shades all the time to disguise the fact that he never blinked no matter what you threw at him".
The record was "Only the Lonely". The artist was Roy Orbison. The label was London American but sourced from Monument in the US. Reportedly Roy had offered the song to both Presley and the Everly Brothers and the latter had suggested that he record it himself. Thankfully he did. The record hit number one in the UK charts in October and stayed there for two weeks.
It wasn't his first record by any means. He'd paid his dues at Sun along with a host of Elvis wannabe's all out for their five minutes of glory. Sam Phillips' style of white men singing the blues didn't really play to Roy's strengths but he held his end up well. Only "Ooby Dooby" is present here to represent that period. There is a track he recorded - Chuck Willis' "It's too late, she's gone" - which was unreleased at the time which was much more of a pointer to Roy's later Monument style with soaring vocal and plenty of pain in the lyrics, but we didn't get to hear this till many years later.
There had been singers before in the style that was quaintly termed a rock ballad - I've already reviewed the likes of Conway Twitty, Ral Donner and from our side of the pond, Billy Fury. And Elvis liked to get his teeth into a big ballad occasionally. But Roy could beat the lot at this game. Let's be honest, this wasn't all apparent from one single but the series it started - "Blue Angel", "Running Scared" (theme for an imaginary western), "Crying" (quasi-bolero with his greatest vocal performance), "In Dreams"(tex-mex desolation), "Falling", "Blue Bayou" - told us in no uncertain terms that a man had arrived who'd ripped up the rulebook for rock ballads and redefined them his way. And in between or on flip sides he gave us some rather neat, near or sometimes full-on, rockers to let us know he could do that as well with "Pretty Woman", "Dream Baby" and others not here like his challenge to ex-Sun label mate Jerry Lee on "Mean Woman Blues".
Yes he did produce albums with some decent stuff on but it was that run of singles that remains the absolutely essential must-have, die-for-it, AWESOME, seam of gold nuggets. OK you do hear them a lot still on the radio but that's not the same as owning them and playing them in order. As an aside, my only beef about this album is that it doesn't include the tracks in order.
Back on the positives, the album also gives us the best of the later period. It was great to see that, after a life full of much pain, Roy did get to have a late period revival or an Indian summer as it were. And it wasn't just the old stuff and tributes from the likes of Dylan and Springsteen, it was the fact that he managed to produce some more of those mini operas which were almost as good as their `60's equivalents. There are also some pleasant surprises in here like the `85 version of "Claudette" - I always loved the Everly's cut of this song but Roy nearly tops it - and the duet with Emmy Lou is a charmer.
Way back in roughly the mid 1950's a series of giants hit the popular music scene with names like Presley, Berry, Holly and more, who brought the world rock'n'roll as we know it. Roy Orbison was the first talent to emerge after that first phase to match those guys, and like Chuck and Buddy, not only did he sing the songs, he wrote them as well. We lost one quiet and self effacing Texan with spectacles who just happened to be a musical genius in 1959. In 1960 we gained another Texan with remarkably similar qualities right down to the genius bit.