Roy Orbison, the voice from which dreams are made

By Sergio Ariza

When you have a voice like Roy Orbison's, little else matters. Elvis himself said of him that he was "the greatest singer in the world" and Bruce Springsteen has always said that when he recorded Born To Run he wanted an album "with lyrics like Dylan's, that sounded like it was produced by Phil Spector but, above all, that his voice sounded like Roy Orbison's." But that voice that soared to the heavens was always accompanied by a guitar. It's true that, on most of his classic recordings, it's usually hidden behind those incredible string arrangements, but Orbison wasn't a bad guitar player at all. In fact, on his early Sun recordings his sharp guitar was his main weapon over his velvet voice, as demonstrated on Ooby Dooby.  

There are two things that are never missing from a picture of Roy Orbison, sunglasses and an electric guitar. The former became a trademark when Orbison, who was an albino and very visually impaired, had to wear dark glasses during a performance, not as a 'cool' item but as a necessary prop to find the microphone. The most frequent of the latter was a strange guitar with the body of a Gretsch White Falcon, but painted black (like his natural blonde hair) and with the neck of a Gibson Super 400.    


And in a world - that of popular music - full of guys who looked like movie stars, Roy Orbison was the guy with the least chance of achieving fame, as he was rather ugly, and with the eyesight of a mole. Born on 23 April 1936, and given the full name of Roy Kelton Orbison, his father put a guitar in his arms at the age of six and, from that moment on, there was no turning back, as it was clear to him that this was his thing.    

By the age of eight he had written his first song and in his early teens he was already leading a band called the Wink Westerners. Others might have had the looks but he had the talent and the determination. His main influences were some of the biggest names in country, people like Lefty Frizzell (many decades later, when Orbison joined George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in the Travelling Wilburys, he would choose the nickname Lefty Wilbury) or Hank Williams. But everything changed when, like many thousands of other young people in the American South, he heard, and saw, Elvis Presley in 1955 near Odessa. Elvis was wild, surrounded by screaming girls and singing like he was possessed: he was everything Orbison wanted to be and he decided that before he was 21 he would have "a Cadillac and a diamond ring".

Soon after, the Wink Westerners shared the stage with Johnny Cash and Cash told him he should introduce himself to Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records. But when Orbison showed up in Memphis - recommended by the man in black - he got a furious response from an unimpressed-looking Phillips: "Johnny Cash doesn't run my record company!”  Everything changed when the guy who discovered Elvis heard a recording of Orbison and the Teen Kings (that's what the Westerners now called themselves) singing Ooby Dooby. Phillips saw a lot of potential, but what led him to sign them and re-record the song in his studio was not Orbison's voice but his excellent guitar solo. Orbison had not only noticed Presley but had also learned all of Scotty Moore's tricks and brought them all out in the excellent solo of a song that, years later, would be recovered by John Fogerty's Creedence. The equipment he recorded it with was a Les Paul Black Beauty and a Ray Butts Echosonic Amp like Moore's.


The song was a regional hit and sold over 250,000 copies nationwide when it was released in May 1956, entering the Billboard charts. Orbison began touring with the big names in the company, such as Cash himself, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, with his frenetic Teen Kings. Another of his songs of the time was a self-penned composition in which Orbison again demonstrated his guitar skills on the raging Go! Go! Go!, another great classic with a rockabilly sound. But his next singles, things like You're My Baby and Rock House, failed to trouble the charts.

In 1957 he sang Devil Doll, a ballad with doo wop backing vocals that previewed the style he'd hit it big with years later, but it was buried on the B-side after Phillips' partner Jack Clement told him, after hearing The Clown, another track of his own, that he'd never make a living as a balladeer (a similar audition error to the guy at Decca who turned down the Beatles). As it was, his star began to wane, although he was able to buy his Cadillac after the Everly Brothers recorded a song of his, Claudette, as the B-side to their hit All I Have to Do Is Dream.

But his confidence in Sun had gone, as Orbison was increasingly relying on his sensitive side and more laid-back material, so he left the company and withdrew from the stage. His image was far removed from that of the youthful idol, and he sought to make a living as a songwriter with the Acuff-Rose company. It was there that he met another of his heroes, Chet Atkins, whom he went to see record whenever he could. Maybe that's why he decided on a Gretsch: specifically a '58 White Falcon.


With the help of his publishing mentor, Wesley Rose, Orbison moved from RCA to a new label called Monument, the brainchild of Baltimore hustler Fred Foster and Nashville A-team bassist Bob Moore. Monument was a new label and they were able to promote Orbison well, whereas RCA hadn't known what to do with him. Orbison had also recently found a new songwriting partner in Joe Melson, which brought some of the best compositions of Roy's career, now fully in his own style.

was the first in a long series of singles in which Orbison unleashed the full melodramatic power of his voice and surrounded it with sumptuous strings and doo-wop backing vocals. The formula found its first wonder in Only The Lonely, which climbed to number two in the charts in 1960, but then came such gems as Blue Angel, Running Scared, his first number one, Blue Bayou, Pretty Paper, It's Over and the two absolute jewels in the crown, Crying and In Dreams - two superlative songs in which he crowned himself as the best ballad singer in the history of rock, the focus towards which all others would look, showing that rockers can cry too. He did it with a unique voice that he himself admitted he discovered somewhere between Ooby Dooby and Only The Lonely.

In all these songs the guitar is but an accompaniment to the main course, his chilling voice that reaches operatic levels, but Orbison hasn't forgotten the six strings either, and in songs like Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream) he shines again, although now the soloist is the great Grady Martin.


It also featured the guitar on the last of his great songs, the immortal Oh, Pretty Woman, with a stunning riff featuring four guitars - Orbison's own, plus those of Billy Sanford, Jerry Kennedy and Wayne Moss. When the Beatles broke through, Orbison was at a peak and his Pretty Woman dominated the charts, but as the 60s evolved the artist fell out of favour and to make matters worse his personal life became a nightmare after he lost his wife Claudette in a car accident and his two eldest children in a fire.

Orbison's career began to blossom again in the 1980s, when new generations of audiences and artists began to hear his music through films, such as David Lynch's Blue Velvet. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame with a speech by Bruce Springsteen and, shortly afterwards, he gave a concert at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, where he was accompanied by Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, K.D. Lang, Bonnie Raitt and the great James Burton on Telecaster. Springsteen had the luxury of singing with Orbison and exchanging licks with Burton and Orbison himself, who for the occasion used a Gibson-335 dyed black, as could not be otherwise. The result was recorded and released as a film called Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night.


Shortly afterwards he would go on to record a new album with Jeff Lynne as producer and, as a consequence, become a key part of the Traveling Wilburys with his voice shining on the song that served as the launch pad: Harrison's Handle With Care. He was back on top, the world had rediscovered his melancholy angel voice and couldn't get enough of him. But Orbison barely got to enjoy his triumphant return, as on 6 December 1988 he died at home of a heart attack. Mystery Girl, his comeback album, was released on 31 January 1989 and You Got It, the lead single, was his first Top Ten hit in the US charts since Oh, Pretty Woman had topped the charts.

Roy Orbison was a specimen as unique and special as his hybrid guitar, one in a million, a diamond voice set in the throat of a man who was light years away from the sexy, wild image that rock & roll sold. He was a great guitarist but we will always remember him for his melodramatic pop operas in which his voice soared mysteriously skyward: because his was the kind of voice from which dreams are made.