Roy Orbison was first active as a singer and songwriter during the 1950s, known for his rockabilly sound. He continued playing right up until his death in 1988, sporting a unique look that was built around his large sunglasses and slick hairstyle.
While many other rock and country performers during the time of Roy Orbison’s career had attempted to build a faster and more aggressive style, many of Orbison’s songs were softer and more vulnerable such as “Crying” and “Only the Lonely.” This made his music uniquely popular at the time, with “Only the Lonely” becoming his first number one single in 1960. This was followed by two more number one singles in 1964, “It’s Over” and “Pretty Woman.” Orbison was not as obsessed with looking like a “tough guy” as some other male musicians of the 1950s.
Many have compared Orbison’s music to that of Spanish opera, and not without just cause. Orbison has a very operatic vocal range that many believe to have spanned between three and four octaves. He had a rich baritone voice, able to cleanly transition into tenor or even falsetto. His voice was also powerful, and he often sang with all of the passion of an opera star. Even Elvis Presley expressed admiration for Roy Orbison’s voice. Underneath the voice was usually a musical arrangement with subtle complexity, a level of intricate detail that may have gone unnoticed to the casual listener. He also has a command of vibrato, manipulating his notes with rapidly wavering vibrations that added a level of vulnerability to songs such as “Crying.” Interestingly enough, despite the comparisons of his voice to that of an opera singer and his song structures to those of classical music, Roy Orbison never once declared classical composers to be among his musical influences.
Roy Orbison was more than a voice; he was an entire persona. Between the dark shades, which were often accompanied by an entire ensemble of black clothes, and the stolid stance he took along with his solid physical frame, he often exuded mystery when performing on the stage. He had a serious appearance, and he was nothing if not serious about his work. In fact, he would only record his songs in single takes, rather than editing recordings together to make for an ostensibly perfect track. If he couldn’t get it in one take, he would simply try again.
Orbison’s song structures were generally fairly unique. “Crying” is one of his most complex arrangements, but even simpler song structures had a tendency to defy convention. For instance, “Running Scared” repeated the same verse structure until the very end, at which point a new movement style was used briefly. The song “In Dreams” was also notable in terms of structure, as each of seven movements were made to be completely unique from one another with no repeated melodies or styles throughout. Orbison knew how to surprise an audience.
Roy Orbison combined his ability to write intriguing music with his penchant for blatantly honest lyrics about love and loss in order to create songs that were highly unique for their time. While he did not shy away from serious subject matter, he also had a few upbeat songs such as “Mean Woman Blues” that he would insert into his live performance sets in order to keep the mood from becoming too dark or depressing. He did not only understand how to write good music, but also how to play to his audiences without dancing or putting on a show. Orbison was a true musician.
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