It’s been a season to contemplate the fragility of life and the depth of loss.
This week I was traveling back home from my father-in-law’s funeral. While on the road, I chose to listen to a biography of Roy Orbison’s life finally. I had not realized how the life of this iconic singer/songwriter was so marked by tragedy. I also hadn’t realized that Orbison was just 52 when he died of a sudden & massive heart attack, the same age I am now, on December 6th, 1988.
That gave me a bit of pause.
These things together made me reflect on Orbison’s moxie. Here’s what I see:
Moxie finds its voice.
Orbison did not fit the mold of a rock and roll heartthrob.
He wore thick glasses to protect his poor eyesight and preferred dark sunglasses on stage to help him overcome his near-crippling stage fright. He stood and played rooted in one place at center stage, in sharp contrast to Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations or Jerry Lee’s bench flipping.
But, oh, that voice.
Orbison’s smooth baritone soared three or four octaves to operatic heights, sweeping the listener along on three-minute love stories replete with heartache, sorrow, and redemption. Kentucky’s own Dwight Yoakam described Orbison’s voice as “the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window.”
It took years before Orbison connected to producers who understood how to showcase his stunning voice best. But once they figured out how to keep his voice front and center over a lush bed of orchestral strings, the magic began to happen.
Perhaps the reason Orbison’s heartbreaking vocals were so powerful and effective was that they were TRULY rooted in his own genuine heartbreak.
His first wife, Claudette, died in his arms following a motorcycle accident.
A few years later, his oldest two sons, Roy DeWayne and Anthony King died in a house fire while he was out on tour.
One has the strong sense that Orbison’s emotions were hovering just beneath the surface as he sang. His son Roy Jr. recalls crying as he listened to his father play in concert once because he was so moved by the beauty of his voice. The elder Orbison request that his son be moved to a seat a few rows back just out of his sight because he knew he would not be able to go on if he saw his young son weeping.
“He was a compassionate father, just like he was as an artist,” Roy Jr. said in an interview earlier this year.
Despite his own stunning personal tragedies, Orbison didn’t seem to hold himself out as any different than anyone else. He was both sensitive and stoic and aware that everyone around him had suffered from some tragedy. His voice gave voice to others who were also suffering and gave everyone a cathartic release.
Moxie makes a new start.
After the loss of Claudette, Orbison found love again and somehow opened his heart enough to take a chance on it. He met a young German woman named Barbara while touring Europe, and they fell in love and married. The two went on to have two sons, Roy Jr. and Alexander.
But his career faltered for much of the 1970s, and Orbison was tempted to give up. He’d made his own way up until this point, but the world seemed to have changed all around him, and his sound didn’t seem to connect with the countercultural vibe that artists like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were laying down.
But something began happening in the 1980s, and artists and fans began to appreciate his music once again. Other artists began covering his classic hits, including Van Halen’s version of Pretty Woman and Don McLean’s Crying. He teamed up with Emmylou Harris and k.d. lang for popular duets.
As the decade drew to a close, Orbison hooked up with other legends Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty to form the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. The powerhouse team of singer/songwriters produced an album, and Orbison wrapped up his own solo project.
But he wouldn’t live to see how the public would welcome his work. He died of a heart attack before the albums were released. Both his albums shot to the top 5 on Billboard charts, and he became the first artist since Elvis to have two albums perform so well posthumously.
What’s your favorite Orbison tune?
Roy Orbison’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Orbison
The Traveling Wilburys: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveling_Wilburys