While the majority of early rock and rollers were concerned with projecting a masculine image of priapic cool, Roy Orbison instead employed a brooding mysteriousness that set him apart from his peers. Practically motionless on stage and adorned in black clothing and sunglasses, he would deliver lovelorn ballads of a quiet vulnerability heavily at odds with the general swagger of rock music in the 1950s and 60s.
What truly made Orbison stand out, however, was his voice. And what a voice; his was an incredible vocal delivery that was somehow spectral and otherworldly while also earthy and full of human heartbreak. Spanning an almighty 3-4 octave range, some of popular music’s chief luminaries were in thrall to its greatness; John Lennon and Elvis Presley were among those offering the highest praise while Bob Dylan once said: “His voice could jar a corpse and always leave you muttering to yourself something like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it.’”
Experiencing a career decline that saw him disappear into the cultural wilderness for much of the 1970s and 80s, the inclusion of ‘In Dreams’ on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ in 1986 saw Orbison enjoy a powerful resurgence. A year later, Orbison released a re-recorded anthology of his greatest hits and his new version of ‘In Dreams’ surpassed that of his 1963 original; after losing his first wife to a motorcycle accident in 1966 and his two eldest sons in a house fire in 1968, it could be argued that Orbison’s later vocal recordings comprise additional echoes of pain and heartbreak resulting from these most tragic of personal loses.
Also of note is the oft overlooked fact of Orbison’s uniqueness as a song-writer. No verse-chorus-verse structures for “The Big O”; ‘In Dreams’ is comprised of seven movements with no repeat sections at all; seriously how many other songs do you know with a confluent structure of A-B-C-D-E-F-G?
If that’s too much to think about, just sit back, close your eyes and listen to the man’s voice.