If anyone deserved to cry, it was Roy Orbison. His early success bought him a house, and then his wife Claudette cheated on him with the contractor who was building it, leading to their divorce. His success also allowed him to indulge his passion for motorcycles, until he crashed and broke his foot at a race track. Claudette visited him while he was recuperating and the pair reconciled – until she was killed in a motorcycle accident the following year. Two years later, while on tour, Orbison received news his house had burned down, killing his two sons. Decades of lucklustre output followed until his popularity peaked unexpectedly in the late ’80s – close to thirty years after his initial success. In 1988, Orbison died suddenly, mid-album promotion. He was only 52.
So it’s no wonder Orbison’s music has always carried with it that heavy air of heartache, even the songs recorded before the aforementioned string of tragedies hit. ‘Crying’ is one such tune, recorded in 1961 just as Roy was beginning to write and arrange songs that took advantage of his immensely powerful voice. With such an outstanding, octave-leaping instrument at his disposal, The Big O (a nickname given to him by an unknown Australian radio DJ, due to his penchant for big notes) begun anchoring songs around an eventual vocal pay off. ‘Crying’ begins small, with Orbison’s voice rumbling and measured. “I was all right for a while, I could smile for a while”, he tries to convince us, before admitting all it takes for his veneer to crack is the touch of her hand. Before long he is crying, then soaring, and then all is quiet again. It was a formula that he repeated over and over again, but it never seemed formulaic – just inevitable.
Orbison came across as a mysterious, stoic figure on stage, too: dressed in funeral black, hiding most of his face behind dark shades, and remaining rooted to one spot throughout his performance – it was as if he was aware his voice was all the spectacle he needed. And it was. However, it was a mixture of dumb luck (he left his specs on a plane once and was forced to wear prescription sunnies on stage one evening so he could see) and stage fright so crippling that throughout the ’60s it was all he could do to control his shaky vibrato; plus it was hardly the style of music that lends itself to flailing around a stage, or (gasp) dance moves. It all made for an overriding sense of sadness that is still palpable in his music today, that dark drama that has influenced everything from the films of David Lynch to the hazy dream-pop of groups like Cocteau Twins.
Let’s leave things with a Bob Dylan quote. Dylan teamed up with Orbison in the late ’80s for the Traveling Wilburys project, two albums of mixed quality where Orbison’s pure tones are especially pronounced amongst the slurring gravel of Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Tom Petty. Anyway, Bobby said – and you have to imagine this in his voice: “With him, it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop. He sang like a professional criminal. His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it.'”