INTO THE 1960s
Roy Orbison on the radio during the years 1960-1965 at Monument must have been a thrilling ride as Roy outdid himself again and again. Each time making the song bigger and louder, the notes higher and longer, the arrangements more natural. These were the days of singles; you got a B-side, but still the A-side was all that mattered. It was a high-wire act. With Roy as the lyricist and songwriter, singing and playing the songs, they hit like a complete package.
And hit they did.
In this period, Roy Orbison was undeniable. Biggest record sales. Biggest audiences. Biggest tours. Manhandling the charts worldwide.
Orbison was the only American to chart regularly during the British invasion.
”Only The Lonely” hit #2 on the American charts and #1 on the U.K. charts. Roy was strengthened by the amazing talent He had surrounded himself with. There was Fred Foster, president of Monument Records. Fred Foster believed in Roy’s talent.
FRED FOSTER IN HIS OWN WORDS
How many times have you had to make a decision on the spur of the moment that not only changed your life but the lives of countless others? This happened to me early in 1959, when I received a call from Wesley Rose, head of Acuff-Rose Publications, one of Nashville’s leading song publishers.
Wesley was also managing Roy Orbison, a young singer who had just had his short-lived contract with label giant RCA Victor terminated apparently by a mutual agreement between Wesley and RCA. During our telephone conversation, Wesley asked if I would be interested in signing Roy to my less than 1-year-old Monument label.
The only knowledge I had of Roy was limited at best, as I was only somewhat familiar with two of his songs, ”Ooby Dooby” and ”Rockhouse,” which he had recorded with Sam Phillips’ Sun label. Wesley wanted an immediate answer from me, and after only a moment of considering the possibilities of such an undertaking, I agreed to add Roy to Monument’s fledgling lineup.
I was to meet Roy for the very first time at our first Monument session, which was set for a 10 a.m. start at the RCA studios. Ten o’clock came and went as the musicians and I waited for Roy to arrive. Around 10:20, someone called Wesley’s office to help us locate Roy. As it turned out, no one at Acuff-Rose had told Roy he had a session scheduled, and he was asleep in his hotel room.
Someone there roused him and rushed him over to the studio. After being introduced and shaking hands, we got started around 11; not the way for an artist and producer to begin, but that’s how it was. ”Paper Boy,” backed by ”With The Bug” from that session, was released as Roy’s first Monument single.
Oh, I liked Roy personally during the brief time we spent together following that initial meeting. He seemed sincere, sensitive and eager to please. We were both determined to get off to a better start for our next session, and we agreed to schedule a week together to get to know one another and to better prepare for whatever lay ahead.
He came to Nashville from his home in Texas and I from mine in Maryland, and we proceeded to become friends and mutual admirers. We selected “Uptown” a song of his that was different from what he had been doing. To expand the image of ”Uptown,” I visualized using the great tenor sax man, Boots Randolph to supply the pivotal background fills. Roy asked to use a string section for an even greater ”Uptown emphasis.” This proved to be problematic. We were in Nashville, where you could find plenty of fiddle players, but hardly any violin players. Anita Kerr did find four violin players, and she arranged their parts so they sounded like the string section that Roy had asked for.
”Uptown” was released to a more favorable response than the first single, charting midway on the national charts and selling about 100,000 copies. The table was set for release number three. By the time ”Uptown” was winding down, Roy and I were in constant communication as to the direction the next recording would take, and specifically the song selection. I told Roy this would be one of, if not the most important record of his career. Both radio and the public seemed ready to get on board for his trip to stardom.
We arrived in Nashville in late February/early March 1960 and went immediately to work.
We were staying at the now long-gone Anchor Motel on West End Avenue, and I was walking across the parking lot to the coffee shop for breakfast one morning, humming bits and pieces of some of Roy’s songs. A background vocal figure from “Come Back To Me, My Love,” a song of his about the tragic death of a teenage sweetheart on her birthday, was completely captivating, but we had decided not enough time had passed since “Teen Angel,” a song with a similar theme, had been a huge hit.
Roy also had a song called “Only The Lonely” which was constructed with a 32-bar rubato verse, making the main body of the song very short. To those not familiar with the term rubato, it means out of tempo or ad-lib. Anyway, here I am going to breakfast humming to myself ”dum, dum, dum dumby doo wah,” and instead of continuing with ”Come Back To Me, My Love,” I sang ”Only The Lonely” then ”dum dum,” etcetera, followed by, ”know the way I feel tonight…” and so on, inserting the vocal figure between the phrases until, unable to contain my excitement, I rushed over to Roy’s room and woke him up shouting, ”We have it! You have a smash hit!”
Explaining what had just transpired in the parking lot, Roy grabbed his guitar and saying, ”Let’s see if it works,” started running it down. I could see his excitement building to equal mine, and when he finished he asked, ”When can we do it?” I said, ”Immediately,” and was able to get the musicians and studio the very next day. Anita Kerr was once again the arranger and this time had found six violinists who could play in tune.
Now, if I may, I feel the need to address some of the limitations we faced when recording in 1960. First of all, we only had two-track tape machines to work with; there was not stereo yet. There were no overdubs-everything had to be recorded in one take. Luckily, we Put Roy’s voice in the middle and even today it sounds like stereo. The lead vocals had to be mixed in with the entire orchestra. When done properly, the singer would appear to come out of the middle of the two speakers with the band split more or less evenly between the two sides.
Bill Porter was our engineer at RCA Studio B, which was peculiar, because there was no Studio A. When a larger studio was built and called A, we began referring to B as ”Little Victor.” All recording was done live, as there were no overdubs, because this was prior to multi-track machines.
As we began recording ”Only The Lonely,” I wasn’t happy with the sound we were getting on Roy’s voice. There were no headphones and no isolation booths for separating various sounds and instruments. The six strings and five backup singers especially were being picked up much too clearly on Roy’s vocal mic, affecting the clarity of sound on his voice. After struggling for a while with the problem, it was agreed between Roy, Bill Porter and me that something had to be done. But, what?
Little Victor wasn’t a large room, and the full rhythm section, five background voices and six strings took most of the space. There was, however, a metal coat rack along one wall, and I asked Bill if it would be feasible to put Roy in one corner of the room and push the coat rack in front and cover it with coats to block the band from leaking into Roy’s mic. To his credit, Bill said, ”I’ll try anything.”
We covered the rack with coats, plus some blankets found in the maintenance room, put Roy and a mic behind it and started rehearsing the song. Bob Moore commented to Roy that they need to put ” Only The Lonely” into meter so that people could dance to it. Roy thought about it for a minutes and then replied, ” I don’t want to dance to my songs. Let’s start from the top.”
It was better, but still not great. Bill had blended two types of echoes on Roy’s voice-an EMT chamber and a mono-tape machine slapback. From the first few notes with the new setup, all of us could feel the magic. Having only two tracks, when you finished to take, you also had the final mix-unheard of today.
We all gathered around listening to the playback, and with goosebumps on my arms, I turned to Roy and said,” There’s your first big hit!”
”How sure are you?” he replied.
”Sure enough to pay you for 1 million copies right now if you agree that’s all I’ll ever owe you for this record. And I advise you not take it.”
Fortunately for him, he declined my offer, as it was a worldwide hit. By his own admission in the year preceding ”Only The Lonely,” his income had been measured in hundreds instead of thousands.
In the days and weeks following the release of ”Only The Lonely,” as it rapidly and steadily climbed the charts, and as we got the word that the record was taking off in Europe and Australia as well, a worldwide hit was assured. This was a time of excitement, pride, satisfaction and euphoria that neither of us had ever experienced before.
As a wise man once said, ”The only absolute happiness in this world is the knowledge of a job well done.” I believe there is some truth in that statement. But there was much more to be done. After all, Roy had done his job so well the world was now his stage, quite contrast the beginning of this journey in tiny Wink, Texas.
My greatest joy was seeing Roy grow in stature as a songwriter, singer and performing artist, all made sweeter by the fact that his growing stardom never went to his head, never made him condescending-as often happens-and never changed his core values. He was, put simply, a true original and, best of all, true friend.
While the hits kept coming, it doesn’t mean they all came easily. Roy was a perfectionist and never excepted less than the very best from himself and others as well. I was on the same page with that sentiment; therefore, our working relationship could not have been close. It is important to point out that Roy always recorded live and even as more modern technology arrived with three-,four-,eight-and 16-track machines, he never overdubbed his voice.
So then, that brings us to a turning point and the birth of the really ”Big O.” I had once asked him if he was familiar with Ravel’s ”Bolero,” and he was somewhat but asked if I had a recording he could listen to, which I did. He took one of the versions I had home with him, and his reaction was that it was fantastic. When he asked what I had in mind, I told him that a contemporary song with that rhythmic feel would have a good chance. He agreed and said he would give it a try. The result was ”Running Scared.”
While a true bolero is written in ¾ time, Roy’s genius came through, and he changed the time signature to 4/4, making it much more palatable as a pop ballad. Once again, we did our homework and rehearsed for many hours in the Monument offices. Anita Kerr came out for one of our long work sessions, and she became very excited about it and loved it, because it was ”so different.”
By now we had 12 strings, eight background voices, four horns and eight rhythm players. Prior to this session, Roy always sang high notes in falsetto voice. However, with this large orchestra and the way the song continuously built to its explosive ending, when he sang in falsetto voice, he seemed to disappear under the power of the arrangement. Keep in mind we only had the two-track machine, so I asked him if he could sing the high notes in full voice, and he allowed as to how that wouldn’t be possible. Well then, we would have to change the arrangement.
Since we both loved it and the excitement generated as it built inexorably to its climax-G above high C- he agreed to try. As the song took on a life of its’ own from the very first notes, I admit I began praying for a miracle-”Please let him be able to hit those high notes full voice…” I had neglected to tell the musicians what Roy was going to attempt, and when he sailed into the operatic realm in beautiful full voice, hitting every note perfectly, guitarist Harold Bradley came up out of his chair, but thankfully kept playing. All the players seemed awestruck at what they had just heard.
From that moment forward, Roy sang even the highest notes in his songs with ease. ”Running Scared” soared to number one on all the charts, and history of sorts had been made. That recording and Roy’s subsequent sessions single-handedly transformed the rather sedate recording culture of the music scene in Nashville to truly deserve the title Music City USA. Due to Roy’s influence, rock bands and talented musicians and producers from all genres of music found in Nashville’s ambience and professionalism ideal for making their music as good as it could be.
Roy’s prowess as a writer continued to grow, and he continued to bring in achingly beautiful songs like ”Crying,” ”In Dreams,” “Blue Bayou,” and ”It’s Over.” ”Running Scared” had set the bar so high that I felt obliged to make sure that each following record would be as great if possible. When he brought ”Crying” in, he asked me what I thought it needed. In our work sessions, we would go over every word and note of his new material, nitpicking if you will, until it was as good as we could make it. I told him the only thing ”Crying” needed was to be released.
That song was, to me, as perfect a piece of writing as I’d ever heard. So, we set the session date and went to the studio with the highest of hopes. Unfortunately, I felt that what we had at the end hadn’t come off. So, a second session was scheduled to try it again. Same result. As I was setting up the third session for ”Crying,” Wesley Rose told me to just give it up, that perhaps the sing didn’t have it. This was just one of the many instances during Roy’s time on Monument that Wesley and I disagreed. It had to make Roy uncomfortable, I’m sure, but my loyalty was to my artist, not his manager or publisher. The third attempt at ”Crying” resulted in the recording you all know and love, one of his most vibrant and soulful performances and one of my personal favorites.
As time passed and Roy grew from hit recording artist and songwriter into true legendary status, I was forever struck by the amazing, familiar and even spiritual relationship he had developed with his fans. I would occasionally take trips with him for some part of his tours. I remember one night in particular at a performance in London, at The London Palladium, that the depth of love his fans felt for him crystallized for me. His audience watched and listened as if mesmerized. They knew they were part of an event so rare and special it might not ever be repeated. There was a feeling of reverence engulfing the hall that night, and I shall never forget it.
Sometime around the beginning of 1964, my relationship with Wesley Rose was becoming more difficult to maintain on a cordial level. To add to the problem, Roy’s contract only had a few months remaining, and I was anxious to secure a new agreement, which would keep him as a flagship artist on Monument well into the future. All of my overtures in that direction to Wesley were rebuffed; his position being that there was no hurry. Around the last week of July or the first week of August 1964, Roy and Bill Dees, his co-writer at the time, came to my office with their new song, ”Oh, Pretty Woman.”
Needless to say, I was knocked out. The session was set for Saturday, August 13, which was unusual as we seldom ever recorded on Saturday. The session was held in my old studio, located on 7th Avenue North in the old Cumberland Lodge building, long ago demolished to make way for The National Life Insurance tower.
When the session ended, I told Roy it would be the biggest hit of his career to date. It was, reaching the number one spot in some 40 countries. It became clear to me during the chart run of ”Oh, Pretty Woman” that my chances of keeping Roy on Monument were slim to none. Wesley asked for things I could not agree to, for example, a guaranteed movie deal-impossible, because Monument owned no motion picture studio.
After ”Oh, Pretty Woman,” we were owed four sides under the existing agreement. Wesley said he would dictate what we could record and what we could release. I felt obliged to bow out at this point and let Wesley produce the four sides. Thus, ”Oh, Pretty Woman” was the last record I produced with Roy under that original contract. The parting of ways was very emotional for me and for Roy, as well. We were a great team. He made great and memorable music, with little help from me. I will treasure my memories of that wonderful time as long as I live. I am so proud to have been a part of it all.
As the years have passed, Roy’s music lives on with a strong life of its own, aided by the unflagging devotion of his enormous fan base and the timelessness of his music. Thank you, fans! Barbara Orbison has certainly done a magnificent job managing all aspects of his music and legacy. Thank you, Barbara, for allowing me to reminisce about those golden days and for allowing me to be part of this tryly incredible collection of Orbisonics.
There were Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, the wonderful husband-and-wife songwriting team, who took Roy under wing. The best musicians in Nashville added to the extremely high level of quality: Harold Bradley, Hank Garland, Jerry Kennedy, Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Charlie McCoy (Mr. Harmonica), Bob Moore and Buddy Harman Jr.
Roy’s publisher and manager was Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose. Roy and Wesley Rose shared a similar relationship to Fred ”Pappy” Rose and Hank Williams.
Joe Melson, Roy’s new songwriting partner, was already a great songwriter. The combination produced unique, extraordinary songs, great care going into them, like chiseling a statue out of stone. Songs like ”Only The Lonely,” ”Blue Angel,” ”Running Scared,” ”Crying,” ”Blue Bayou” and ”The Crowd” speak for themselves better than any attempt to explain them.
By ”In Dreams,” all the classic Orbison elements are in place. When He could, He preferred recording his own songs, He ”got a better feeling of them that way, the most ”Orbison” song. He wrote it fading into sleep, and upon waking, He had it done and ready to go. He just had to pick up a guitar to check the chords He dreamt. ”In Dreams” was written while He was asleep. That’s about as magic as it gets in real life.
Magic is transferred to the tape on many Orbison songs.
”Crying” is rolling along, Roy says”…then you stopped,” and the music stops completely for a beat.
In the song ”Falling,” when Roy sings the word ”falling,” his voice drops from a high note to a low one.
In ”I Drove All Night,” Roy’s voice mimics a car engine shifting through the gears and fading into the distance.
Can things like this be planned?
Can you ever really harness fire?
Scattered among the selections on Disc Two are the songs considered to be Roy Orbison’s greatest hits, but Roy’s B-sides were often better than other people’s A-sides. Case in point, a song called ”Love Hurts,” which was buried on the B-sided of ”Running Scared.” Most people never turned the record over. ”Running Scared” was that good.
”Pretty Paper” is Roy’s Christmas song. Roy was one of the first people to do a Willie Nelson song (Wille still had short hair, so that tells you how far back it was).
INTO THE 1970s
is a standard of Rock and Roll. Roy’s new lyrics and re-working turned it into a Roy Orbison original. (In his live shows, Carl Perkins always included a hidden tribute to Roy by doing Orbison’s version.)
Was Orbison using rockers to set up his ballads, or ballads to set up his rockers?
Does it matter when you’ve got songs like ”What’d I Say” from a concert in Holland in 1965, Roy at peak form and belting out Ray Charles’ classic with his road band, The Candymen?
”It’s Over” was recorded March 10, 1964, and was Roy’s secret weapon. Whatever your favorite Roy Orbison song, ”It’s Over” will make you think twice. The chords, the dynamics, the drama, the naturalness could only be Roy Orbison. Unlike most of his other songs, this one isn’t covered too often.
He stood alone on stage, and barely moved, yet could bring people in his audience to tears. Even band members frequently missed parts because they choked up. Through his life, this tremendous talent He had for ballads eclipsed all other elements of his persona. The black clothes, upturned collar and dark sunglasses, the inventive songwriting, the tragedy in his life, his vocal talent, and the lyrics all became an extension of the sadness of the ballads.
With Elvis, wearing all black was sexy.
With Johnny Cash, wearing all black was cool.
Orbison blackness is a bit cooler, more blue-black, more lonely.
In the summer of 1964, Roy was playing a 12-string acoustic Epiphone guitar. He always wrote on acoustic guitars. He and co-writer Bill Dees were piecing together a song that needed a riff; the riff that Roy hit straight off was to become one of rock music’s greatest treasures.
Orbison made special arrangements for this song. He knew He wanted pounding drums to kick it off, so He brought a second drummer to the session so the drums would be twice as loud. He also wanted to shake up his usual recording team and brought a handful of guitarists. Billy Sanford and Jerry Kennedy were the two session aces Roy chose for the special session. The song, ”Oh, Pretty Woman,” reached number one globally.
Guitarists have been playing it ever since. Eddie Van Halen took the song to number 12 in 1982.
”Oh, Pretty Woman” has a wonderful quality; while you’re actually listening to it, it is the greatest song you have ever heard.
From Julia Roberts in the film Pretty Woman to Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, the song is in all your favorite movies too.
It has been to the United States Supreme Court and back.
Now, it’s on ringtones, YouTube, SingStar and Guitar Hero. If you really have to get your ”Pretty Woman” fix, it’s on MySpace and Facebook 24 hours a day. Little kids are rocking out to it right now.
Like Roy himself, ”Oh, Pretty Woman” changes into something new every few years.
Roy’s opening acts while touring in Australia every year form a little musical history of its own. Each band immediately borrowing certain elements of what they saw Roy do live:
With the Beach Boys in 1964.
With The Rolling Stones in 1965.
With the Yardbirds in 1967, spending time with Peter Grant, future manager of Led Zeppelin, and Jimmy Page.
”Ride Away” highlights Roy’s love for motorcycles. Roy was an avid motorcycle and automobile collector (at one time, He had so many cars He bought the local drive-in theater to store them all.) Early on, Elvis showed Roy his new Harley-Davidson. Roy had to have one. Later phone calls between the two usually included congratulating each other and talking about customizing Harleys. However, motorcycles would become a symbol of tragedy in Roy Orbison’s private life.
On June 6, 1966, Claudette Orbison died in Roy’s arms after being struck by a truck while they were motorcycling in Tennessee.
The second of Roy’s three sons with Claudette, Anthony King Orbison, asked him ”if Mama rode to Heaven on a Harley?” and Roy replied, ”Yes, Mama rode to Heaven on a Harley.”
”Crawling Back” sneaks up on you. After you’ve heard it a few times, it changes from a song of beauty and grabs you by the throat. The vulnerability develops to an almost unbearable level. Orbison could give you so many different pictures and shades of sadness.
Further tragedy struck when a fire destroyed his home on the lake in Tennessee, killing two of his three children. Roy Dwayne Orbison, who loved karate, was 10 years old and Anthony was 6. Anthony’s favorite television show was Get Smart.
Roy sold the land to Johnny Cash, whose house burned on the same spot in 2007.
One of Roy’s favorite houses in Malibu also would burn in 1993 with much of Roy’s belongings.
So to say fire was a curse and a monster is not far from the truth.
”Walk On” shows what Bob Dylan meant with the words: ”Roy sang like a professional criminal.” Orbison was a pro, and his intensity does feel like life or death. He seemed to know some things that can’t be taught. Studio footage of him singing ”Walk On” shows his hand tightening into a fist on heavy notes. His facial expressions projecting a ”now or never” attitude. He took his music deadly seriously.
Orbison was so popular that in addition to the first 1 million dollar contract ever, MGM offered him a movie deal. The movie is called The Fastest Guitar Alive and contains great video footage of Roy performing several songs. One of the best is ”Pistolero.” He fell in love with Southern California while filming the movie.
Roy believed God, music, time and love could cure all things. Something had happened to give Roy the hope of love. Just when He needed it most, He met the girl who would become his wife and constant companion. Roy married Barbara Annemarie Wellhoener Jakobs on May 24, 1969.
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