THE SOUL OF ROCK AND ROLL PART 1
INTO THE 1950s
THE BIG O.
”The New Teen Sensation.” The Voice. The greatest singer in the world. Lefty Wilbury. The Soul of Rock and Roll.
There is only one Roy Orbison.
And there are many.
Blue-haired Rockabillys, Japanese leather rockers, All-America college girls whose favorite movie is Pretty Woman,
Elvis lovers, country music fans, 15-year-old Goths who paint their fingernails black, Pavarotti and classical music buffs, Ramones punk rockers, Johnny Cash disciples, and good old-fashioned Roy Orbison diehards who have stood by him from the beginning.
They all see a different Roy Orbison.
They all see their own Roy Orbison.
Roy Orbison stands alone on a lofty branch in the Family tree of Rock and Roll. Yet in the history of recorded music, He was closer to the roots. By the time He cuts his first single, ”Ooby Dooby” (Sun 242) in May of 1956 at Sam Phillip’s Mecca of Rock and Roll, Sun Studios, Orbison was already a veteran musician. With his own radio show for 10 years, and a television show in Texas with his band, The Teen Kings, his largest audience was over 10 000 people by the time He was 17.
His musical world was equal parts country and blues, with a few extra elements added in. The regional Mexican music that seeped in on the airwaves left an indelible stain on him very early in life (the Mexican music, itself a mixture of Spanish and American-Indian music, had dramatic rhythms and smoothly sung melodies). Another necessary ingredient was the profound effect on American cinema. John Wayne actually had a generation of kids like Elvis, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison believing they could do anything they set their mind to.
And do they did.
Roy carved the path for Buddy Holly to go to Norman Petty’s studios in Clovis, New Mexico, and Buddy cleared the way for the world to be proud to wear glasses.
The story of Roy Orbison could not be told without Buddy Holly.
Roy was from Wink, Buddy was from Lubbock. They played the same local venues and shopped at the same guitar shops. At times they were friends eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and trading guitar riffs as teenagers. At times ”cross-town” rivals cursing outside each others shows.
Orbison’s time at Sun started the same sort of ”leap-frogging” and interaction with Elvis, Carl Perkins and Warren Smith. Roy was the next Rock and Roller at Sun Records. Coming later would be Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Riley and Charlie Rich, along with every other ’50s Rock and Roller outside Sun who would soon copy the Sun Records style (and all those that came after).
Jerry Lee Lewis first walked through Sam Phillips‘ doors during the Roy Orbison session for the song ”Rockhouse”. Soon Jerry Lee cut Orbison’s song ”Go! Go! Go!”. The actual name Roy used for the song was ”Down The Line.” Sam Phillips renamed it ”Go! Go! Go!” to add excitement. Sam did the same thing with Perkins’ ”Gone! Gone! Gone!” and Cash’s ”Cry! Cry! Cry!”
Orbison also befriended the musical director Bill Justis and engineer/producer/songwriter Jack Clement, who would work with Roy in the future.
Sam Phillips had heard the world differently from other people. He wanted fast music with a beat. And He got it.
The sound was crisp, defiant and perfectly clear.
It still is.
In ”Ooby Dooby”, Roy unleashed two ”in-your-face” guitar solos in two minutes at speeds not played before at Sun.
“Domino” is so raw that you can feel it about to break at any second.
Roy’s band, The Teen Kings, was already popular from their high school days. They were: Roy Orbison on guitar and vocals, Billy Pat Ellis on drums, Johnny ”Peanuts” Wilson on rhythm guitar, James Morrow on electric mandolin and Jack Kennelly on bass. The music they made was remarkably good. Bands like this are special, because they are friends to the start. They made great cuts like ”Rockhouse” and ”You’re My Baby” roll and rock. Then like all friends, they got in an argument, but this one was in Sun Records’ studio, and whoever owned the car took off with the band and left Roy high and dry in Memphis. Sam Phillips and Jack Clement took Roy next door to the cafe´ to calm him down. It hurt Roy a lot to lose his friends and his band and have to move on without them. He lived at Mr. Phillips’ house for several weeks at a time, working with regular Sun musicians-Roland Janes on guitar, Stan Kesler on bass and J.M. Van Eaton on drums.
Warren Smith was Roy’s good friend, Smith did Orbison’s song ”So Long I’m Gone”, and Orbison used Smith’s band on some of the Sun Records package tours put on by Bob Neal’s Stars Incorporated. Between tour dates, Roy stayed at Carl Perkins’ house. On a few occasions when Roy opened the show, He caused riots, and the show would be canceled before anyone else had the chance to play. They were banned from several towns, and things did get out of hand regularly.
Any stories you could hear wouldn’t measure up to the reality of what happened: Roy and Jerry Lee and Jack Clement buying three motorcycles on a whim one day. No licenses, no helmets. Elvis and Roy exiting a radio station and finding themselves in the middle of a fist fight between Johnny and Dorsey Burnette of The Rock and Roll Trio. Carl and Roy running down the street with girls ripping their clothes off.
Johnny Cash was there for every bump in the road of Roy’s life. Roy loved Johnny. Johnny loved Roy. Their friendship would fill many books. Most of their stories, they took with them. Orbison was the first to do a Johnny Cash song, ”You’re My Baby.” On the road at Sun, Roy and Johnny would be in one car, and Jerry Lee and Carl in another. Inside jokes, pranks, promises and bets with no money-If Heaven has a backstage, Roy and Johnny are probably still at it.
Claudette Frady was Roy’s teenage sweetheart. He wrote the song ”Claudette” for her. The Everly Brothers, Roy’s dear friends, covered the song in 1958. They released it as a B-side to the Boudleaux Bryant song All I Have To Do Is Dream That put ”Claudette” on every jukebox in America. In a way, it’s Orbison’s first big hit, except that ”Ooby Dooby” was number one everywhere Roy went in 1956.
Roy was a dreamer, and Claudette was the girl of his dreams. The kind of beauty to compete with the images He saw on the silver screen. In the desert of Texas, the cinema was the only window of opportunity to see that there was anything beyond the horizon. Women like Lana Turner didn’t exist in West Texas. But by all accounts, Claudette was special and more beautiful. In his high school yearbook, Roy wrote: ”To lead a Western band is his after school wish, and of course to marry a beautiful dish.” In September 1957, Roy and Claudette were married. Both of his wishes had already come true.
The ”1956 Guitar Pull Medley” is an interesting rarity that has Orbison playing Top 40 hits of the day, many of them by Elvis Presley. These are among the earliest cover versions of what would become the most classic of all Rock and Roll songs. It’s lucky for us there was a mobile recorder in West Texas that night. Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!
As they left Sun Records, Johnny Cash went to Columbia and Roy followed Elvis to RCA Victor. There, He worked with Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph. If you could go back to any particular place in time in music history, Nashville’s legendary Studio B with Mr. Guitar, Mr. Piano and Mr. Saxophone would be high on the list. Roy cherished working with Chet Atkins in particular as a personal highlight of his career.
RCA Victor proved to be a transitional period for Orbison. The ”calm between the storms” produced the song ”With The Bug.”
In ”Pretty One”, you can hear the swagger of Sun in the vocals giving way to the more sophisticated arrangements and singing style that Roy preferred.
It’s as though each song Roy ever recorded shows him learning to harness and control the tremendous power of his voice. The Voice.
At this time He still took off his glasses onstage and for publicity pictures, but this would happen less and less. Buddy Holly had softened the stigma of glasses for America. Soon Orbison delivered the knockout punch, elevating sunglasses to super-cool status and bringing them mainstream. He just took his simple-poorboy drugstore glasses and had a pair custom-made with dark lenses. Genius. Today even New York supermodels are wearing them as fashion statements.