Sunday, April 10, 2011

April 10: Roy Orbison, "Only The Lonely"

Artist: Roy Orbison
Song: "Only The Lonely"
Album: Only The Lonely (single)
Year: 1960

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While there are virtually no performers that would be frustrated by a hit single, there are a number of cases throughout music history where such success can give listeners the wrong impression of the artist in question.  Though such a song may show the talents of a performer, often times, they are not representative of the career in question, and yet one can even find cases where this was true, and the musician completely compromised their sound and made this "new" sound the approach on later recordings.  However, there is one performer who found commercial success both in his own sound, as well as one that was slightly out of the norm, and it is the latter of these songs that seems to overshadow the style he played for a majority of his career.  Even the name Roy Orbison almost instantly brings to mind his immortal song, "Oh, Pretty Woman," as it has become almost a cliché part of music history, and yet on many levels, it was not representative of he sound he had been playing for years prior to its release.  Having been long associated with the crossover sound between rockabilly and rock and roll, Orbison often highlighted the darker, more dramatic tones that could be conveyed in music, and it is this approach that continues to influence artists to this day.  While it somewhat lives in the shadow of his previously mentioned hit, few songs better define Roy Orbison than his breakthrough 1960 single, "Only The Lonely."

On many levels, "Only The Lonely" has as much of a "classic" sound as one will find anywhere, and yet even within the musical arrangement, one can hear the difference in the overall sound that defined Orbison.  The most dominant sound on the song is the perfectly balanced, swinging drums, and this sound alone instantly places the song into its time, as one can easily imagine the song being played in the shops and cars of that era.  This softer, smooth sound is complimented by a light guitar that at times, almost disappears from the track.  It is the constant, yet simple piano that seems to present the greatest contrast, and when one looks at the entire arrangement on "Only The Lonely," it is this aspect that almost stands out as "odd."  The piano seems to be playing at a different tempo, and even has a slightly different tone, and yet it somehow manages to fit in with the almost melancholy sound of the rest of the song.  The way in which the music seems to slowly sway is the key to matching the voice of Roy Orbison, and it is one of the few songs that strikes the ideal balance in that it is too slow to be a real "rock" song of the era, but not slow enough to be a "slow dance" tune either.  It is this aspect that sets the song almost completely in its own category, and the strings that highlight the musical pauses add the ideal finishing touch, making "Only The Lonely" a musical masterpiece unlike any other in history.

Yet even as uniquely perfect as the music may be, there is simply no other singer in history that is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Roy Orbison.  In terms of both his vocal ability, as well as the uncanny level of emotion which he was able to convey, Orbison knew no peers, and it is much the reason that so many later performers cite him as a major influence.  It is on "Only The Lonely" that one can better experience the sheer power and beauty of Orbison's voice, as his almost operatic sound is rarely present on his other hit singles.  The way in which his voice soars remains just as stunning after repeated listenings, and it is also in these moments that one can better feel the pained, almost tragic sound within his voice.  After hearing his performance on "Only The Lonely," it becomes abundantly clear that Orbison was the master of singing of heartbreak, as there is a sorrow within his voice, yet there is also a clear sense of strength.  The way in which Roy Orbison was able to have these two elements co-exist is what makes him so unique, and the lyrics which he penned serve as the final piece of proof that one needs to understand his massive importance and influence.  While the songs' title makes the theme quite clear, there are few moments in music history that are as simple, yet powerful as when Roy Orbison croons, "...there goes my baby, there goes my heart, they're gone forever, so far apart..."

Though many may assume that it was his chart-topping follow up single that most musicians cite as their main influence from Roy Orbison, the fact of the matter is, "Only The Lonely" is mentioned far more often when the Orbison catalog is discussed.  Along with lyrical references from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, as well as both the Orbison biography and stage-musical sharing the name of the song, the song itself was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1999.  It is due to these reasons, along with the sound and mood that can be heard on "Only The Lonely" that makes for an easy case when one looks to find "the" defining song of Roy Orbison.  Furthermore, there are few songs from anywhere in history that convey the "I'm hurt, but I'll be fine" sentiment as perfectly as one finds here, and it is this very attitude that Orbison would deploy time and time again throughout his career.  It is this mood and approach that also helped to separate Orbison from the other rockabilly-based singers that had dominated the charts for years, and it in many ways paved the way for the "darker" musical acts that would follow over the next few generations.  The way in which Orbison's voice contrasts with the "doo wops" of his backup singers remains one of the most beautiful musical contrasts in history, and it is one of the many reasons that there are few recordings from any point in music history that come close to the sheer mastery and drama that can be experienced on Roy Orbison's defining 1960 single, "Only The Lonely."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent write-up to Orbison's most elegant song.