“Legend” is a word bandied about far too often in music these days. Take one top ten hit, add a celebrity romance (preferably followed by a messy break up), throw in a dash of rehab then season with a triumphant comeback and you practically have the Legendary Status Recipe nailed. But it shouldn’t be that way. The musicians that we should truly revere are the ones who stick at it no matter what, who have to work hard to earn our respect: endless gigging, constant writing and recording, sacrifice, blood, sweat and rock n’ roll. And above all, talent. These are the people with the legacies that will endure way beyond whatever instant acclaim can be attached to those who take the more scenic of routes.
And one man who undoubtedly deserves his place in the pantheon of rock icons is Roy Orbison. Despite what seemed like a relatively fast rise to the top – a Sun Records protégé who sold one of his first compositions “Claudette” to The Everly Brothers in 1957 then went on to have a string of hits – Orbison had his fair share of adversity, firstly suffering some heartbreaking personal tragedies and then struggling for a number of years to keep his career afloat in the face of a rapidly changing music industry. Between 1960 and 1964 he had a staggering 22 singles placed on the Billboard Top 40 (including “Only The Lonely”, “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Crying”), but the death of his wife and two sons in separate accidents in the late 60s was followed by a prolonged period in the wilderness. The 70s were not kind to him, Orbison apparently suffering from crippling self-doubt due to poor record sales, and yet a number of artists including Bruce Springsteen and Gram Parsons kept the flame alive by covering his songs. His resurgence in the 1980s was partly down to auteur David Lynch including the poignant “In Dreams” in his film Blue Velvet, and partly down to his place in American supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. When he died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 52 – with a successful solo album riding high in the charts and acclaim for his work with the Wilburys – Roy Orbison was once again back at the top. It only took him 20 years or so.
We’ve dipped in to his work from time to time on the show but – as our duly appointed Undercover Writer this week – it isn’t until you hear his work interpreted by other artists that you truly realise what a special talent he was. As a deft pop writer and stunning balladeer he was untouchable at times, but what gave the Big O the edge when pitched against his peers was his voice. No matter how valiantly an artist may try, no one can sing Orbison like Orbison. The voice was a gift from god – honeyed, golden and with a truly incredible range (some even suggesting that his natural baritone could reach up to four-octaves) – it was perhaps the 8th wonder of the world. And it’s that gift, alongside all the other alchemic elements of his very being (the image, the songs, the mythology) that have ensured his longevity long after his passing. I’m often prone to searching for answers in this blog so I suppose the lesson is that whatever you do in life, if you have the talent, belief and right work ethic then make sure you keep your head down and keep the faith because things are more than likely to come good in the end. Us young bucks could learn a lot from the man with The Voice.
So on the show this week we’ll celebrate Roy (who would have been 77 this week) and his work. We’ll also hear from the new Steve Earle record as Record of Note, and dip into the archives to hear Maria McKee Live on Arrival. New music comes from Camera Obscura, Bill-Ryder Jones, Luke Sital-Singh, Jonas Alaska and more. And it’s all happening this Thursday at 10.05pm on BBC Radio Scotland. Legendary.