Autumn 1960: On 25 October, heavy fog causes two barges to collide with the Severn Railway Bridge. Two bridge spans collapsed, causing the barges to catch fire. Five people died in the incident, and the bridge was never repaired, eventually being demolished. Two days later, the British drama adaptation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, starring Albert Finney, was released. It’s still considered one of the best British films of all time. Three days after its release, Michael Woodruff performed the first successful kidney transplant in the UK at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. And on 2 November, a landmark ruling saw Penguin Books found not guilty of obscenity for publishing DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The book quickly sold 3 million copies, and was a watershed moment for future publishing freedoms.
During this eventful fortnight, US singer-songwriter Roy Orbison enjoyed his first of three stints at number 1 with Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel). With his unique image, and distinct, at times astounding voice, Orbison’s life was sometimes tragic, but he is also rightly remembered as one of the greatest talents of his generation. So much so, as I write this a tour is imminent in which thousands of people have paid to see a hologram of ‘The Big O’ ‘performing’ alongside the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. Bruce Springsteen also name-checked this very song in his excellent Thunder Road.
Roy Kelton Orbison was born on 23 April 1936 in Vernon, Texas. His family struggled to find employment during the Great Depression, and eventually settled in Wink. He was a shy child, with poor eyesight and little confidence, but he loved to sing, and at the age of seven, his father bought him a guitar. He adored the country music of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers, and was singing on a local radio show a year later. By the late 1940s, he was the presenter of the show. Orbison and some friends formed the Wink Westerners while he was in high school. After graduating he enrolled at North Texas State College, and heard his fellow schoolmate Pat Boone had signed a recording contract. Boone would later have a UK number 1 with I’ll Be Home in 1956. Orbison became determined to make his name in the music business, and like everybody was wowed upon seeing Elvis Presley on television for the first time. The Wink Westerners appeared on TV alongside Johnny Cash, who suggested that Orbison contact Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. A phone call between the two got nowhere, but later, the Wink Westerners changed their name to the Teen Kings, and their recording of Ooby Dooby changed Phillips’s mind. Signing to Sun, the band toured plenty but eventually split, with Orbison staying at Phillips’s house with his girlfriend, Claudette Frady. 1957 saw the couple wed, and Orbison paid tribute to is wife with the song Claudette, which as a double A-side with the more famous All I Have to Do Is Dream, became the first number 1 for the Everly Brothers, and the biggest-selling UK single of 1958.
This was the step up Orbison needed, and the royalties meant he was able to buy his own Cadillac, but he was very different to your typical rock’n’roll star of the same time, and was just as shy as the child he had been growing up, causing many to wonder if he was cut out for showbusiness. His hair was already going white, causing him to dye his hair earlier than most, and in 1960, he didn’t always wear his famous glasses. While researching this blog, the picture above surprised me, as he hadn’t yet developed his famous persona. He looks older in 1960 than he did before his death in 1988.
In 1958, Orbison was strumming his guitar in his car, as he often did, when songwriter Joe Melson tapped on the window. The duo decided to try writing songs together. Eventually Orbison signed with Monument Records, and he and Melson began working with producer Fred Foster. The trio, along with sound engineer Bill Porter, began work on new songs with sophisticated production techniques, involving string sections and backing singers that were close-miked. The first release, Uptown, got nowhere, however, and Orbison began considering performing in nightclubs instead. They had worked on another song using the same sound, Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel), and had tried selling it to Elvis and the Everlys, but both acts declined. Orbison decided to have a go himself, and once more they adopted a new method of production, by building the song around the vocals, with the band performing quietly in the background. The part of the title in brackets was added to differentiate the song from a tune Frank Sinatra had sang.
Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel) begins in a style very reminiscent of an Everly Brothers track, with the backing vocalists singing over a gentle strum, until that unmistakable voice of Orbison’s enters. I’ve always admired Orbison’s singing, ever since hearing it from a young age. Nobody has ever sounded quite so distinct, before or since. This track is a perfect introduction to the Orbison sound. Here’s a song for the unlucky-in-love, for the shy, for the broken-hearted. Here was a new type of musical hero, a sensitive soul that could help you get through trying times. Rather than yet another rock’n’roll star to be envious of, the Big O would have been much more identifiable to your more sensitive teenager. And although Roy Orbison would come up with better songs over the next few years, Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel) may be the best encapsulation of the Roy Orbison sound. Like his friends the Everly Brothers, this was a new, more sophisticated form of pop, that would influence future musical idols. And that falsetto at the end is probably the most impressive vocal performance I’ve heard from a UK number 1 between 1952 and 1960.
Suddenly this shy singer-songwriter was a big star in the US and UK, and other musicians were wondering if this powerful voice had really come from their unassuming friend. Elvis regretted turning the song down (you can imagine him singing it, but could he sing about being a loser in love with such conviction?) and bought copies of the single for his friends. By the time Orbison next had a UK number 1, the musical landscape had changed dramatically.
Written by: Roy Orbison & Joe Melson
Producer: Fred Foster
Weeks at number 1: 2 (20 October-2 November)
Actress Finola Hughes – 29 October