Roy Orbison: Best of the Rest

December 6th marks the 34th anniversary of Roy Orbison’s death, at the tragically young age of fifty-two. The ‘Big O’ stood apart from other early rock ‘n’ rollers, with his sombre stage persona, his vulnerable, melancholy songs, and his semi-operatic voice.

After his hit-making days ended in the mid-to-late sixties, a decade in the wilderness beckoned. Personal tragedies also unfolded – the deaths of his wife and his two eldest sons in a car crash and house fire respectively. The eighties saw a rediscovery of his work, with hit covers of his songs by Don McClean and Van Halen, and the formation of The Traveling Wilburys supergroup in 1988, alongside Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty. On the cusp of a triumphant comeback, Orbison died from a heart attack on December 6th 1988.

I’ve already written about his three chart-toppers (‘Only the Lonely’, ‘It’s Over’ and ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’) – classics the lot of them – and so to mark this day I’ll cover his five next-biggest UK hits…

‘In Dreams’ – #6 in 1963

A candy-coloured clown they call the Sandman, Tiptoes to my room every night… Only Roy Orbison could give a lyric so ridiculous-and-yet-terrifying the weight that it deserves. He dreams of his ex-lover then wakes, bathed in sweat, and alone. (Of course he’s alone – it’s a Roy Orbison song.) It’s got the same build-up as one of The Big ‘O’s very best songs, ‘Running Scared’, which barely scraped into the Top 10. ‘In Dreams’ is not quite as good, but builds to a fine crescendo. Roy, as was his way, hits a note that most humans are incapable of imagining, let along singing. ‘In Dreams’ was used to famous effect in David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, a move that initially shocked Orbison but one that he came to accept after seeing the film several times (and perhaps, if we’re being cynical, seeing the publicity it brought his music…)

‘Too Soon to Know’ – #3 in 1966

A country cover that, I must admit, I’d never heard before. And yet it’s one of his biggest UK hits. It must have sounded quite unfashionable in the swinging charts of 1966 and yet… When was Roy Orbison ever truly in fashion? Or out of fashion, for that matter? He ploughed his own, spectacular furrow. It’s sweet, but lacking the oomph of Roy’s biggest and best hits.

‘Blue Bayou’ – #3 in 1963

Another bit of country-pop, with a cool bassline. And with Orbison’s angelic tones in the chorus, this is no normal country tune. No matter what genre he turned his hand to – country, pop, rock ‘n’ roll – he couldn’t help doing it a bit different. As a kid, I had no idea what a bayou was, but always thought it sounded nice: where you sleep all day, and the catfish play… I’m still not one-hundred percent certain what a bayou is, but I’d definitely like to hang out there…

‘You Got It’ – #3 in 1989

The comeback hit that never was. Well, it was a hit – one of his biggest – but Roy wasn’t around to enjoy his return to the top end of the charts. And ‘You Got It’ is almost the perfect comeback – a slight updating of Orbison’s sound, with some help from Jeff Lynne, but still a record that could easily slip in amongst his classics from the early sixties. The video above was filmed just a few weeks before his untimely death. It feels churlish to wonder if it would have been such a big hit had he not died… Maybe it would, as it’s a great song.

‘Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)’ – #2 in 1962

Interesting that this rockabilly ditty is Roy Orbison’s biggest non-#1. It’s nice enough: a repetitive refrain that turns into a sort of mantra as the song progresses, and it builds to a crescendo as all the best Orbison songs do. But it’s not an all time classic. Not a ‘Crying’, a ‘Running Scared’ or a ‘Blue Angel’ (my personal favourite). The video above is worth a look if not for the song then for the spectacularly uninterested audience. What did he say just before launching into the song…?

Roy Orbison, then. One of the most original chart stars going, with one of the very best voices.

Roy Orbison, April 26th 1936 – December 6th 1988

Remembering Jerry Lee Lewis

Last time I did a ‘Remembering’ post, it was on the universally loved and cherished Olivia Newton-John, about whom nobody had a bad word to say. Jerry Lee Lewis, though…

We’ve met some wrong ‘uns in our journey through the chart-toppers of yore. Bad types with equally bad music (Rolf Harris), bad types with music that I couldn’t help but enjoy (Gary Glitter). Jerry Lee Lewis was possibly that baddest of them all. ‘The Killer’, so named because he had allegedly tried to strangle a teacher at his high school – or so he said – lived a life that would make your average, run-of-the-mill criminal blush. Drug arrests, assault arrests, two wives dead in suspicious circumstances and – the one that effectively ended his mainstream chart career before it had truly started – a marriage to his thirteen year-old cousin.

He was, in his own words, an unrepentant hillbilly. Unpleasant and aggressive towards his fans, his family, journalists, and other musicians. (When he met John Lennon, he did so after berating the Beatles and their peers as ‘shit’ from the stage. Lennon, legend has it, still kneeled down to kiss Lewis’s feet.) Why then, does he seem to have gotten away with it? Any current artist who did a quarter of the things Jerry Lee allegedly did would have been cancelled into the dust. Is it because it was all so long ago? Is it because people were more able to seperate art from artist? Or is it because he was just so good?

For, no matter how terrible a person he was, he is rock and roll royalty. One of the five deities: Chuck, Elvis, Buddy, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee. Elvis used his voice (and his body), Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry their guitars. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had their pianos, which put them at an immediate disadvantage, as pianos are not hugely conducive to rocking and rolling. Pianos are for classical music, for Beethoven and Mozart, for respectable ladies’ front rooms. You have to sit down to play them, and sitting down is the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll.

So you have to do what Jerry Lee, and Little Richard did. Pound the keys, assault the keys, stamp on them, jump on them… Set the goddamn piano on fire if you have to. (Which Lewis allegedly did when angry at being lower down a bill than Chuck Berry. ‘Follow that, boy’, he said as he left the stage.) Which leads to Jerry Lee’s one and only British chart-topper: ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

Quite often, as with many genres, by the time rock ‘n’ roll made it to the top of the charts it had been diluted. Elvis’s first #1 was the smooth ‘All Shook Up’. Buddy Holly had one chart-topping rocker: ‘That’ll Be the Day’. Berry had to wait until the nonsense that is ‘My Ding-A-Ling’. Little Richard never had one. Which means that ‘Great Balls of Fire’ is probably the purest rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper. It’s unadulteratedly dangerous, and sexy. It has a title that is at once biblical, yet also sexual. Watch the live performance below, probably quite restrained by his standards, and listen to the shrieks form the audience every time he pauses, when he stands, and when he leers at them. The sweat on his brow, the glint in his eye. Anybody capable of that sort of performance was going to have a few skeletons in the closet. He was complicated, unpleasant, the ‘killer’, but he was rock and roll.

Jerry Lee Lewis

September 29th 1935 – October 28th 2022

Remembering Kay Starr

On this day three years ago, one of our earliest chart-toppers passed away: Kay Starr, smoky voiced pre-rock chanteuse.

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Born in 1922, on a Native-American Reservation, Katherine Laverne Starks parents were a sprinkler fitter and a chicken raiser, and she was singing with bands in Texas from the age of ten, to earn a few extra dollars for her family. (Sounds like the sort of story you might invent, were you challenged to invent a story from Depression-era America…) She sang with big bands through the thirties and forties, before going solo and recording two of my favourite pre-rock n roll #1 singles.

Back when I was working my way through the first fifty or so UK chart-toppers, before Elvis, Buddy, Jerry Lee et al came along, I did find it a bit of a slog at times. Painfully earnest crooners (Eddie Fisher, David Whitfield), irritating novelties (‘That Doggie in the Window’, ‘I See the Moon’) and staid instrumentals (Eddie Calvert, Mantovani) plodded by, one after the other. It was the hidden gems, such as Kay Starr, that made the journey more bearable.

She popped up as early as chart-topper number three, in January 1953, with the sprightly, sassy ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’ – a record that was a whole lot of fun, and one that proved a lot of my preconceptions about the pre-rock era wrong.

And then we had to wait a while for her second, and final, #1. A record that Starr was, apparently not too keen on, but that gave her a hugely unexpected hit: ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’. The story of a teenager (though Starr was thirty-two when she recorded it) who comes home to find her parents trying to waltz to one of those new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll discs. It hit the top in the spring of 1956, just before Elvis went stratospheric with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and can perhaps be counted as one of the first rock ‘n’ roll chart-toppers, even if it is poking slight fun at the genre…

(I’ve linked to an 1980s TV performance, as it’s a lot of fun and shows Ms Starr still swinging in her sixties. Follow the link above to hear the original.)

And that was that for Kay Starr on the UK charts. She only ever charted five singles here, though she would have presumably had more had the charts begun before November 1952. In the US she was much more prolific, with fifteen Top 10 hits between 1949 and 1957. ‘Wheel of Fortune’ was the biggest, but she also had big duets with fellow UK chart-topper Tennessee Ernie Ford. In later years she toured with Pat Boone, and Tony Bennett.

I think the reason that Kay Starr stood out amongst the other pre-rock stars is that there is such a sparkle in her voice – it flirts, flitters and then suddenly goes all husky-sexy. Billie Holiday apparently claimed that Starr was the only ‘white woman who could sing the blues’. It’s a great voice, but not ‘proper’ like her cut-glass contemporaries. She could have succeeded as a rock ‘n’ roll singer like Connie Francis or Brenda Lee, had she been born a decade later.

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Kay Starr, July 21st 1922 – November 3rd 2016

Remembering Eddie Fisher

I’m starting out a new feature today, remembering some of the biggest stars that we have met so far. The only requirements needed to feature here are that we have already covered your chart-topping careers on this countdown, and that you are dead…

On this day, then, nine years ago, Eddie Fisher – the King of pre-rock ‘n’ roll – passed away, aged 82. The first artist to score multiple #1 singles in the UK. An artist whose two chart-toppers came in the blink of an eye, in the first eight months of the singles chart’s existence. Numbers 4 and 10.

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First came the sombre ‘Outside of Heaven’, in which he stood outside the house of the girl he once loved. You can read my original post here.┬áIt’s sedate, proper… traditional.

Then came the equally sombre ‘I’m Walking Behind You’ – a duet with Sally Sweetland – in which he followed his ex to church on her wedding day. Again it’s sedate, proper, traditional… and pretty darn creepy when you listen carefully.

I struggled to really get his chart-topping singles when I originally wrote about them, and still do. He had a good voice, they were well-constructed songs… They were just so old-fashioned. Old-fashioned sounding even among their contemporaries, and incredibly old-fashioned when compared to where we are now in the countdown – slap bang in the middle of the swinging sixties (amazingly, given the way pop music has changed, we’re only actually thirteen years down the line in real time…)

What the songs do offer is an interesting glimpse into how music sounded before rock ‘n’ roll came along, and Fisher – along with Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Johnnie Ray – was one of the biggest male stars of the late forties / early fifties. Only one of his singles failed to make the UK Top 10, while he enjoyed 25 (!) US Top 10s, including 4 #1s.

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He had quite the life outside of the recording studio, too. That is, yes, him with Elizabeth Taylor, his second wife (he was number four of eight for her). He left his first wife, Debbie Reynolds – Taylor’s best friend! – for her. It was quite the scandal, and proof that misbehaving pop stars weren’t a rock ‘n’ roll invention. He was married five times in total, and had four children over the course of them. The oldest of whom was the late, Star Wars great, Carrie Fisher.

So, if you can, take a moment out of your day, click on the links, and transport yourself back to 1953, when Eddie Fisher was crooning his way to the top of the charts and was, for a short time, the man with the most UK #1 singles in history.

Photo of Eddie Fisher

Eddie Fisher, August 10th 1928 – September 22nd 2010