This is the unedited text of Music Americana Fall 2018 Lecture 5: Roy Orbison & Linda Ronstadt. It is meant to be read in conjunction with some videos that, for legal reasons, are not published here.
Today we’re going to see two of the great singers of rock and roll, both somewhat shy people who liked to sing and were good at it. The first, Roy Orbison, was once described by none other than Elvis Presley as the best singer alive, and watch his host’s face, he’s grinning ear to ear, just sitting next to that sound.
O Pretty Woman from the Johnny Cash Show in 1970, I believe, and Only The Lonely, from 1960 with no shades, then 1961, 1969, 1982, and 1989, two of the legendary songs of Roy Kelton Orbison, born April 23, 1936 in Vernon, north Texas, the second son of Nadine Shults and Orbie Lee Orbison, a worker in munitions and aircraft factories. On his sixth birthday, Roy's father gave him a guitar, and he later recalled "I was finished, you know, for anything else." He soaked up country music, his hero Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers throughout the forties, but after his family relocated to the West Texas oil town of Wink near New Mexico in 1946, he also heard "sepia", a local euphemism for rhythm and blues, plus Tex-Mex, Mantovani, Glenn Miller and Zydeco. In 1949, at 13, Orbison formeded his first band, "The Wink Westerners," appearing weekly on KERB radio in Kermit, TX and local tv; but Orbison, shy and self-conscious about his appearance, his ears that stuck out, and his weak eyesight, enrolled in North Texas State College to study geology so he could work in the oil fields, only to see his classmate Pat Boone get a record deal. Orbison switched to Odessa Junior College to be a teacher, but after driving 355 miles to Dallas to see Elvis in 1955. he returned home and formed the Teen Kings, who while playing a radio show met Johnny Cash. Cash told them about Sam Phillips at Sun Records, and they sent a record of a song Roy had written, very similar to Elvis and Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti. Philips liked it, and offered the Teen Kings a contract in 1956, to come to Memphis and cut the record again in a better studio.
Ooby Dooby made the national Billboard Hot 100 and sold 200,000 copies, putting the Teen Kings on the road with Cash and other acts. Impressed by Presley, Orbison and the band moved around frenetically, doing "everything we could to get applause because we had only one hit record", it’s kind of hard to imagine after seeing him stand immobile. After The Teen Kings split, Orbison stayed in Memphis at Philips’ house, where his 16-year-old girlfriend, Claudette Frady, moved in, staying in separate rooms. Meanwhile, Orbison hung out with Presley’s circle and even got to drive his purple Cadillac, but his break came in 1957 when The Everly Brothers cut his new song “Claudette”—whom he’d by now married, and who “loved him even better than he thought she would”-- as the B side of their #1 hit "All I Have To Do Is Dream"; though not the single, “Claudette” got some airplay and got Orbison’s name on a disk. It’s a cool record, too, a great vehicle for harmony singers with a rock and roll style, and it became a staple in Everlys concerts, including their reunion years later. And it made him some money.
But he grew frustrated at Sun, whose producer Jack Clement told him he wasn’t a good enough singer. I met Jack Clement once, he was driving a cab; maybe that’s why. Orbison stopped recording at Sun and in 1958 briefly quit performing, then moved to Nashville to write for Acuff-Rose, a major country publisher. He recorded some songs by other writers, including Boudleaux Bryant, who called Roy “"a timid, shy kid” who sang “softly, prettily but almost bashfully, as if someone might be disturbed by his efforts and reprimand him." Living with his wife and child in a tiny apartment, he began taking his guitar to the car to write; one night fellow songwriter Joe Melson tapped on the window, and after a bit of music they decided to write together. Wesley Rose helped Orbison get a deal with Monument Records, and after a pair of cover singles went nowhere, they recorded one by Orbison and Melson, with doo-wop backup singers and strings. "Uptown" hit No. 72 on the Billboard Top 100, and a second session yielded “Only the Lonely" which immediately rose to #2 in the US, #1 in the UK. They were off to the races.
Orbison’s arrival came at a good time: rock and roll had been taken over by Dick Clark, Frankie Avalon and Fabian, Elvis was in the army, Jerry Lee was in disgrace after marrying his 13-year old cousin, Little Richard had become a preacher, and Chuck Berry was in jail. A lot of talented musicians were around, and Fred Foster assembled a crack studio team, with Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Cramer, strings and the Anita Kerr doo-wop backing singers. Nashville had country singers, but Roy was something else: he wrote and sang pop hits. They offered “Only The Lonely” to Elvis and to the Everlys, and both turned it down, so they recorded it at RCA Nashville, with backing vocals in the foreground, and the rhythm section soft in the background. This combination became Orbison's trademark sound, and, after “Only the Lonely”, they quickly followed up with “Blue Angel,” a #9 single, and "Runnin' Scared," based on the rhythm of Ravel's Boléro, #1 in the US, featuring the soaring vocals and lovelorn story lines that ended with some amazing note very few singers could hit. Orbison told Rolling Stone in 1988 the songs were writtten specifically to showcase his range and power: "I liked the sound of [my voice]. I liked making it sing, making the voice ring, and I just kept doing it. And I think that somewhere between the time of 'Ooby Dooby' and 'Only the Lonely', it kind of turned into a good voice." Recording live with a full orchestra, he failed several times to sing Running Scared's last note in falsetto, until he went for it, sang the final note in full voice, so astonishing everyone that the musicians stopped playing. And that take was a number one song, followed by "Crying", #2 in July 1961, and "Dream Baby," #4 in spring 1962.
Despite all this success, Orbison had no press agent and little presence in the teen mags; Life Magazine called him an "anonymous celebrity". While touring Australia in 1962, an Australian DJ called him "The Big O", a moniker that stuck. In England he left his eyeglasses on a plane and had to wear his prescription Wayfarers on stage; he realized he preferred them and kept the look, until people thought he was blind. Biographers have written he had a good sense of humor and was not morose or gloomy, but suffered severe stage fright, and the dark glasses helped him hide. Orbison said he "wasn't trying to be weird ... but the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black, somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really."
In April 1963 Orbison released In Dreams, a major drama that later was featured prominently in one of David Lynch’s weirder films, Blue Velvet; the song went to #7 in the US and #1 in both Australia and the Netherlands, as did its followup, Blue Bayou; meanwhile, he replaced Duane Eddy on a UK tour with the Beatles. He had top billing, but after seeing they were in the throes of Beatlemania, Roy offered to go on first. The four Beatles then stood, amazed, as he stood completely still and sang 14 encores with the audience chanting "We want Roy!" again and again. The Beatles, who regularly covered American rock and roll, were already fans; after the tour, they became lifelong friends, and when the Beatles came to the US they asked Orbison to tour with them. But the touring took a toll; wife Claudette began an affair and broke them up, then rejoined him for a second UK tour, where he was mobbed by teenaged girls everywhere he went. Back in the US, they broke up again, and Joe Melson, his writing partner, split for a solo career that never happened. With a friend from Texas, Bill Dees, Orbison wrote "It's Over", #1 UK and #9 US; when Claudette said she was going home to Nashville, Roy asked if she had any money. Dees said, "A pretty woman never needs any money," and 40 minutes later, they’d written his biggest hit.
A major jump forward from the string-laden laments that preceded it, with its trademark guitar line and come-on lyrics, "Oh, Pretty Woman" was #1 in the entire world in fall 1964, selling seven million copies, and as Billboard noted, in the 68 weeks after August 8, 1963, Orbison was the only American artist to have a #1 single in Britain, and he did it twice, with 'It's Over' and 'Oh, Pretty Woman.' Pretty Woman was the second biggest-selling song of the 1960s, after I Want to Hold Your Hand, and I want to show you something.
chord progression of the bridge.
No one could have known that "Oh, Pretty Woman" was as good as it was going to get. He and Claudette divorced in November 1964, remarried in August 1965, and in 1966 she was killed instantly while riding with him on his motorcycle when it struck a semi-truck. Orbison buried his sorrow in work; meanwhile his contract ended with Monument, and Wesley Rose moved him to MGM for a million bucks with the understanding he’d do tv and films like Elvis. But with Rose as Orbison's producer, he had no hits after 1967, and the only one of the five movies they were supposed to make, The Fastest Guitar Alive, was a flop. Then in 1968, while he was on tour, the family home in Hendersonville, TN burned to the ground, and two of his three sons died in the fire. In 1969 he remarried, to German teenager Barbara Jakobs, and they had two more sons; but rock music had become arena spectacle, and in Roy’s own words, “I kind of stood there like a tree where the winds blow and the seasons change." For two decades he kept recording and touring in relative obscurity; as author Peter Lehman observed, "Since it was never clear where he had come from, no one seemed to pay much mind to where he had gone; he was just gone." But his fellow singers refused to forget him; Johnny Cash had him on tv, Linda Ronstadt had a hit with “Blue Bayou,” and Bruce Springsteen often ended concerts with Orbison songs. Country singer Sonny James had a #1 hit on the country charts with "Only the Lonely." In 1978 he underwent a triple coronary bypass, but kept on touring, and when Don McLean hit #5 in 1980 with his own version of "Crying", things began looking up. In 1981, he and Emmylou Harris won a Grammy for "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," for the soundtrack of the film Roadie, Van Halen covered "Oh, Pretty Woman" on a 1982 album, and David Lynch used "In Dreams" in the film Blue Velvet in 1986, lip-synched by an effeminate Dean Stockwell. Orbison said he was initially “mortified” , but later added…”I really got to appreciate what David gave to the song, and what the song gave to the movie—how it achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to 'In Dreams'." In 1987 Orbison and k.d. lang performed "Crying" for the soundtrack to the film, Hiding Out, winning a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. That same year, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bruce Springsteen. Orbison said he felt "validated" by the honor.
He hardly needed validation; highly influential on the next generation, Orbison was, in Springsteen’s words, “the coolest uncool loser you'd ever seen.” Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees said "He made emotion fashionable, that it was all right to talk about and sing about very emotional things. Before that no one would do it." Brother Barry Gibb said that when he heard "Crying" for the first time, "That was it. To me that was the voice of God." Bob Dylan said “He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop.... His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, 'Man, I don't believe it'. That’s why, when Orbison began a new album in 1988 with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra producing, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty all signed on to write "Handle with Care", and soon were recording an entire album. The Traveling Wilburys gave themselves stage names--Orbison called himself "Lefty Wilbury" after his hero Lefty Frizzell—and though all the members were major stars, Lynne later said "Everybody just sat there going, 'Wow, it's Roy Orbison!" Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 spent 53 weeks on the US charts, peaking at #3, No. 1 in Australia, and won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. Orbison was in demand again, and by November 1988 had completed a solo album, Mystery Girl, and was flying back and forth to Europe for concerts when, On December 4 he returned to Tennessee, exhausted; two days later, he spent the day flying model airplanes with his sons, ate dinner at his mom's, and died of a heart attack at 52. A memorial was held in Nashville, another in LA, and he was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in an unmarked grave. On April 8, 1989, he became the first deceased musician since Elvis to have two albums in the Top Five at the same time, with the Traveling Wilburys and his own Mystery Girl, with the posthumous single, “You Got It.” And though his life was somewhat tragic, his sons have set up a great web site to preserve his music, and have even created a live tour with his hologram, the Running Scared we just saw is a hologram. But when you applaud, the hologram can’t really respond; nothing beats the real thing.
O Pretty Woman, from Black and White Nights, with a great guitar shootout between Springsteen and James Burton, taped at the Cocoanut Grove in LA with Springsteen, Burton in a white jacket, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and harmony singers Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, and k.d. lang, produced by T Bone Burnett. The concert was filmed in one take, aired on Cinemax and released on video, but not on cd. Lang later told how a humble Orbison "looked at all of us and said, 'If there is anything I can ever do for you, please call on me'. He was very serious. It was his way of thanking us. It was very emotional." For most of us, it’s our last memory of him. It’s sad that he died so young, and just when the world was welcoming him back; but all in all, it was a great way to go.
The truth is, though, that as good a songwriter and singer that orbison was, his stuff is hard to sing; not particularly Pretty Woman, but the ones where you hang around til the end, wondering “will he or she hit that last note?” That’s one reason one of the better covers of an Orbison tune is by a great singer, Linda Ronstadt, belting out Blue Bayou at the Fox Theater in Atlanta in the late 1970s.
Linda Maria Ronstadt was born July 15, 1946 in Tucson, AZ, of German, English, and Mexican ancestry, the daughter of Ruth and Gilbert Ronstadt, a prosperous machinery merchant. Raised on the family's 10-acre ranch with siblings Peter (who was Tucson's Chief of Police in the 1980s, Michael J., and Suzy. The family was featured in Family Circle magazine in 1953 as a pioneering Arizona ranching family descended from Friedrich August Ronstadt of Hanover, Germany, who married a Mexican citizen; in 1991 Tucson dedicated its central transit terminal to her grandfather, pioneer businessman Federico José María Ronstadt. Her mother, meanwhile, was the daughter of inventor Lloyd Groff Copeman, with 700 patents to his name,including an early toaster, the grease gun, the first electric stove, an early microwave oven, and a flexible ice cube tray that earned him millions in royalties. At home, family life was filled with music, folk, rock, country, show tunes, and Mexican, she has said everything she’s recorded is music she heard by the age of 10, including the Gilbert and Sullivan and Great American Songbook repertoire she later recorded. Everyone in her family sang and played instruments, and in addition she has called herself a product of American radio of the 1950s and 1960s, saying “All of my influences and my authenticity are a direct result of the music played in that Tucson living room." She emulated singers such as Édith Piaf-- you can hear that direct style of belting right there--and opera diva Maria Callas, of whom she said "There's no one in her league. That's it. Period. I learn more ... about singing rock n roll from listening to Maria Callas records than I ever would from listening to pop music for a month of Sundays. ... She's the greatest chick singer ever."
At age 14, Ronstadt formed a folk trio with brother Peter and sister Gretchen to play coffeehouses and frat houses, billed as "the Union City Ramblers" and "the Three Ronstadts", playing folk, country, bluegrass, and Mexican, but Linda wanted to combine folk music and rock 'n' roll. In 1964, after a semester at Arizona State University, the 17-year-old moved to LA to form a band with Bobby Kimmel, a friend from Tucson. Kimmel was already writing with guitarist-songwriter Kenny Edwards, and the three of them got signed to Capitol Records in 1966 as "the Stone Poneys".
The trio Stone Poneys released three albums in 1967–68, and had a hit single with "Different Drum", written by Monkee Michael Nesmith, #13 on the Hot 100; Nesmith in particular was advocating for a new fusion of country and rock, and Ronstadt was a natural fit. But the Stone Poneys broke up in 1969 and young Linda, still under contract to Capitol, Ronstadt made her first solo album, Hand Sown … Home Grown, in 1969, it is considered the first country rock record by a female singer. The country part of it is an awkward fit in my opinion, she looks totally out of place on Hee Haw, but her second album, Silk Purse, in March 1970, was produced by Elliot Mazer, who’d worked on Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills and had a more modern sensibility. Her first solo hit, "Long Long Time", hit #25 on the charts and earned her first Grammy nomination, for Best Female Contemporary Vocal. She hit the road in 1970 with a backup band of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner, who formed the Eagles after the tour, that’s them on Desperado. Backup groups would be a recurring problem for Ronstadt, who complained in a 1969 interview in Fusion magazine that it was difficult being a single "chick singer" with an all-male backup band, because they resented being sidemen for a female singer, and perhaps some of them wanted to be her boyfriend. In 1971 Ronstadt left Capitol for David Geffen's new Asylum Records, where her 1973 album Don't Cry Now produced her first country hit, "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," selling 300,000 copies. Peter Asher, formerly of Peter and Gordon, signed on as producer, and later attributed their success to the fact that he was her first solely professional relationship. In 1975, 29-year-old Ronstadt released Heart Like a Wheel, the first of four number 1 Country Albums, with the #1 single "You're No Good" by Clint Ballard, followed by "When Will I Be Loved" at #2, won her first Grammy and Rolling Stone put her on the cover. In September 1975 Heat Wave, a 1963 hit by Martha and the Vandellas, got to #5, and won Ronstadt her second Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal. The 1977 album Simple Dreams held the # 1 position five weeks, sold over 3½ million copies in less than a year, and won Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal for "Blue Bayou." But after the string of oldies we just saw, and after Mick Jagger told her in 1978 she sang too many ballads, she recorded his song “Tumbling Dice,” and began turning to younger songwriters for new material.
What an incredible smile. Like Peter Paul & Mary a decade earlier, Ronstadt brought new songwriters great public acclaim, including Lowell George, who wrote “Willin’”, and Warren Zevon, who wrote Poor Poor Pitiful Me, and though I couldn’t find a live video, add to that list Elvis Costello, for whom her cover of Alison after his first US tour helped him a great deal. And it paid off: by 1979, Ronstadt was the "highest paid woman in rock" with eight gold, six platinum, and four multi-platinum albums, an unprecedented feat at the time. She toured Australia, Japan, made millions and was considered the first female rock star who could fill arenas. And she had a great band, led by long-haired guitar legend Waddy Wachtel. Yet like Orbison she never grew comfortable with an image; she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone 6 times, the last in a skimpy red slip, not realizing, the photos would be so revealing. She also disliked her 1977 cover of Time under the banner "Torchy Rock," where she wore a dress and posed in a sexy manner, then said that wasn’t her. And like Orbison, she rarely looked at or talked to the crowd; still, how she looked did matter, because, frankly, she’s beautiful and sexy even without trying, but stands around like a band singer, rather than the star of the show.
I recall the NY Times once mentioned her ability to find that “one true note.” She could nail it every time, but her natural range, several octaves from contralto to soprano, was confined by rock. And so when I read an interview where she said “I finally realized I don’t have to sing Heat Wave every night for the rest of my life,” I wondered what she would do. Then in 1981, she shocked the music world by starring in The Pirates Of Penzance for Joe Papp’s Shakespeare In Central Park, winning rave reviews and prompting people to realize, hey this girl can really sing. It got her on the Tonight Show, one of her few interviews, where the shy girl turned out to be a motormouth. It was a pleasant surprise. She also began recording with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, a project that came to fruition in 1987 with Trio, # 1 on Billboard's Country Albums chart for five weeks and a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group for "To Know Him Is To Love Him", written by, incidentally, Phil Spector. And wanting to get away from rock, in 1983 Ronstadt enlisted conductor Nelson Riddle for something radically different.
Ronstadt later said "I now realize I was taking a tremendous risk” making three albums of traditional pop songs: What's New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons. Joe Smith, the head of Elektra Records, was strongly opposed, and some critics called it “elevator music.” Time called it "one of the gutsiest, most unorthodox and unexpected albums of the year.” The bottom line was seven million copies sold in the U.S, the first successful attempt by a rock singer to mine the Great American Songbook. Ronstadt and Riddle toured concert halls in Australia, Japan, and the US, including Carnegie Hall and Radio City. She even smiled and talked to the audience, though personally I thought it a bit bland, not as liberating for her singing as she may have thought. Ronstadt credited this success with giving her the courage to try something else: she said "I grew up singing Mexican music, and that's based on indigenous Mexican rhythms. And that's how I attack vocals." And so, in 1987 she recorded Canciones de Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mexican folk songs, or what she has described as "world class songs", based on a 1946 University of Arizona booklet by Luisa Espinel. Espinel's father was Linda's grandfather, and Ronstadt researched and learned the songs as a tribute to her father and his family. This album won Ronstadt a Grammy Award for Best Mexican-American Performance and sold two million copies, making it the biggest-selling non-English album in U.S. music history. It was a good move; she sounds a lot more passionate and real singing this than the cocktail stuff, in my opinion. A theatrical stage show toured concert halls to both Hispanic and non-Hispanic audiences, including Broadway and PBS, earning Ronstadt a Primetime Emmy and another Grammy for Frenesi.
She was more or less done touring; the rock and roll road no longer appealed to her. But she could still show up for special occasions, and Grammy voters loved her for it.
In 1989 and 1990 she won two more Grammies for Best Pop Vocal by a Duo or Group with Aaron Neville for the #1 song “I Don’t Know Much,” and "All My Life." Followup albums won three more Grammies, and she won two more, one for Best Musical Album for Children for Dedicated to the One I Love, an album of classic rock and roll songs reinvented as lullabies; the other came in 1999, for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for "After the Gold Rush" from Trio II with Dolly and Emmylou.
Ronstadt also had highly-publicized romances with Governor Jerry Brown and actor Jim Carrey but never married; in 1990 she adopted a daughter, Mary Clementine, and then a baby boy, Carlos, in 1994. As a single mom, she moved to San Francisco after 30 years in LA, because, she said “I didn't want to embrace the values that have been so completely embraced by that city. It's just not me, and it never was me." In 1997 she moved back to Tucson.
In 2000, Ronstadt completed her long contractual relationship with the Elektra/Asylum/Warner Bros label, released two more albums on small labels, and while working in Vegas in 2004 called Georeg W Bush an idiot, which got her banned from the hotel. Several musicians, including the Eagles, canceled their upcoming engagements in protest. She appeared at the 2007 Newport Folk Festival, was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, published an autobiography, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, and in 2014, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Don Henley. It did seem strange to have waited so long to induct someone who was arguably the best rock singer of her time, male or female, who sold 100 million records and won 11 Grammies, so long, in fact, that she couldn’t attend the ceremony because of her Parkinson’s, which was diagnosed in 2009.
What can we say of these artists? Orbison, who co-wrote his own hits, left behind a great repertoire of songs for those who can hit those notes. Ronstadt made definitive covers of classics, when you hear those songs in Publix today it’s usually her singing them. And she introduced the public to some excellent writers; the music world could use some Linda Ronstadts today, singers to introduce great songs to the public. I look at both of them with a certain awe; tremendous singers, so good they could stand there and do nothing but sing. It’s really quite an accomplishment, if you think about it: no jokes, no tricks, no smoke bombs or light shows, no skin, no lingerie-clad dancers, no fake crescendos with a million notes to get the American-Idoled masses screaming for your high notes. Perhaps it was that it was a simpler time; I prefer to believe they were just that good. And no doubt, they will live on in our hearts.