An exhibit and a concert will honor the legendary musician.
By JOHN BENSON
CLEVELAND -- The Wayfarer sunglasses, the dark hair and the bend-but-never-break vocal style are all trademarks of influential singer-songwriter Roy Orbison, who died of a heart attack 18 years ago next month.
Despite his passing, his music lives on as an inspiration to all, which is why The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is staging "Only the Lonely: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison" as part of its 11th Annual American Music Masters Series. The weeklong celebration culminates with a tribute concert Saturday at the Playhouse Square Center's State Theatre.
Even though Orbison got the girl in his biggest hit "Oh, Pretty Woman," his entire career was built around melancholic themes that painted him as the romantic balladeer unlucky in love. The titles alone -- "Crying," "Only the Lonely," "It's Over" and "Dreaming" to name a few -- depicted a brokenhearted soul, which separated him from artists of his genre.
"When we think of early rock 'n' roll, we think of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and a handful of others," said Warren Zanes, Vice President of Education and Public Programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. "Their songs got us out onto the dance floor, but there is another experience that is important to music culture. Orbison wasn't about the party as much as he was about walking home alone from it. And that's what most of us end up doing."
Even as a member of the super group Traveling Wilburys -- Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison -- Orbison was grounded in sadness. Perhaps it's that feeling of misery loving company that speaks to the list of entertainers -- Raul Malo (formerly of the Mavericks), Ricky Skaggs, the Velvets, Patty Griffin, the Crickets (with Sonny Curtis), Mandy Barnett, Cowboy Jack Clement, Glen Campbell, Tift Merritt and bandleader Billy Burnette -- who are coming together to honor Orbison.
For one artist in particular, the upcoming evening should be quite moving. Not only did singer/fiddler Skaggs befriend Orbison in the early '80s while living in Nashville, but he also took part in a star-packed 1990 Los Angeles tribute concert for the legend that featured the likes of Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, B.B. King, Chris Isaak, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and more.
So what is it specifically that puts so many influential artists under Orbison's shadow?
"His music always has that high class, high rate of excellence," said Skaggs, calling from his home in Nashville. "His singing was like no one else. He absolutely was unique. He was God's gift to the music industry for a season, and of course the great thing is we can still continue to enjoy his music even after his soul has gone on."
What's interesting about the Rock Hall Roy Orbison tribute show is its entertainment lineup features a distinct Music City slant, which speaks to the inability to classify the classic singer's style. Although many consider 1987 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Orbison a rock 'n' roller at heart, there's a contingent of folks from Nashville, which the west Texas native called home for much of his life, that considers him musical kin.
Nashville at center
"His music has a unique sound that transcends geography," Zanes said. "In my mind, it may as well be from Mars, but that said, Nashville was there in his music. It wasn't in the changes, but it was in the players and the instrumentation. Nashville was a center for Orbison. So, when it comes time to remember him, Nashville wants to be there, and should be there."
It was Orbison's ability to straddle the fence between country and rock that attracted many fans, including rising alt country singer-songwriter and tribute concert performer Tift Merritt.
"I think when you talk about rock 'n' roll and country, and even go as far as say gospel or soul or folk, the ideas musically are really fingers of the same hand in my opinion and what binds them all together is good songwriting," said Merritt, during a phone call to her North Carolina home.
And what does Skaggs think his old friend would say about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrating the life and music of Roy Orbison?
"I think he'd enjoy just seeing the diversity and the different styles coming together to honor one man," Skaggs said. "That would have been very gratifying for him."