And if I’m going to talk about Chris Isaak, I’d be seriously remiss to not acknowledge the stylistc and thematic wellspring from which Isaak derives, the late great Roy Orbison.
In late-’59 Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records and its producer, heard the pop potential of a shy rockabilly singer named Roy Orbison.
Foster took an Orbison song “Only the Lonely,” removed its extended first verse, then lifted the background vocal figure from another Orbison song (“Come Back to Me, My Love”) and grafted it onto “Lonely” to create a classic, and launch Orbison’s pop career in 1960.
Orbison’s spectacular hits (“Lonely,” “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Dream Baby,” “In Dreams,” “Blue Bayou,” “Oh, Pretty Woman”) combined Mexican mariachi melodies, rock rhythms, pop arrangements and Orbison’s near-operatic tenor voice into a unique, gorgeous canon.
Orbison’s instrument conveyed the fragility of love better than anyone’s, yet his amazing delicacy was never precious or effete. His oceanic reserves of sadness were always life-affirming in the manner of great tragedy. Part of Orbison’s power stemed from the fact that he never resorted to falsetto to hit his high notes – not that he didnt try, according to Foster.
“Running Scared,” Orbison’s first No. 1, was recorded in early-’61. Recalls Foster, “The arrangement keeps building to where at the end you have 16 strings, four horns, 8 voices and a full rhythm section just honking. When Roy went to falsetto for the high note, he just disappeared. This was before we had enough tracks to dedicate one to the voice, so I had to ask him to hit the note in full voice. He didn’t think he could do it, but he did it beautifully, and that gave him so much confidence that from then on he just sailed through everything.”
In the midst of a spectacular, gratifying comeback as a solo artist and with the Traveling Wilburys, Orbison died of a heart attack in December of 1988 at just 52, a final sad irony to a pain-filled but artistically exemplary life.