Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 induction speech for Roy Orbison may be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s best ever. The scene he described could have come out of his own lyrics, or Orbison’s: Springsteen lying in the dark, with only his stereo lights on, listening to Orbison’s greatest hits.
“At the end of ‘It’s Over,’ when he hits that note where it sounds like the world’s going to end, I’d be laying there promising myself that I was never going to go outside again and never going to talk to another woman,” Springsteen recalled. Then the needle reset to the first track, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and his faith returned. “I’ll always remember,” Springsteen said, “what he meant to me when I was young and afraid to love.”
Now, the Rock Hall is celebrating Orbison with its ultimate honor. The ’60s ballad master, rock ’n’ roll’s prince of heartbreak, will be remembered in the 11th annual American Music Masters Series, six days of events culminating in a Nov. 4 tribute concert at the State Theatre. Highlights include public interviews with three men who know the essence of Orbison’s music even better than Springsteen: Joe Melson and Bill Dees, Orbison’s co-writers on his early-’60s hits, and Monument Records founder and producer Fred Foster.
“The key to Roy was his writing,” Foster says. “I think he was a wonderful writer. And he wasn’t bound by tradition or rules or what somebody said was good or wasn’t.”
The tribute concert will have a Nashville twang, led by country legend Glen Campbell and bluegrass virtuoso Ricky Skaggs. Other acts include sweet-voiced singer-songwriters Patty Griffin and Tift Merritt, as well as Raul Malo, formerly of the Mavericks, whose high, lonesome voice is often compared to Orbison’s.
Meanwhile, the Rock Hall has extended its Orbison exhibit, Haunting and Yearning, through December. It ranges from a handbill for his 1963 tour with The Beatles to his ’70s-era purple jumpsuit to tickets from his last concert in 1988 at the old Front Row Theater in Highland Heights.
In his early ’60s singles, Orbison distilled the sound of loneliness more clearly than anyone in rock ’n’ roll. The ingredients were Orbison’s quavering, three-octave voice; the daring, dramatic songwriting of Orbison, Melson and Dees; and Foster’s accompaniments, a sort of Southern chamber pop full of strings and backing vocals, as distinctive as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
Orbison was quiet and fragile. When he recorded “Uptown,” his first successful Monument single, “I couldn’t get him above the band, because he was so shy and timid-sounding,” Foster recalls. So Foster put Orbison in a corner of the studio, behind a coat rack to isolate his vocals.
A big hit, “Only the Lonely,” soon followed, but Orbison found his full voice a year later, while recording “Running Scared,” a song with no verses or chorus, just a long crescendo.
“We get to the end of the song, where all the high notes are,” recalls Foster, and “when he went into falsetto on the high notes, he just disappeared. The band overwhelmed him. I said, ‘Roy, you can’t do those notes in falsetto.’ He said, ‘Man, I can’t hit those notes in full voice.’ ”
“If you don’t hit it, I’ll just erase the tape,” Foster promised.
The final note was a G above high C. “He hit [it] perfectly,” says Foster, “and effortlessly, I might add. And the musicians, some of them came up halfway out of their seats.
“After that, he never had any trouble hitting full-voice high notes at all.” Next, Orbison co-wrote a series of singles that used his full range, including the masterpieces “Crying” and “It’s Over.” “When he’d write these songs with a big range, it was sort of operatic,” Foster recalls. “Nobody was doing that.”
Tribute concert tickets are $30 to $50. Visit www.rockhall.com for more event information.