October 1st, 2008
12:43 PM ET

The big voice

For me, the most effective scene in the 1987 movie “Less Than Zero” comes at the end. Right at the end, actually.

As the credits roll, over the terse drums on the Rick Rubin-produced track, Roy Orbison’s beautiful voice sings “Life Fades Away.” “I long to be at peace for-ev-er-more/Forevermore. Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,” he announces coolly, and then: “Life fades … a … waaaaay.” A crescendo, etched with pain and emotion, Orbison bringing it home.

The movie, for me, is a mixed bag: soulless, drug-addled L.A. youth talking past each other, with only Robert Downey Jr.’s performance enlivening the proceedings. But “Life Fades Away”? That’s the whole movie in three minutes and 41 seconds.

At the time I saw the film I remember thinking, Roy Orbison is back. Around the same time HBO had aired his performance in the TV concert “A Black and White Night.” Not long after came the Traveling Wilburys album, where he sounded as relaxed and effective as his younger colleagues. (And they - that is, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty - were thrilled to have him.) And then, cruelly, just when his “Mystery Girl” solo album was about to be released, Roy Orbison died on December 6, 1988.

Orbison’s 30-year career is being celebrated in a new box set, “The Soul of Rock and Roll” (Monument/Orbison/Legacy), which came out yesterday. Here it is: the Western swing of the Wink Westerners, the rockabilly of Sun Records, the Fred Foster-produced dramas, the erotic growl of “Mean Woman Blues,” even obscurities such as “So Young,” which Orbison recorded for the 1970 film “Zabriskie Point.”

Bruce Springsteen often talks about being haunted by the “unearthly” (Springsteen’s word) sound of Orbison’s voice on the double-LP greatest hits Monument put out in the ‘70s. Jules Shear introduced one of his best songs, “Whispering Your Name,” with the dedication, “This one is for Roy.” (Get the acoustic version on “Unplug This”; Todd Rundgren’s studio sound of “Watch Dog” is all wrong.) Ringo Starr, who should know, once said, “Roy Orbison was the only act that the Beatles didn’t want to follow.” (The artists played together on a 1963 UK tour.)

What songs. What a man. What a voice.

- Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

Filed under: Music

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soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Travel Insurance

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    September 6, 2012 at 3:09 am | Report abuse |
  2. DavyR

    We had front row tickets #1 and #2 for Roy at Pittsburgh's Syria Mosque in 1988 and the show was cancelled because of Roy's illness. Not long after that Roy passed away. Never got to see him. Incredible artist, singer and person he was.

    October 2, 2008 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  3. zack

    i could not agree more

    October 1, 2008 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  4. carl

    I lived in LA when I was younger, and went to see all the major acts that passed thru town. From the Rolling Stones to Jethro Tull, the Who to Tom Petty, the Doors and the Eagles. It was quite a time. In 1980, the Eagles did a 5 night gig at the Forum (for the release of the Long Run) and the opening the act was Roy Orbison. I was in the front row, and seeing him come on stage wearing all black ,.and those trademark shades, really threw me. THEN, he began to sing. I've never before, or since, heard anything like it. One of the ALL TIME GREATS! Long live rock and roll!

    October 1, 2008 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jon

    Even Elvis himself introduced Roy Orbison during a 1976 Las Vegas performance as the greatest singer of all time.

    October 1, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. chris waddell

    Also on that album along with other great "alternative" hits were the Bangles 'Hazy Shade of Winter' and a song written by Roy Orbison and sung by Glen Danzig the title track 'Less than Zero'. I think it's one of Danzigs finest moments and best performances and since the soundtracks been brought up, I think people should give a it a listen!

    October 1, 2008 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Dan

    Roy was born in my home town of Vernon Texas. He and his family only lived there a short time before moving to Wink Tx. My dad was a friend of Roys dad...Orb, as he was known back then, and maybe always. A nice guy...and Roy went on to be one of the ultimate performers of our or any generation. He is missed.

    October 1, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Lola

    If you asked me to name my least favorite song by Roy, I'd be hard pressed to come up with one. I've heard "Running Scared" a million times. I know the lyrics. I know how it ends. Yet, I get that same anixous feeling everytime I listen. Sure that, this time, she won't walk away with him!

    October 1, 2008 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. MKR

    What songs, what a man, what a voice................most wonderful voice I have ever heard!!!

    I play his songs over and over, I really enjoy his voice, nobody like him!!

    October 1, 2008 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Vicky

    "Pretty Woman" in the 60's evry guy wanted to see her, and every girl wanted to be her. The purest most enchanting voice ever!

    October 1, 2008 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ray C

    As a new parents, the wife and I spent many nights pacing the floor, handing a screaming child to each other in an effort to placate a colic child. We spent four months in a zombified state, on edge and the verge of a breakdown.
    Then one night Roy Orbison's Dream Baby came on the radio, laughing hysterically at the irony, we almost failed to notice the crying had stopped. I went out the next day bought Roy's greatest hits CD, bliss oh bliss, his velvet voice was the only thing that seemed to calm our child and we finally were able to sleep!

    October 1, 2008 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mike from NYC

    Few musical artists can compare to Roy Orbison. Roy's music and his sound inspired many, many artists much in the way the Beatles and Buddy Holly did. There is no artist today who has or will have the same lasting effect that Roy did. Long live the KING!

    October 1, 2008 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Ken

    Orbison was a genius and a study in contradictions. That beautiful voice never faded despite his cigarette habit, just quavered a little more. Most people don't realise that the high notes in his songs were all done in full voice, not falsetto. He lived a full, if extremely tragic life. The only voice that has ever come close is KD Laing. It's fitting that her version of "Crying" is as monumental as the career of Orbison himself.

    October 1, 2008 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Sandy

    Yes. I agree about Roy Orbison. But don't forget Elvis . . . his voice was pure, strong and the likes of which we had not seen and will not see again.

    October 1, 2008 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. J S Ragman

    I was lucky enough to see Roy Orbison twice in the early 80's. He performed in a small night club in Houston named Rockefeller's. The place only held about 200 (including a wrap around balcony) so every seat in the house was pretty darn close to the stage. I went to a lot of concert's in my youth and both of his were right up there with the best. He had very little stage presence but with a voice like his, it was not necessary. Sadly, Mr. Orbison died way to young.

    October 1, 2008 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Ed B.

    Our family was visiting Nashville in the mid to late 60's, I was about 10 years old, and just was learning to play guitar. While sight seeing in Nashville, we happened ( by luck) to run across Roy's home, he was in the driveway changing a flat tire on his car, of course we stopped and my dad helped him change the flat. I told him I was just learning to play guitar, and he grabbed a guitar out of his car, and started in to "Pretty Woman" WOWWWWW ! Then he let me play his guitar. That gave me more incentive to play and to this day, I still play and I have the pick he gave me. Rock on Roy !!!!!!!

    October 1, 2008 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  17. LBW

    He still makes my friend cry when he hears him. He was a time when music told stories and had sweet melody. Today's music is so angry and loud. It does my heart good when Hollywood can reach back and remember.

    October 1, 2008 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Stefano

    Andy F. You obvioulsy didn't read this article very well. He didn't trash the movie at all. He simply felt that Roy's song at the end was an effective choice for the film. He says it was a mixed bag, maybe that means he didn't love the film, but really liked that ending. That is hardly trashing the movie and he most certainly wasn't commenting on You. Maybe some therapy would help that chip on your shoulder.

    October 1, 2008 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Fletch

    I loved "Less Than Zero" – for the soundtrack and the movie (as disturbing as it was at times). Both were well done and such a timecapsule for what the 80's were.

    Where I take issue with the movie is any correlation that can be made between it and the Bret Easton Ellis book on which it was based. The characters were quite different, their relationships with each other was different, and the storyline went in different directions. What started as a shock novel ended up becoming a propaganda film for the "Just Say No" campaign.

    It was years after the movie that I read the book, and I wish I never had. It was so graphic, so brutal. It was twisted in ways that I hope are truly JUST fiction. I won't play spoiler for those who haven't read it. Those of you that HAVE read it know exactly what I am talking about.

    If the movie is what you lived, AndyF, that's one thing. I certainly hope no one in Los Angeles was really living life the way as the book portrayed things. Rumor has it that Tarrantino is talking about doing a more faithful adaptation of the book. That would be right up his alley.

    October 1, 2008 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  20. A. R.

    It should be noted that Rick Rubin asked Glenn Danzig of The Misfits, and later his own band, Danzig, (of which Rick produced the eponymous first album), to write a song for Roy. The result was "Life Fades Away".

    Punks never get their dues.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Sam B

    I second your remarks Todd. Roy Orbison had the most incredible voice in rock and roll, and I sadly doubt that we will ever hear the likes of him again. Like Springsteen, I always thought Orbison's voice had a very ethereal quality to it. It is no coincidence that at this very moment there's a copy of the Traveling Wilburys CD in the player in my car. I frequently play Orbison's vocal part on "Handle With Care" over and over because it's amazing how beautifully only 21 words can be expressed in song.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Elvis Costanza

    I had the extremely good fortune to see Roy at one of his last shows. He and his band were in top form and I have been to MANY shows and never seen one like this. It transcended mere 'entertainment' and became a very profound emotional experience for everyone present. Roy stood perfectly still and sent that magical voice out over the crowd like a spell. We were crying and laughing and it was just incredible. Several times as the songs built to climax we found we were up on our feet without consciously standing up. Even Roy's band was looking at him in awe. His songs are short and extremely concise so when he played some of them twice in a row no one minded. I've never seen anything like it and it's one of my most treasured memories. There is an excellent documentary on his life, the title escapes me, but it is worth searching it out. There will never be another like Roy. What a life, what a voice, what a human being.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Susan

    I am 49 years old and I grew up listening to Roy Orbison because my dad was a fan and had many of his albums. The songs are timeless, and the voice is pure. There' s not another like him.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Carmen Rivers

    This is a first for me. I do not respond to internet news, blogs or comments. However, as a devout Roy Orbison fan, Mr. Leopold said it all with his final comment 'What songs, What a man. What a voice.'

    I grew up in the rock & roll era, with both country (my dad) and opera my mom) played in our home. There isn't a lot of music that I don't appreciate, but Roy's voice always held me captive.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  25. AndyF

    If you had lived in LA in the 80's (as I did) you would understand that "Less than Zero" was a great, complete, and well-done movie. Sure the ending song by Roy was great – but the movie itself was a marker for just the kind of times, directions and disillusionment that was LA in the early 80's. Dont trash a movie that you have no clue applies to those of us who lived in that life.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Jeffrey Thames [King of Grief]

    No arguments about your Orbison testimony here...but the Rundgren-produced version of "Whispering Your Name" being all wrong? Horse spit, to paraphrase McCain. That's always been one of my favorite Todd productions and I still can't understand why it wasn't a hit. It would have been awesome to hear Roy tackle it, though.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  27. davelway7

    Roy Orbison is simply "The Voice" he will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. He was a kind, humble, man who simply wanted to be remembered. He is not only remembered but revered. Mystery Girl, the album that was soon to be released when he died, contains the song "The Comedians", amazing, hearfelt, will bring a tear to your eye.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  28. Mikef

    Orbison was underappreciated in life and in death his voice is other worldly. Cruelly was he taken, yet records can give us a sense for his artistry. One of the acts I wish I'd seen, His voice still causes the hair on my neck to rise.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  29. Eric Sorensen

    Todd, Roy Orbison was one of a kind ... but there is a "next best thing" in the personna of Raul Malo (former lead vocalist for the Mavericks). Malo almost always includes an Orbison song in his solo set list, and there isn't a dry eye in the house when Raul sings "Crying." It's as if he is channeling Roy. Check out the Mavericks' hit song "I Should Have Been True" or Raul's version of J.D. Souther's "You're Only Lonely" ... and you'll feel a tug at your Orbison heartstrings!

    October 1, 2008 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  30. cheryl garrett

    Roy Orbison was one of a kind, his music could take you to places inside yourself that you did not know existed.

    October 1, 2008 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  31. Paul

    I had the honor of seeing him perform in what would turn out to be one of his last shows, a double bill with the Beach Boys in 1988. His voice filled the outdoor pavilion with a power unequaled. "Crying" truly brought down the house, with two standing ovations!

    October 1, 2008 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |

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