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Roy Orbison’s Pop Legacy of Greatness

Roy Orbison sang about loneliness and heartache with an intensity and poignancy perhaps unequalled in rock--and his death leaves the rock world itself a little lonelier. The only thing about Orbison that overshadowed his greatness was his niceness.

In a field where gimmick and swagger often contribute to stardom as much as talent, Orbison was a singer who earned his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His best-known hits, including “Only the Lonely” and “Running Scared,” are among the most majestic and affecting records ever made.

It was Orbison’s artistry that was saluted on a January night in 1987 when the man once called the “Caruso of Rock” was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

In a touching induction speech, Bruce Springsteen told how he so admired Orbison’s music that he rode for 15 hours in the back of a U-Haul truck in 1970 so that he could open for the veteran singer in Nashville.

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When Springsteen went into the studio four years later to record his classic “Born to Run” album, he said he played Orbison’s greatest-hits album over and over for inspiration.

About “Born to Run,” he added, “I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector, but most of all I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison.”

Other artists--from the Eagles’ Don Henley and U2’s Bono Hewson to Paul McCartney and Tom Petty--have also spoken over the years with equal fervor about what Orbison’s music meant to them.

But it was invariably Orbison’s humility and sweetness--words rarely applied to pop stars--that these same artists cited after meeting the shy, soft-spoken man who died Tuesday of a heart attack in Nashville.

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Those traits were on display in September, 1987, when more than a dozen of the most acclaimed figures in rock paid tribute to Orbison in a concert at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. The event, filmed for a cable TV special, featured a cast that included Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, J. D. Souther and Jennifer Warnes.

At a rehearsal the night before the concert, the musicians were tense. They knew the special could be an important step in renewing interest in Orbison, who had been out of the pop spotlight for years--and they wanted to give him the best possible support. But the backup singers were coming in at the wrong spots and the battery of guitarists searched awkwardly for their place in the songs.

Orbison sensed their anxiety and called them together during a break.

“The main thing for me (about) this show is that it’s a thrill for me that you guys are (even) here. . . . I’m grateful that you came by to help me out.”

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The words weren’t a psychological ploy to make the musicians relax; Orbison meant them.

“This has got to be one of the greatest moments in my life,” Orbison said backstage the night of the Grove concert. “I’m so grateful. It has been an up for me ever since the Hall of Fame.

“It has been unbelievable. You know, there was a time in the ‘70s when I wondered if people still cared about my music at all.”

Before heading to a reception, he paused and added, “It’s funny. For years, it was hard for me to appreciate something until a few days later. There was always this distance. But that distance is not there. I’m enjoying this now . Everything finally feels in sync.”

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Things continued in sync for Orbison. He joined Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty in a good-natured “supergroup” album project--the Traveling Wilburys--that has just moved into the national Top 10.

More importantly, he was looking forward to the release in February of his first album of new material in more than a decade. Titled “Mystery Girl,” the album will feature songs written for Orbison by Hewson and Costello--as well as some Orbison originals.

For those who knew Orbison, however, it’s going to be hard to listen to that album. The new songs will enable us to again sample Orbison’s artistry, but they won’t bring back his gentleness and warmth.

Ironically, Orbison’s friends may find comfort in his early recordings. There’s something reassuring about listening to someone who sings about longing with as much feeling as Orbison. It makes you feel less alone--like other people have been through the bad times and survived:

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Only the lonely

Know the way I feel tonight


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