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The Songs of Roy Orbison

Getty Images / NBC/NBCU Photo Bank / Reggie Lewis

The Songs of Roy Orbison

Rock legend Roy Orbison died Dec. 6, 1988. Today we take a look at the afterlife of his signature tunes.

Only The Lonely
Orbison’s first big hit, the song was released on March 25, 1960 and reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts before going to No. 1 in Great Britain. Co-written by frequent Orbison collaborator Joe Melson, the song helped transform Orbison from a straight-up rockabilly performer into an introspective balladeer. It's credited with being the first operatic rock ballad to chart, and its success also led Elvis Presley to record the similar-sounding “It’s Now or Never.” Rolling Stone magazine ranks the song among the Top 500 of all time. Country singer Sonny James charted with the tune 9 years later, and Bruce Springsteen referenced the song in his 1975 “Thunder Road.”

Running Scared
Orbison’s first U.S. No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 came in March 1961 with the release of “Running Scared.” Another collaboration with Joe Melson, it is cited as being the first bolero style (think slow-tempo Latin) rock song. It kept its top spot on the charts only one week before being knocked off by "Moody River" from Pat Boone (Orbison's former college classmate).

Another collaboration with Melson, “Crying” was released in July of 1961 and also made it to No. 2 on the American charts. The song hit No. 5 in 1980 with Don Maclean's cover. Like “Only the Lonely,” the song also later charted as a country tune in 1987, this time as a duet with Orbison and k.d. lang. Director and Orbison-obsessive David Lynch also used a haunting Spanish language version of the song delivered by Rebekah Del Rio as the dramatic centerpiece of his 2001 surreal Hollywood masterpiece Mulholland Drive.

In Dreams
David Lynch used this song in Blue Velvet, but we’ll spare you clips of Dennis Hopper as psychotic Frank Booth reciting the song between hits of nitrous oxide and pummelings of young Jeffrey Beaumont. Orbison claimed he first heard “In Dreams” in, well, a dream he was having, wherein he was listening to the radio and a DJ had just announced it as Elvis Presley’s new single. Orbison then woke up, and wrote the entire song in 20 minutes.

Shortly after its 1963 release, Roy Orbison found himself on tour in Britain with a young new band called The Beatles. Initially they were to open, but in between the time the tour was booked and its commencement, Beatlemania hit hard and Orbison agreed to cede his place as the top billed act.

And what, by the way, did Orbison think of David Lynch’s strange repurposing of his song in Blue Velvet in 1985? At first he hated what Lynch had done (the director never sought Orbison’s permission) but when its inclusion in the soundtrack helped re-launch Orbison’s then-dormant career, he got over it.

Oh, Pretty Woman
Ever notice how many Roy Orbison songs became movie titles? Well, add this one to the list. Better known as just “Pretty Woman,” this 1964 hit was co-written by Bill Dees, who also wrote for Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Glen Campbell. The song was honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 and was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” “Pretty Woman” has been covered by a slew of artists ranging from Green Day to Al Green, with the most famous cover version probably being Van Halen’s, a rendition later included in the Guitar Hero video game.

The song was also subject of a lawsuit by Orbison’s publishing company against 2 Live Crew, who sampled it in a parody version. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in what became a milestone expansion of fair use doctrine. To our knowledge, this is the only case ever adjudicated by the highest court in the land to feature defendants who went by names like Fresh Kid Ice, Mr. Mixx and Brother Marquis. The Justices ultimately ruled on the side of the parodists.

And of course, the song was given new life in Garry Marshall's 1990 film “Pretty Woman” starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Here Orbison performs the song with Johnny Cash on television in 1969.