Back in the early 1960s, I often found myself at the Fair Lawn Star Diner on Route 4 in North Jersey. It was conveniently located about half way between the east side of Paterson and Paramus, NJ, which was home to some of the very first shopping malls in the country. There in the diner, at the far end of each booth, sat a magic silver and glass box. It contained page after page of current song titles, a coin slot and a speaker, and the red and white alphabetical and numerical buttons that would mysteriously place the 45rpm record of your choice on the turntable of an unseen juke box, and play it through the speaker where you sat.
It was a few years after I’d started playing the drums and I was already hooked for life on the way popular music made me feel. But sitting there in that booth, at the rate of three plays for a quarter, I was transfixed by the drama and passion of the songs performed by one artist by the name of Roy Orbison. I’d pump those quarters into the slot and listen to him sing “Only the Lonely”, “Crying”, “Running Scared”, “In Dreams”, and “It’s Over”, over and over again. Each song began low and soft…then gradually built to an amazing crescendo with Roy’s astonishing voice soaring beyond all human expectation, and the drums pounding…boom…boom boom boom boom….boom boom boom boom! The effect was mesmerizing.
Some fifteen or twenty years later, when Bruce Springsteen spoke about what he most hoped to achieve when he began writing and recording, he listed three goals. He wanted to write like Bob Dylan, emulate Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production, and sing like Roy Orbison. Some could make an argument that he achieved the first two. Chris Isaak made a career of his respectful and respectable attempt to emulate Roy. I even gave it a try, doing my best Roy Orbison voice on two of my own songs “Heading Down the Shore” and "Driving by the Light of the Moon"…but no one could ever sing with the power, majesty and range that Roy did so effortlessly, song after song.
Roy was a great songwriter, too. His songs were largely about heartache and vulnerability, and after his meteoric rise during the first half of the Sixties, Roy suffered more heartache in his life than anyone should have to endure when, in 1966, his wife Claudette was killed in a motorcycle accident and, in 1968, his two oldest sons were killed in a house fire. But, in the Eighties, Roy made a comeback that included winning a Grammy for a duet with Emmylou Harris, then there was the success of Van Halen’s remake of Roy’s number one song “Oh, Pretty Woman”, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, ultimately joining George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne to form “The Travelling Wilburys”.
Roy was on tour in 1988 and I was really looking forward to seeing him when, word was, he would be coming to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, PA. But tragedy struck once more when Roy died of a heart attack on December 6, 1988 at the age of 52. But today is Roy’s birthday, and what a great day that is for music and all who love it... for, when Roy sang, it was more than just music…it was magic!