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My Top Ten Favorite Songwriters of All Time: #8 - Roy Orbison 

Roy is tied - with Sam Cooke - for my all-time favorite male vocalist, but he makes my list of songwriters because he wrote some pretty classic material. Songs like "Pretty Woman", "Only The Lonely", and "Crying" all have their well-deserved place in the pantheon of early Rock and Roll fame. But Orbison's songs were very unique. They often featured complex, non-repeating structures woven into dark, emotional ballads. In an era when most male performers adopted a bravado of strong masculinity, Orbison's songs typically conveyed vulnerability. Very little that Roy did was done "by the book", but much of it was legendary, making him a true, one-off original. Not to mention a genius.

1965 Roy Orbison

Roy Vernon Orbison came from the dusty, depression-era plains of Texas. For his sixth birthday he was given a guitar, and he later recalled that by the time he reached the age of seven, he knew that music would be his life. His youthful influences were centered around country music, but he was also exposed to healthy doses of latin, creole and rhythm and blues music at an early age. As a teenager, he saw Elvis Presley - only a year older than himself - performing in Odessa, Texas. Johnny Cash came through in 1955, and suggested to Orbison that he should approach Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, the label of Presley, Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was on Sun that his first single - "Ooby Dooby" - was released in 1956 and enjoyed some moderate success. For the last years of the 50's, Roy largely made his living as a songwriter, under contract with Acuff-Rose Music. He wrote "Claudette" (about his soon to be wife) which the Everly Brothers recorded for the B-side of their enormous #1 1957 single, "All I Have To Do Is Dream". But success as a songwriter and especially as a performer eluded him. A producer at Sun, Jack Clement, informed Orbison that he would never make it as a ballad singer.

Roy Orbison (1965)

But by 1960, his sound - and his voice - seemed to come of age. He had developed a powerful falsetto, one that continues to amaze almost 60 years later. With that as a focal point embedded in a new "Nashville sound" backing, his single "Only The Lonely" zoomed to #2 on the charts. When Elvis himself first heard it, he bought a case of the 45's to distribute among his friends. Having found success, Roy continued to mine that vein. Usually collaborating, Orbison came up with songs like "Running Scared", "Crying", "It's Over" and "Pretty Woman". Not only did Roy become huge in the US, he was perhaps even bigger in the UK. In 1963 he toured the UK sharing top billing with the Beatles, who were still largely unknown in America. The young English musicians were intimidated and inspired by his talent and the effect it had on adoring fans.

Orbison1987

As time went forward, Roy Orbison's career declined, but he never went away. By the mid-80's, with David Lynch's seminal 1986 film "Blue Velvet" featuring the Orbison classic "In Dreams", Roy began an epic comeback. In 1987 he was inducted into both the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But all the glory of his long career was not yet behind him. By 1988, he was working with Jeff Lynne's support as a producer on a new album. This led to collaborating with Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty on the incredible Traveling Wilburys project. His solo album, "Mystery Girl", produced the hit "You Got It', written with Lynne and Petty. Roy Orbison was back in high demand. "It's very nice to be wanted again, but I still can't believe it," he said. That December, exhausted from a full work schedule and with his health noticeably declining, Orbison suffered a heart attack and was gone at the age of 52.

Roy Orbison

Roy is correctly remembered as a Rock and Roll pioneer, but in both his songwriting and his performing styles he was sui generis, defying convention. There simply is nobody else like him. A New York Times writer, reviewing him in concert wrote "He has perfected an odd vision of popular music, one in which eccentricity and imagination beat back all the pressures toward conformity". Each of his songs seemed to follow a separate structure, eschewing the standard 32-bar form of alternating and repeating verse and chorus. His ballads usually included themes reflecting pain, loss, and dreaming. He was careful in concert to intersperse more typically bravado, up-tempo rockers in-between these ballads to avoid appearing too bleak and grim. His songs could almost be short stories. "I saw you last night, you held my hand so tight, as you stopped to say hello..." He used emotion - and drama - to drive his points home. One music critic has termed it "apocalyptic romanticism". Now THAT's something that I'd like to aspire to in my own efforts!!

Stephen Thompson of NPR has said "Roy Orbison didn't just sing beautifully—he sang brokenheartedly". But when it comes to his songwriting as well as his artistry, maybe it was the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, who described it the best, in his 2012 SXSW Keynote Address: "[Roy Orbison] was the true master of the romantic apocalypse you dreaded and knew was coming after the first night you whispered 'I Love You' to your first girlfriend. You were going down. Roy was the coolest uncool loser you'd ever seen. With his Coke-bottle black glasses, his three-octave range, he seemed to take joy sticking his knife deep into the hot belly of your teenage insecurities." All I know is that it's impossible to feel completely lonely whenever Roy Orbison is playing somewhere in the background.

My Top Ten Favorite Songwriters of All Time: #9 - Pat DiNizio 

Pat DiNizio is probably the least known name to make my list. And that's too bad. Because Pat knew how to write a song. He wrote about love, life, and heartbreak. For 30 years or more, he made a living off of his music. But in the end, Pat DiNizio never really got the recognition he deserved. 

PatDiNizio

Patrick Michael DeNizo was a native son of New Jersey, from the township of Scotch Plains. From an early age, he had a passion for rock and roll music - such and early age, in fact, that at 9 years of age he became a fan of the Beatles. That may not seem very noteworthy, but realize that at that time, the Beatles had yet to appear on Ed Sullivan and were known to very few in America. Another artist that he admired as a boy was Buddy Holly. Both Holly and the British Invasion-leading Beatles would remain as seminal influences. But in truth, he pretty much loved all rock music, from the Who to Black Sabbath, the Beach Boys and Frank  Zappa.

Pat found his own niche with his band, The Smithereens, for which he served as lead singer and songwriter. I first heard them as a 20 year-old college student in 1988 and immediately liked their retro and classic-rock guitar driven sound and the catchy pop hooks of their songs. Catchy pop hooks were a specialty of Pat's. His lyrics tended to appeal to me personally and temperamentally with recurring themes of alienation, loss, and one-sided devotion liberally sprinkled throughout. "I'm in a lonely place without you", he wrote. "In the world of pain I have no peer". That's bleak stuff. But his tunes weren't bleak or dreary at all. Like his idol Holly, he was able to come across as remarkably overcoming when he sang about how he wouldn't be able to obtain happiness or togetherness with the objects of his affection.  One thing that always came through loud and clear was his love for, his adulation of, his absolute commitment to music.

Between 1986 and 1989 The Smithereens put out 3 very successful albums. Their music appeared in movie soundtracks and videos in heavy rotation on MTV. Their biggest hit on the charts came from 1989's "Girl Like You". But the music landscape changed quickly, and they lost what support they had gotten from their record label after grunge appeared on the scene. The Smithereens, and Pat, faded quickly from relevancy. "But we had a long walk in the sun" Pat said in describing why he and his band continued on. Plus he had never really established any other trade. Pat found a way for them to continue to record and release albums throughout the following decades. He made money by going on a tour of hosted house parties in fans' living rooms. He made short films. He lived, like he made music, large. 

Pat DiNizio passed away in late 2017. I'm glad to say that The Smithereens are continuing on without pretense that there could ever be any replacing of their man up front. He left behind a remarkable body of work, and catalog of songs. It's not only a memory.

The Day The Music Died 

A long long time ago 
I can still remember how 
That music used to make me smile 
And I knew if I had my chance 
That I could make those people dance 
And maybe they'd be happy for a while

-Don McLean, American Pie (Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group)

Oh how I've always related to the opening verse of American Pie. I too, like Don McLean, can still remember way back to a long long time ago, when that music used to make me smile. For whatever reasons such things are, I have no fonder memories than those of listening to the music coming out of our family stereo system on Sunday mornings when I was really young. This goes back to exactly the time when American Pie was a hit on the record charts. And, more often than not, the songs that were on the reel-to-reel tape deck or the turntable in our living room back then were precisely from the era of music that is evoked in McLean's classic hit song. Beginning sometime not later than the mid-1950's, the new and overly vigorous American art form of Rock & Roll, broadly defined, enjoyed a monumental first fifteen or twenty years of existence. From the early years of the initial fusion of black rhythm and blues with white country music, the arrival of fundamental geniuses such as Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, through to the explosive spark of the rise of Elvis, the arrival of Dylan, the British Invasion of The Beatles and The Stones, and on into the music of the turbulent and radically changing late 60's and 70's, the era of what we now call "Classic Rock"...this was the music that formed the soundtrack for the times in which post-war America reached its apogee, and then slowly began the subsequent unraveling which inevitably follows such a cycle in history. In reference to myself personally, this was the music of my parents' generation, the ubiquitous Baby Boom generation. 

And, one again, like Mr. McLean, I also dreamed back in those days of imaginative youth that one day - given my chance - I could make people dance, and hopefully help play a part in their happiness, at least for a little while. 

As the years trickled by and I entered both the 1980's and adolescence, I chased the siren call of those early dreams. I picked up a guitar and tried to learn how to play it. I explored the craft of songwriting. And, in time, I experienced I guess you could say the fulfillment of my prophecy of playing music for the enjoyment of people who could, on occasion, indeed be induced to dance. And though it was a huge part of almost ten years of my life, all that came to an end a long time ago. We're talking like the early 90's. Thinking about how long ago that was really puts in perspective for me just how far back we have to reach into history to arrive at the "long long time ago" of American Pie. It would seem a foregone conclusion that the music from that period of time must seem as relevant and interesting to today's youth as a boring, dry lecture in history class. That doesn't seem very rock and roll to me. I endeavor very much as an artist attempting to create new, original music to do so while drawing from the toolbox that was assembled back in the days of the golden oldies and classic, timeless rock and roll music. I paint on a musical canvas with a palette of primary colors that has been passed down, as if from gods on high, by our musical forebears. In attempting to create something new, I hope to imbue my work with the same timeless and universal tint as they did theirs. The music may have died many times in days past, but long live rock and roll.

A long long time ago is gone, but today, as in those times of old, I have a dream of the future. I dream that "that music" won't just be swallowed up and forgotten by time, but that it will live on... in the hearts and souls of new generations of fans, legions of young adherents to that sacred church of Rock and Roll, yearning for a baptism in promise that music can, indeed, save their "mortal souls". But maybe in the midst of all this spiritual euphoria, I should not fail to recall how McLean's epic song ends. With the narrator lamenting that the three men he admired the most, the "father, son and the holy ghost...they caught the last train for the coast...the day the music died."