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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.

My Top Ten Favorite Songwriters of All Time: #10 - Chuck Berry 

I've decided to try something new. I'm going to go through an ordered list of my top ten personal favorite songwriters of all time! The list will be presented in reverse order, beginning with my tenth favorite and concluding with my absolute favorite songwriter of all time! It has been and interesting exercise to determine who my list would contain, and in what order. In contemplating it, I realized that I actually needed to consider TWO different lists: one of the greatest individual songwriters, and one of the greatest songwriting teams. That second list will follow this first one. In the interests of cleanliness, no one would be allowed to be on both lists. If a favorite songwriter of mine principally or significantly wrote as part of a team, they could only be considered as part of the favorite songwriter teams list. Hopefully that's clear, and without further ado, my 10th favorite songwriter of all time is....Chuck Berry!

 

Chuck Berry 1957

 

Chuck Berry was a tremendous innovator and pioneer of Rock and Roll. It was his guitar bravado and showmanship that cemented his stature as one of the prime architects of rock and roll, but it is his legacy as practically the arbiter of what an early rock and roll song should be about that truly defines his influence. A canonical definition of rock and roll at its birth was that it was a merging of black and white music which until the mid-50's had been kept separate and definitely not equal. Elvis sang R&B songs that sounded a little bit county, and country songs that sounded a little bit like R&B. Though it doesn't seem obvious to modern ears, Chuck Berry wrote and performed songs built around a pretty standard R&B framework that he goosed up and injected with just a dash of white country feel. 

But nothing - nothing - could be more emblematic of Chuck Berries songs than their thematic content. In the 1950's American dreamscape that Berry conjured so effectively that you knew you'd been there, school bells rang, jukeboxes played, kids danced, cars took to the open road, and hamburgers sizzled on a hot grill night and day. As artistic as his lyrics could be (check their influence on later artists that you may have heard of - John Lennon and Bob Dylan are only two  - if you doubt it), the topics that Chuck weaved and spun so expertly into songs were intended to appeal to a wide commercial audience, white as well as black. At their best they painted a portrait, and told a story; one so vivid and authentic that the listener couldn't help but identify with it. As John Lennon once remarked, it you wanted to call rock and roll by another name, you could call it Chuck Berry. So all hail, hail, Chuck Berry.

 

 

Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday 

 

One of the songs on the upcoming new album is Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday, a number written in 1966 by Ron Miller and Bryan Wells. It was recorded and released that year by Motown blue-eyed soul singer Chris Clark, but it found success as a 1969 single by fellow Motown artist Stevie Wonder.

It reached #7 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and went to #2 in the UK. 

I've always loved Stevie's version, but I got really inspired when I listened to the original by Chris Clark. I just love that classic Motown sound! 

My version can't compare with those of these two brilliant and talented artists, but it was done in a spirit of tribute to Motown.