Roy Orbison

“This is making me tense.”

It’s the most feared phrase in any shared listening environment.

It strikes when you least expect it, when Luciano Pavarotti is singing “Nessun Dorma,” or when James Taylor is rocking “Sweet Baby James.” You never know. Certain things just hit people the wrong way.

I’m writing to you from my family’s beach week, which was the setting for the Great Orbison Showdown. There is some debate over the peripheral details, like how long ago it took place, where on the Outer Banks the rental house was located that year, and exactly how many times Roy Orbison’s Black and White Night concert DVD was played, but the words themselves are etched into my memory like footsteps on the moon:

“This is making me tense.” 

My mom had the cojones to drop the “tense” bomb on one of the smoothest crooners ever to have walked the planet Earth. It was dramatic, to say the least, and I don’t think Mr. Orbison has made an appearance at beach week since. I guess I can understand where she was coming from; anything played too many times can become grating, and Orbison’s voice packs enough vibrato to make Joan Baez blush (OK, maybe not that much). Nevertheless, those of us on Team Orbison found it funny that one of the most gifted singers in the history of American music could have inspired that reaction.

I never really thought about it until now, but maybe he belongs in the Bob Dylan Honorary Love-It-Or-Hate-It Hall of Vocal Fame/Infamy, along with noted members Neil Young, Tom Waits, and Thom Yorke. It’s a shame though, because Orbison stands head and shoulders above that lot in terms of ability (some people say he had a four-octave range, which isn’t quite Mariah Carey territory, but it’s close). Decide for yourself by watching his performance of “In Dreams” from the Black and White Night concert above, or by listening to the audio below.

While you do that, I’m gonna go sneak some Orbison on the dinner hour playlist.

Roy Orbison — “In Dreams” [Spotify/iTunes]

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