5 Tear-Stained Tunes That Prove Nobody Sang Weepers Like Roy Orbison

By combining a voice with operatic scope with the relatable concerns of pop songs, Roy Orbison set the standard for the “weeper.” And quite frankly, he set the bar so ridiculously high that few have managed to get within shouting distance of it. 

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In the early days, he even helped to write these songs, creating those melodies that soared ever skyward. Later in his career, he teamed up with younger collaborators who might have put the words in his mouth, but otherwise left the emotional heavy lifting to the singer. Here are five examples of Roy Orbison’s ability to leave us happily wallowing in our tears.

1. ”Crying” (1961)

Orbison’s first big hit, “Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel)” (1960), traded in sorrowful lyrics, but didn’t quite let the singer indulge in the vocal acrobatics for which he would become known. “Crying,” which he wrote with his collaborator Joe Melson, solved that problem. Notice how it wisely reserves the most explosive vocals until the end.

In the first chorus, Orbison actually sinks into a lower register, which demonstrates his character’s dejection. As the song comes to a close, however, he can no longer hold in his torment about seeing his ex with another man. The bolero rhythm, which would become a kind of trademark of these Orbison songs, is deployed at the end to wring every last bit of drama out of the situation. What a stunner of a performance, one that Orbison was able to repeat note-for-note in live performances right up until his death.

2. “In Dreams” (1963)

Before we even get to the vocals, can we talk about the unique structure of this classic, which Orbison wrote all by himself after hearing the melody, fittingly enough, in a dream? There’s no telling where the song is going to go at any time, a quality that separated it from the relatively straightforward structures of so many pop songs of that era. And how about the somewhat spooky image of a “candy-colored clown they call the sandman” at the beginning of the song?

“In Dreams” drips with these little idiosyncrasies, which is perhaps why David Lynch saw it as such a fitting song to adorn his darkly surreal masterpiece film Blue Velvet. None of that weirdness masks the heartbreak or cruelty of the narrator’s fate, one that sees him only achieve bliss in dreams of his past, a notion that Orbison punches home with cathartic gusto in the final notes.

3. “It’s Over” (1964)

There’s something about the martial beat of this hit, written by Orbison and Bill Dees, that suggests a kind of bravery. That’s in tune with the lyrics, where Orbison this time plays heartbreak advisor to someone else, explaining to them that all they’re experiencing is a byproduct of their love’s departure. Thus, he suggests that even in the middle of the devastation, there’s a minor victory in being able to admit the truth and face the end with dignity. It’s right there in the plain-as-day opening line (Your baby doesn’t love you anymore), caressed with gentility by Orbison, and in the repeated refrain, which is belted out with increasing urgency by the singer. Listen to the man; based on past songs, he’s an expert in this stuff.

4. “Not Alone Anymore” (with the Traveling Wilburys, 1988)

Orbison was putting together what would be his final solo album when he was pulled into the orbit of the Traveling Wilburys. To their credit, on an album that was all about trading vocals, they included one song that would be Orbison’s alone (save for backing vocals by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne) and that would dial up the sorrow. Lynne served as principal writer for “Not Alone Anymore,” and, as producer, managed to update Orbison’s classic sound via the use of swooping synth strings and an insistent mid-tempo beat. From there, he let Orbison do his thing, as he embodies a narrator who has taken his love for granted and now finds ultimate gloom when he realizes it’s too late to get her back. The closing seconds of the song, with Jim Keltner’s drums crashing all around Orbison’s ever-anguished squeals, reach an absolutely breathtaking pinnacle.

[RELATED: Behind the Song: Roy Orbison, “Running Scared”]

5. “The Comedians” (1989)

If all you knew were Orbison’s version, you’d hardly recognize Elvis Costello’s original take of this song, which he released on his 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World. It features dramatically different lyrics and rhythmic sensibilities. To help it fit Orbison, Costello imbued it with a “Running Scared”-style rhythm. Leaving the words in the chorus intact, he changed the verses to depict an amusement park scene, one where the narrator is alone on a Ferris wheel watching his lover hitting it off with another man 100 feet below. It’s an overly dramatic situation that Orbison manages to humanize with the ache in his vocals. The way the song lets him repeat key phrases (such as Walk away) lets him double down on the hurt. It’s amazing to hear how this song transformed, thanks both to Costello’s cleverness and Orbison’s towering presence on the microphone.

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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