The corporeal existence of the singer who started out as a rockabilly madman doing such material as "Go! Go! Go!" and "Ooby Dooby" now seems as remote as the facts of Shakespeare's life, although we know Orbison liked motorcycles and seems to have been bemused by the use of his song, "In Dreams," during a particularly menacing sequence of David Lynch's 1986 Blue Velvet. Orbison wasn't a rockabilly artist in the same vein as Jerry Lee Lewis or Carl Perkin — the Texas singer was a natural romantic, and needed a soft cushion to support him.
For prime Orbison, you go to such pieces of Nashville-produced pop psychodrama as 1959's "Uptown," a record that begins with a piano imitating a ringing phone. In this era, Orbison cut such amazing pieces of plush neurosis as "Lana" and "Blue Angel." Background singers run riot, but it's all in service of a lushness that Orbison's famed vibrato and extra-terrestial range only made stranger. Ten years before Billy Sherrill did much the same thing with Tammy Wynette and George Jones, Orbison's mid-'60s Monument recordings put the '50s back into the '60s — there's a sense that Orbison is trapped inside an overly decorated suburban tract house, and those background singers are lurking around the swimming pool.
Orbison's resurgence in the '80s was deserved — what artist doesn't appreciate a reappraisal of his classic work? The singer still had infinite repose, uncanny stillness, and that big, Texas-style baritone yearning for perfection that never arrives. The sound of his voice was beyond country music, and suggested that the plushness of the '50s was once again a desirable goal in the decade of Huey Lewis. Orbison remains one of the great, inexplicable rock 'n' roll stars. Let's hope the mystery endures forever.