How Roy Orbison Got Reject By Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers
Roy Orbison for Black and White Night - RoyOrbison / Youtube
Roy Orbison, a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, possessed remarkable musical prowess. However, it was his distinctive baritone vocal timbre and his unique approach to melancholic songwriting that made an enduring impression on the landscape of American rock and pop music.
Amongst rock ‘n’ roll’s founding figures, Orbison stood apart from the rest. While Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard exuded self-confidence through piano pounding, Elvis Presley had his alluring hip-shaking swagger, and Chuck Berry boasted unparalleled guitar riffs and his iconic duck walk, Orbison had a distinct presence.
Orbison fearlessly delved into themes of fear, anxiety, loss, and insecurity in his music. Orbison’s song titles alone paint a poignant picture: “Crying,” “Only the Lonely”, “Running Scared”, and “Crawling Back”.
These emotions were probably what The Big O felt when a song he created in 1960 was rejected not only by The Everly Brothers but also by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself, Elvis.
Before it became a hit, “Only The Lonely” was rejected twice
Before it became Orbison’s first major hit, “Only The Lonely” was a song he wrote along with his friend Joe Melson. A string of unsuccessful songs, and a growing family living in a tiny apartment, pushed Roy to just sell his newly crafted song to Presley and the Everly Brothers.
But these artists turned it down. As for Elvis, despite his inclination towards performance rather than songwriting, he never lacked a pool of eager songwriters.
Orbison saw Presley as the perfect singer to interpret “Only The Lonely”, so he made his move when the King came back from military service.
After making contact with Presley, however, he was disheartened to receive a polite rejection. Unfortunately, Orbison encountered a similar response when he pitched the song to The Everly Brothers. Ultimately, Orbison decided to sing and release the track as a single on his own in May 1960.
So he recorded the song himself and turned it into a hit
The songwriting pair believed they had something good on their hands. Paired with the groundbreaking sound they had just created with a previous minor hit that broke the Top 100, they knew they could do it.
Undeterred by the rejections, Orbison and Melson decided to record “Only the Lonely” themselves at RCA’s Nashville studio. They enlisted a string section and doo-wop backing singers, which had previously contributed to the impressive sound of “Uptown”.
However, this time, sound engineer Bill Porter employed a novel approach, constructing the mix from the top down instead of the traditional bottom-up approach. He began with close-miked backing vocals in the foreground and concluded with the rhythm section softly in the background. This innovative combination would become Orbison’s signature sound.
The single swiftly climbed to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and reached the number one spot in the UK, Ireland, and Australia. “Only the Lonely” reached number one in the United Kingdom and stayed there for two weeks (it spent 24 weeks on the UK singles chart). The song became the longest-charting single in Orbison’s career.
The “greatest singer in the world”
Orbison’s talent was in high demand, leading to appearances on American Bandstand and a relentless three-month tour across the United States with Patsy Cline. Interestingly, when Elvis Presley finally heard “Only the Lonely”, the very song he had initially rejected, he purchased a box of records to distribute to his friends.
Naturally, Presley experienced a twinge of regret when he saw the heights the song achieved, but he ultimately celebrated the success of his fellow Sun Records crooner.
Their friendship flourished throughout the 1960s. During one of Presley’s iconic Las Vegas concerts, he praised Orbison, lauding him as having the “perfect voice” and dubbing him the “greatest singer in the world.”
In response to such flattering accolades, Orbison looked back on his first encounter with Presley’s performance in Odessa in February 1955. “His energy was incredible; his instinct was just amazing,” the Big O recalled in a 1980 interview. “I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.”