Everybody needs someone to look up to, even the king of rock ‘n’ roll. For Elvis Presley, there were a whole host of artists worthy of admiration, but only one with enough God-given talent to be worthy of the title “the greatest singer in the world”. That artist was the one Roy Orbison.
Elvis wasn’t the only artist to fall for the vocal charms of Roy Orbison. His musical offerings have gone on to inspire everyone from U2 to Led Zeppelin and the Bee Gees. Even The Beatles landed one of their earliest hits, ‘Please Please Me’, after hearing (and subsequently imitating) an Orbison tune on the radio. For Elvis, Orbison was a once-in-a-generation talent. In fact, during one of his Las Vegas concerts, he went so far as to describe the singer as having a “perfect voice” in what is high praise Indeed.
The feeling, it has to be said, was a mutual one. Orbison attended an Elvis concert in Odessa and immediately fell in love with the king’s effortless cool. As he once recalled: “‘His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing. I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.'” Elvis’ intense stage presence stood in stark contrast to Orbison’s more conservative approach. In Orbison’s eyes, this contrast was a product of the different musical styles they’d been surrounded by growing up. “Elvis was surrounded by black music almost exclusively,” Roy explained. “Black music and country music were just beamed every day in his area. But in my area (white West Texas), that wasn’t the case”.
But, clearly, Orbison relished the challenge Elvis threw his way. Of a concert he attended in 1955, Orbison said: “I couldn’t overemphasize how shocking he looked and seemed to me that night,” he recalled. “He told jokes that weren’t funny, and his diction was real coarse like a truck driver’s. [There was] pandemonium in the audience because the girls took a shine to him and the guys were getting a little jealous.” But Orbison loved every minute of it and, during the drive home, felt a change come over him: “I really loved hearing it and couldn’t wait for the next records to come out,” he recalled.
The mutual affection shared by Presley and Orbison points to why they became two of the most important artists of their day. Indeed, their shared status saw them pitched against one another in the charts on numerous occasions. But, with the arrival of ‘British Invasion’ bands like The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Who, both Elvis and Orbison saw a slump in their record sales. Both struggled with the changing tastes of the 1960s, but they remained firm friends through it all. When they reunited years later, their friendship hadn’t waned a bit. “We hadn’t seen each other in years,” Roy noted. “He hugged me. We talked about everything”.