In retrospect, Roy Orbison was an unlikely pop star. He was a failed rockabilly singer with a voice that verged closer to Tosca than teen idol. His self-penned songs, only occasionally in verse-chorus format, borrowed from classical music, theater and ballroom dance. His style was more sophisticated and adult than songs typically targeted to the teenage audience, while at the same time too rock and roll to reach parents more comfortable with Lawrence Welk and Bert Kaempfert. Add on homely looks and you have a musician unmarketable in today’s musical landscape, except perhaps as a contestant on a reality TV singing program. Of course, the formative years of rock were as concerned about marketability as well – which is why Fats Domino and Little Richard songs only achieved pop chart success after being covered by blandly handsome white teenagers. Still, 1961 predated video killing the radio star, and sometimes talent did beat all else.
Although Elvis had flirted with Old World aesthetics in his post-Army singles, these embellishments were always self-conscious. By remaking Neapolitan ballads and bounding across octaves, Presley sought to legitimize his position as rock singer through cross-generational appeal. Orbison, on the other hand, couldn’t do straight rock and roll. Like Elvis, he was an alumnus of Sun Records, but one who left frustrated and without prospects as a performer. It was only after carving out a dramatic and hypermelodic niche that Orbison was able to conquer the pop charts. “Running Scared,” the follow-up to his breakout “Only the Lonely,” sounds bombastic on paper: a rock bolero with no chorus that continuously builds into a crescendo with no release. But Orbison approaches it with restraint and humility, which lends the song a sincerity lacking in more overblown pop melodramas. The lyrics are simple as well – will the girl choose him or me? – and balance out Orbison’s powerful voice and the mounting musical tension. While “Crying” and “In Dreams” have deservedly become the better-known classics (as has the version of “Love Hurts” on this record’s B-side), “Running Scared” is a fine introduction to Orbison as poperatic legend. 7
Hit #1 on June 5, 1961; total of 1 week at #1
52 of 969 #1’s; 5.37% through the Hot 100