Recording Roy Orbison’s "Only the Lonely"

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by John B, Mar 18, 2003.

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  1. John B

    John B Once Blue Gort,<br>now just blue. Thread Starter

    Location:
    Toronto, Canada
    Although today there is considerable interest in the rockabilly music that the great Texas singer and songwriter Roy Orbison recorded for Memphis’ Sun Records in the mid-’50s, the fact is, by 1958, Orbison’s career was going nowhere fast. "Ooby Dooby" was a freak hit in ’56, but when he moved to Nashville shortly after that, his focus changed somewhat, and he concentrated on writing songs for Acuff-Rose Publishing (eventually landing the hit "Claudette," named after his wife, for the Everly Brothers).

    By the winter of 1959, Orbison had recorded a couple of songs for RCA, but none found much public acceptance. When a young engineer named Bill Porter came on board at RCA’s Nashville studios that March, one of his early assignments was to cut a pair of tunes with Orbison–"Paper Boy" and "With the Bug"–but this time RCA chose not to put out the single at all. The company was set to release Orbison from his contract, but his producer/manager Fred Foster convinced the label to give him another shot. In a move that was quite unusual for the day, Foster had Orbison recut the songs in slightly different arrangements, and this time RCA decided to release the 45. Alas, it proved to be yet another disappointment for Orbison and the label.

    "Then, Fred and Roy got in a conversation about changing arrangements and doing things differently, so Fred called in Anita Kerr to do some charts," Bill Porter remembers. "She had her singers, which was a pretty famous group, and she was also a great arranger–I’d say half the RCA sessions and maybe a third of the Monument work were Anita Kerr arrangements. So we did this song ‘Uptown’ [with Kerr and company], and that actually helped re-establish Roy–it made it up to 72 on the charts, and we were on our way."

    Porter was doing most of his work in RCA Studio B, a small to medium-sized room with acoustics Porter describes as "pretty bad." (So bad, in fact, that in 1960, Porter went out and bought some Fiberglas panels, which he cut into triangles and hung from the ceiling at different heights in a successful attempt to control the sound in the room better. These became known in-house as Porter’s Pyramids, and variations on that idea are still employed in some studios and concert halls to this day.) Shortly after Porter began working at RCA, he helped install a new custom console that RCA engineers had built in New York. "It was a hand-made board, done their way, but using Langevin preamps," Porter says. "It was a very good console, with 12 inputs and three output buses. Microphones 1, 2 and 3 were permanently wired to bus 1, and [mics] 10, 11 and 12 were permanently wired to bus 3. Inputs 7, 8 and 9 could be switched between 1, 2, 3, or 1 and 3, for a phantom center. Then, bus 2, which was microphones 4, 5 and 6, could be switched to either bus 1 or bus 2. I used that basically for the featured artist, so if he or she didn’t play an instrument I was locked in with ten inputs only.

    "I modified the tape machines [Ampex 300s] myself, because RCA had them set up so that second bus was split 3 dB down to tracks 1 and 2 on the tape machine. What happened, though, was if you tried to hear a good mono sound, the featured artist stood out too much, and at that time, mono was still the big thing, and stereo was secondary. So I modified the inputs on the tape machine so the signal was down more like 2 dB. Then, when you heard it monaurally, the mix was just about right. The stereo [mix] suffered somewhat, but I didn’t tell [RCA] New York I’d done this because if they found out you’d modified anything they chewed you out real good.

    "Everything was done direct to the 2-track mix; nothing was overdubbed. The normal Roy Orbison session would be one or maybe two songs in a three-hour session. Sometimes Fred would go half an hour overtime to get a second song, which was exactly the case with ‘Pretty Woman’ and the B-side.

    "Anyway," Porter continues, returning to the story, "RCA had released ‘Uptown,’ and it was starting to make some kind of noise. One day, Roy called Fred Foster and me into the studio and said, ‘I want you to hear this song.’ Here was Orbison playing acoustic guitar, singing this new song–‘Only the Lonely’–and two guys over to his left were sort of mouthing the words, but you couldn’t hear them. Roy finished the song, and he said ‘That’s the sound I want,’ and he tilted his head toward the two guys. One of them was Joe Melson, who co-wrote a lot of tunes with Roy, and was also an artist himself on the Hickory label. Anyway, Fred said, ‘What sound?’ Roy said, ‘What they’re singing!’ I said, ‘I don’t hear any singing,’ and Fred said, ‘I don’t either.’ So I walked over there, and they started the tune again and these guys are literally whispering the words. I said, ‘My God, how am I going to get that on tape?’ Fred laughed and said, ‘Well, Bill, you got about a week and a half to figure it out!’ As you know, if you open up a microphone a lot, everything pours in. So I thought about it and thought about it, and when it came time to do the session, I talked to all the players–which consisted of strings, piano, bass, drums, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, background vocals–and I said, ‘Guys, play as softly as you possibly can,’ and I asked the singers to sing as loud as they possibly could while still getting across that feeling they were after.

    "My normal way of doing a mix is to start with the rhythm section and build a basic platform–piano, bass, drums, guitar–and then I will feature horns or strings or background voices next, and then the featured artist. In this case, I started with those background vocals as the main source, and mixed everything down from that. If you listen to that song, you notice the drums and everything sound almost a little dead, and that’s because I had everyone play soft and then did what I did with the vocals. That sound on the vocals really became the Orbison trademark, and it helped establish who he was."

    Porter says that in those days, Orbison’s voice was "very, very thin, so I put a tape slap back from the 3-track machine to his voice on the middle channel, and I made it so it was enough to let his voice stand out, but you didn’t notice the slap too much. If you listen to ‘Only the Lonely,’ on the words there ‘I can tak-k-k-k-e’ you can hear it easily. As Roy’s voice got stronger and stronger, I used less and less [slap], and eventually I stopped using it altogether, because he could stand out in the mixes–and sometimes those were pretty dense arrangements." Porter used a Neumann U47 on Orbison’s lead vocal. "I’ve had people tell me I was one of the first engineers to use all condenser microphones," Porter adds. "I used to use KM56s, KM54s on the drums, U47s, U48s, M49s, stuff like that."

    After "Only the Lonely," Orbison (aided by Foster and Porter) had a streak of hits from 1960-1964 that included "Blue Angel," "Running Scared," "Crying," "Candyman," "Dream Baby," "In Dreams," "Mean Woman Blues," "It’s Over" and "Oh, Pretty Woman." He was also wildly popular in Britain, even touring with The Beatles at one point. Orbison’s next career high point came in 1980, when he hit the charts again with "That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again," a duet with Emmylou Harris recorded for the soundtrack of a lame film called Roadie. Two years later, Van Halen had a hit with a cover of "Oh, Pretty Woman," and shortly after that, Orbison’s own version struck Gold when it became the title song for Julia Roberts’ breakthrough film. In the late ’80s, Orbison gained more wide exposure when he joined Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan and George Harrison to make the smash record Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. He then cut an album produced by Lynne and featuring what would turn out to be his final hit, "You Got It," written by Orbison, Lynne and Petty. Around that time he also taped an HBO music special, A Black & White Night, that featured Orbison playing with some of his greatest admirers, including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and many others. Orbison died of a heart attack in 1988, and the posthumous Lynne-produced album, Mystery Girl, became the singer’s highest-charting album ever. At least he went out on top.

    Bill Porter went on to record many of the Everly Brothers’ greatest hits (more on that in another column), all of Elvis’ best Nashville material and dozens of other artists through the years. Today Porter lives in Louisville, and he wants the world to know that he’s still working and available for engineering, production and audio consultation work. He can be reached at Captain Audio Productions, P.O. Box 99501, Louisville, KY 40269. He’s a true legend in our business and a raconteur extraordinaire!
     
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  2. GuyDon

    GuyDon Forum Resident

    Great post John. I once read an interview with Roy where he said he originally drove to Graceland (on his way to the Nashville recording session) to offer the song to Elvis. This was shortly after Elvis was discharged from the Army. Elvis was sleeping (his normal sleep during the day, up at night routine) and so Roy never got the chance to play the song for him. Although I am a huge Elvis, I am glad Roy never got that chance.
     
  3. Ed Bishop

    Ed Bishop Incredibly, I'm still here

    Another well spun tale, Johnny B.

    "Paper Boy" and "With The Bug" are interesting, mainly because, when you compare the RCA versions to the Monument, the difference in style and mix are minimal, though they are obviously different takes with some added sweetening for the Monument versions. As noted, this was unusual at the time--any time, really--but neither side was very strong. Lucky for Roy "Up Town" finally gave him a 2nd life as a chart force, though it didn't get very high on the Hot 100. And although uncharacteristic in his catalog overall--he comes offway too optimistic and ambitious--it was a great launching pad.

    Always great fun to read about Roy. Hope you have more to come on a regular basis.

    ED:cool:
     
  4. MMM

    MMM Forum Hall Of Fame

    Location:
    Lodi, New Jersey
    Good story John - thanks. I didn't realize Bill Porter is still active as an engineer - I thought he was teaching. I wonder if he ever visits the forum as a guest?
     
  5. John B

    John B Once Blue Gort,<br>now just blue. Thread Starter

    Location:
    Toronto, Canada
    Martin,

    This article is seven years old so he may not be active as an engineer. Steve would know.
     
  6. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host

    Active? No. Teaching.
     
  7. mudbone

    mudbone Gort Annaologist

    Location:
    Canada, O!
    John, another good post!

    Thx,
    mud-
     
  8. John B

    John B Once Blue Gort,<br>now just blue. Thread Starter

    Location:
    Toronto, Canada
    Steve,
    Did you master "The All-Time Greatest Hits Of Roy Orbison from the 3-track? You mentioned that the Everly 2-track had gone. Is that the same here?
    Bill Porter says in the liner notes that he never used the 3-track himself.
    John
     
  9. Stax Fan

    Stax Fan Active Member

    Location:
    Midwest
    Two consecutive Bill Porter sessions. What superb taste you have, John! :)

    "Only the Lonely" is a true classic with the engineering to match. Roy Orbison and Bill Porter certainly created a lot of magic together. A perfect match.


    __________
    AC
     
  10. indy mike

    indy mike Forum Pest

    The April Stereophile Mikey Fremer column mentions that Classic Vinyl is reissuing Orbison lp's from recently discovered 2 track masters form Nashville - what's the poop on those tapes??? John, see what you started???
     
  11. John B

    John B Once Blue Gort,<br>now just blue. Thread Starter

    Location:
    Toronto, Canada
    I did some snooping to see that Steve has spoken on this subject.
    A royalty cheque is in the mail:

     
  12. John B

    John B Once Blue Gort,<br>now just blue. Thread Starter

    Location:
    Toronto, Canada
  13. Stax Fan

    Stax Fan Active Member

    Location:
    Midwest
    Do I get one, too? Afterall, it originally addressed my question! ;)


    __________
    AC
     
  14. John B

    John B Once Blue Gort,<br>now just blue. Thread Starter

    Location:
    Toronto, Canada
    Arin,
    I'm sure Steve will forward your cut.
    John
     
  15. chip-hp

    chip-hp Cool Cat

    Location:
    Dallas, TX
    Blue Gort ... I read your great post while listening to Steve's Orbison CD ... I never realized that there are RCA versions of "Paper Boy", "With the Bug" and "Uptown" ... I was under the impression that these were Monument songs ... what's next week? :)
     
  16. John B

    John B Once Blue Gort,<br>now just blue. Thread Starter

    Location:
    Toronto, Canada
    The selection gets more sparse. Hint - what's the opposite of no?
     
  17. -Ben

    -Ben Forum Resident

    Location:
    Washington DC Area
    Another great post.
    Thanks John, keep them coming.
    BC
     
  18. d.r.cook

    d.r.cook Forum Resident

    Nice post, John.

    Orbison was one of my three most dissapointing concert cancellations. In the early 80s, he was scheduled to play the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville--canceled for unannounced reasons.

    The other two:
    Tom Petty around Damn the Torpedoes (theatre show) with throat problems.

    Sly Stone, mid 70s, near-full house seated, local deejay comes on to say, "Sly's in LA and he's not playing tonight."

    If I could choose to see one of these on a good night, it'd probably be Sly, but choice would not be easy!

    doug
     
  19. letmerollit

    letmerollit Well-Known Member

    Location:
    West Texas, USA
    From Roy Orbison's High School Yearbook... Wink, Texas, 1954:

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    ...shortly before heading out to Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, N.M. with his song Ooby Dooby... :angel:
     
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  20. Chip TRG

    Chip TRG Forum Resident

    An 11 year bump? Is that a record?

    I'm glad, though, as I don't think I was around to see this article the first time around.

    Bill Porter, may he RIP, provided the soundtrack of my growing up, although I didn't know it at the time. With an Indiana-raised Grandma, I was surrounded by a ton of music that came directly out of RCA Nashville circa the 1960's, and whether he directly engineered it or not, it's got Bill Porter's legacy written all over it. One of the most beautiful recordings ever to come out of that city is Jim Reeves' "Welcome To My World"....the acoustics are simply amazing.
    Other Porter greats are "When Will I Be Loved" by The Everly Bros., and of course the Roy Orbison tracks. The guy worked magic at that board. Simple magic.
     
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  21. letmerollit

    letmerollit Well-Known Member

    Location:
    West Texas, USA
    Only place that I could find which seemed appropriate!
    Record? What do I win? :cool:
     
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