Roy Orbison is the little match girl of rock ‘n’ roll; he’s neither here nor there. He’s perfect for 2 a.m., for lonely couples parked amongst trees and dark nights of the soul. He’s an everyman for the rest of us. That’s the Orbison of Running Scared and Blue Bayou. The one we hear singing the pop masterpieces Only the Lonely and Crying.
I don’t listen to those records much these days, but not from lack of lonesome nights. My little one, now two and a half, has discovered Roy’s earlier rockabilly sides he recorded for Je-Wel out of Odessa, Texas and Sun Records out of Memphis, Tennessee. He may actually be the first person ever in the recorded history of mankind to prefer Ooby Dooby over Oh, Pretty Woman. Much has been written about how Sam Phillips blew it with Orbison. How he didn’t know what he had and didn’t know what to do with it anyway. He’s forgiven of course, his track record was too good. I’d like to throw this thought out there though, from a guy who’s listened to a lot of rockabilly records over the years. Those Sun sides aren’t that bad. They may be more sock hop than juke joint, but considering all the bad rockabilly in the world (tons) and the fact that it’s Orbison with that voice, and Orbison laying down some truly great guitar licks, it’s just fine. Of course he eclipsed all of it with all those later hits and had the misfortune of sharing labels and producers with Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s really not fair to put hardly anyone’s rockabilly records up against that bunch. They’ll always come up wanting.
Colin Escott, who I mention often and never enough, wrote a brilliant essay on Orbison that comes with the Bear Family boxed set “Orbison 1955-1965.” In it he tells how this kid with bad eyesight and albino skin came out of the West Texas wilderness to become one of the unmistakably beautiful guide posts of 20th century American culture. When I listen to Orbison the only truly apt comparison I can think of is Brian Wilson (Slim Whitman comes pretty darn close), in that both are the sum of seemingly everything that came before them, while not actually doing any of it. I mean everything, too; from Wilson’s wave crashing re-imagining of minstrel music, doo wop and schlock pop to Orbison’s Mexican and western tinged crooning. Wilson may have the genius thing, but he’s also anchored to his time; a mythical America full of girls on pristine beaches, boys riding on the runners of Woodys and the intoxication of teenage love. Orbison has become timeless. He would leave (the very real) teenage love and heartbreak behind for the claustrophobia of adulthood. Wilson seems to do the opposite. In Brian’s fantasies he runs after the girls. In Roy’s he’s just as likely to run away from them.
Ooby Dooby is neither the genius of Wilson’s California Girls nor the pathos of Orbison’s I’m Hurtin’. What it is though, is that accidental kind of thing that hits just right just when it should. From the first moment when that surreal vibrating tenor calls out “Hey Baby, jump over here, when you do the ooby dooby I just gotta be near,” to a rollicking drum roll it’s easy to forget, at least momentarily, that the real stuff, the dirty 100 proof rockabilly, the songs that are all broken bottles and black leather existed simultaneously. Orbison could always do that, could always pull us into his world or maybe he was opening closed doors into our own worlds like some west Texas shaman.
The song was written in fifteen minutes by Wade Moore and Dick Penner sometime around 1955, and it was just the kind of thing Roy thought his band needed. He cut the record for the first time in Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico in 1956 (almost one year before Petty starting recording Buddy Holly) and shortly after that even got to audition it for Columbia Records. Columbia passed on Roy, but took the song and gave it to another Texas rockabilly singer named Sid King. King does his best with it. He slows it down a bit and tries to make it sultry, but there’s just not a whole lot of sex to be found in Ooby Dooby. Roy knew that on some level and kept it sounding like a teenage sleep over, that is to say chaperoned. He would end up recording the song again when he jumped ship for Sam Phillips and Sun Records a few months later and it would become the first song to hit the national pop charts for him, peaking at #59. Years later, on a bill with the Rolling Stones, they would dare him to play the worst song he ever recorded. Roy played Ooby Dooby.
Ooby Dooby, Roy Orbison
Ooby Dooby, Sid King & the Five Strings
It seems to me that we often discover our favorite songs quite by accident. Has anyone sat down with an unheard greatest hits album and told themselves I’m going to listen to this and find my next favorite song? More often as not, it’s a snippet heard on the radio – weren’t those the days? – or in a friend’s car or a parent’s L.P. collection. Without fully realizing it, my wife and I have become those parents.
Here’s how it happened: I was cooking dinner and listening to Red Headed Stranger, which has presided over more nights of peelin’, choppin’ and cookin’ than I can now count. After the second listen and with the record spinning quietly to itself I asked my wife to put on something else. What? Surprise me. Moments later, from the dusty side of a record that gets little play, came “Hey Baby, jump over hear…” and in a pure moment of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy the two and half year old’s entire body started to shake. He didn’t know if he should clap his hands or stretch his arms out and flap them. He did both. He knew he had to twist and jump. He did both. He did an improvised buckwing and this weird little move all his own where he cupped his hands and pretended to spit in them, right, left, right, left. That was weird, but hey it’s rock ‘n’ roll. By the second chorus he had already nailed the sucker: “dooby dooby, dooby dooby,” he howled and isn’t that the brilliance of the thing? Half wrong and dragging the beat he was still totally right. Needless to say, we’re listening to it a-l-o-t.
Dooby dooby, dooby dooby.