In 2006, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum paid tribute to Roy Orbison as part of its American Music Masters Series, event organizer Warren Zanes invited Canton-based singer-songwriter Ryan Humbert to play a few Orbison songs as part of the festivities. "It was terrifying," recalls Humbert via phone as he drives to a gig in Knoxville. "We had to perform in front of his producer, Fred Foster, and his entire family. That was intimidating. It went over really well, though." In 2010, Humbert played Orbison songs again for the Canton Cabaret, and then last year brought his Roy Orbison tribute to the Akron Civic Theatre, where he returns this weekend.
For Humbert, a singer-songwriter who has just issued a new album of original material that has gotten attention regionally, Orbison was a remarkable musician. "I think Bruce Springsteen said it best when he said that nobody sounds like Roy Orbison," says Humbert. "He had such a unique voice, and it wasn't perfect, either. He had such a range. If I had to guess, I would say he wrote around the melody of what he heard in his head. I don't think he was a super-trained musician. He wrote around what he heard and what he wanted the vocals to sound like and figured the rest of the song will follow along. That is unique. I think he let that melody dictate the whole song."
Here's Humbert's take on some of the Orbison tunes that will be in the set he plays at the Akron Civic.
It's just a fun song to sing. Our version is a cross between Linda Ronstadt's and Roy Orbison's as far as sonics go and how we present it. [Backing singer] Emily [Bates] and I sing it together, and we don't play guitar, but we walk around the stage and sing it to each other. The verses are low vocally and then you jump up a whole octave. You have to be prepared for it. I told Emily that we have to do calisthenics before the show to get ready.
The one thing about singing the catalogue is that it's vocal-intensive show. It stretches my limits as far as singing goes, but that's actually good. When I did the show in the past, I had people tell me that they didn't know I could sing like that. That's because I normally don't. It's a challenging show, vocally. Some songs I can do in the same key and some songs I have to drop a few keys. Vocally, this one is tough.
That's another one that has more intricacies in it. You listen to some of these songs and the intricacies don't come across as you're casually listening. As you start dissecting the song, you realize it's not as easy as you think.
"End of the Line"
That was a big Traveling Wilburys song, and it's a fun song. It literally is a song that people will get up and dance to. The fun thing that we do is that we split up the vocals, and Emily sings part of it and I sing part of it. It makes it fun to give the other people in the band a vocal outing as well. We do it toward the end of the second set.
"Handle with Care"
That was a big hit for the Traveling Wilburys. It's a great song. I think that whole album was meant to be a fun album. This was track one, and "End of the Line" is track 10, so they serve as bookends of sorts.
"I Drove all Night"
Emily sings it, and that's a bitch of a song to sing. Roy had a small hit with it. He recorded it first, and then it was a hit for Cyndi Lauper and then for Celine Dion. It came out on a compilation disc called King of Hearts that was released after he died. To me, his version is the best. Jeff Lynne produced it, and it's a perfect driving song. We do it that way, with the fast-driving, pulsating rhythmic thing, and Emily sings the hell out of it. It's a tough song to play. People know it and like it. There's a lot of people who don't know it as a Roy Orbison song. That gives Emily a chance to shine.
The main part of the song isn't challenging. At the end, it has a big finish, as a lot of songs have. You have to belt it out. Like a lot of the songs, it had violins and strings, and so for this show, we have a regular band, but we have three strings with us to handle the string arrangements. It's one of the most complicated songs to play and gives you new respect for Roy.
"Not Alone Anymore"
That's the Roy Orbison standout track on the Traveling Wilburys album. That song is just beautiful. It has everything a classic Roy song would have, but it's made in the'80s. It has the soaring vocals, and it does have the Jeff Lynne sound to it. It reminds me of Roy Orbison fronting ELO, which is fine in my book. I play a 12-string acoustic guitar, and Emily plays her acoustic, and that's a nod to Jeff Lynne's production.
"Only the Lonely"
Like a lot of his songs, especially the stuff from the '60s, it just didn't have the typical structure. There's no verse, chorus, verse, chorus. In this song, there might be a part where there's an extra two bars or a stop in a unique place. That goes for handful of his songs. We usually start the show with this one.
As far as "Pretty Woman" goes — and this goes for other hits like "Crying" — it's so classic and so well-written. It has such a memorable riff and hook and has such unique chord changes. It makes it fun to play. There are songs that are memorable, and there's a reason they're memorable. It's because they're so unique. A lot of his songs didn't follow traditional patterns for his songwriting, especially in the early days. That makes it fun for us as musicians to explore that and figure things out. It's fun to figure out why he did them that way. You have to close with "Pretty Woman."
It's four or five verses and then a bridge, and it ends. There's no discernable chorus. It's an interesting song that happened to be a hit of his. That's the thing we discovered [about Orbison]. He did what he wanted to do. He broke musical rules. It doesn't matter in a way. These songs are fantastic, and you don't look at it and think he should have done it [differently]. You look at it and realize he made the right call.
"That Lovin' You Feelin' Again"
This was an Emmylou Harris and Roy Orbison song, and Emily and I do it as a duet. It's acoustic and just the two of us, and we make it kind of intimate.
"There Won't Be Many Coming Home"
It's a very obscure song from a movie called The Fastest Guitar Alive. The hardcore Roy fans freak out when they hear this one. I just discovered it going through the catalogue and searching iTunes. I discovered a cover version first, and then went and found Roy's version. I realized it was a good song that the hardcore fans would be interested to hear. It's very timely right now, about people coming home from war. Even though it's from the '50s or '60s, it still has a lot of weight today.
"What Kind of Love"
He co-wrote it with Rodney Crowell. He never recorded it, but Crowell did and had a small hit with it. It's very obscure. It's not really a Roy Orbison song, but it has the Roy Orbison touch to it. We thought it would be fun to bring out some of these songs that people may not be familiar with. We've been doing it for years.
"Wild Hearts Run Out of Time"
That song was not very popular. It was an obscure song off his Mystery Girl album. I just think it's a beautiful tune, and we do a nice acoustic version of it.
"You Got It"
That's a great song. He co-wrote it with Tom Petty and, I think, with Jeff Lynne. That was an extension of what he did in the '60s, but you could have put it on the Wilburys album and it would have been right at home, too. A lot of that has to do with Jeff Lynne and his production style.