Only the Lonely

Roy Orbison

Song Review by Richie Unterberger

Other than "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Only the Lonely" is Roy Orbison's most famous and successful song. It is also the song that, more than any other, defined his career. When Orbison recorded "Only the Lonely" in 1960, he had only a couple of very moderate hits, and some moderate success as a songwriter, to show for about five years in the business. "Only the Lonely" changed all that, not just because it shot to number two, but also because it defined his image and musical identity. Prior to the song, Orbison had been typecast as an also-ran rockabilly singer at Sun Records. Although he wasn't a bad rockabilly act, "Only the Lonely" played to his true strengths: an operatic, pain-stricken pop/rock balladeer, a master of odes to heartbreak and maintaining dignitiy while fighting largely losing battles. The record screamed hit from its first few bars: a team of vocalists gently crooning "dum dum dum, dum-be-doo-wah" and other such syllables to an instantly memorable bittersweet melody, ending by singing the title phrase. That was the cue for a pause and Orbison to enter with his sorrowful yet strong tones, the backup vocalists continuing to act as a Greek chorus of sorts to his lines throughout the verse. The melody and phrasing got especially dramatic in the latter parts of the verses, as the backing arrangement kept dramatically pausing after three rapid bows of the violin in a row, leaving Orbison to muse alone, his range gradually ascending to Caruso territory. As the track progressed, it added symphonic violins that were quite advanced for a 1960 pop/rock production, the strings sometimes swooping in different ways as ripostes to various lines in Orbison's lyric. Roy hit a particularly glass-shattering note at a pause in the last verse, unveiling the full extent of his astonishing upper range. "Only the Lonely" is a great tune and a great production, but much of what puts it over is Orbison's attitude: he may be in wrenching misery, but that's not going to keep him from taking chances on romance in the future. Chris Isaak, who was probably more influenced by early-'60s stars such as Orbison and Ricky Nelson than any other late-20th century rock star, covered "Only the Lonely" on his Baja Sessions album.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Sings Lonely and Blue 1960 Master Sound / Legacy 2:25
The Very Best of Roy Orbison [Monument] 1966 2:24
Greatest Hits [Monument] 1967 Monument Records 2:24
The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison, Vols. 1-2 1976 Monument Records 2:30
The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison, Vol. 1 1978 Monument Records 2:28
Golden Days 1981 Sony BMG
In Dreams: The Greatest Hits 1987 Eagle Records 2:29
The Rock 'N' Roll Era: 1960 1987
Various Artists
For the Lonely: 18 Greatest Hits 1988 Rhino 2:27
The Legendary Roy Orbison [Long Box] 1988 Monument Records 2:26
Only the Lonely 1991 Varèse Sarabande 2:27
The Rock 'N' Roll Era: Roy Orbison 1960-1965 1991 2:28
Love Songs [Sound Solutions] 1992 Virgin 2:30
Remember Slows, Vol. 1 1992
Various Artists
Sings Lonely and Blue/Crying 1993 Monument Records 2:26
Monument Story 1994
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 2:26
Radio Gold, Vol. 3 1995
Various Artists
Ace 2:28
Hits You Remember [1989] 1995 BCI-Eclipse Distribution / Eclipse Music Group 2:24
Super Hits 1995 Columbia / Epic 2:27
Gold Collection 1996 TriStar Music 2:23
The All Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison [DCC] 1997 Monument Records 2:26
Legends of Country Music: The Best of Austin City 1997
Various Artists
Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 2:41
Whole Lotta Rock: 1960-1961 1997
Various Artists
BCI-Eclipse Distribution / Eclipse Music Group 2:29
Rock 'N Roll Relix: 1960-1969 1997
Various Artists
Eclipse Music Group 2:29
Limited Edition Box Set 1998 Orbison Records 2:55
Oh Pretty Woman: The Greatest Hits 1998 Madacy Distribution / Madacy 2:26
16 Biggest Hits 1999 Monument / Legacy 2:26
Greatest Hits of the 60s, Vol. 1 [Platinum Disc #1] 1999
Various Artists
Platinum Disc 2:26
Anthology 1999 Orbison Records 2:37
Good Guys 1999 GNP / Crescendo 2:27
The Great Roy Orbison, Vol. 1: Original Hits 2000 Platinum Disc 2:27
Roy, Gene & Dion 2000 WEA International 2:26
20 Golden Hits 2000 Teevee Records 2:27
Greatest R&R Love Songs 2000
Various Artists
EMI 2:24
Ultimate Rock Classics, Vol. 1 2000
Various Artists
Realm Records 2:28
Rock Hits of the 60's 2001
Various Artists
Sony Music Distribution 2:28
This Is 2001 Back Biter 2:26
Gold 2001 Disky 2:28
The Big O: The Original Singles Collection 2001 Monument Records 2:27
Orbison 2001 Bear Family Records 2:29
A Year in Your Life: 1960, Vol. 2 2001
Various Artists
Definitive 2:27
The Love Album 2002 EMI Music Distribution 2:29
Oh Pretty Woman [Collectables] 2002 Collectables 2:27
Monumental Hits [Collectables] 2002 Collectables 2:25
50 All Time Greatest Hits 2002 Collectables 2:25
Big Hits from the Big "O" 2002 Balboa Recording Corporation 2:28
The Best of Roy Orbison [EMI] 2003 CEMA Special Markets / EMI-Capitol Special Markets 2:28
Taken [Original Soundtrack] 2003 Dreamworks Nashville / Dreamworks SKG 2:27
Oh Pretty Woman/I Like Love 2003 Dynamic 2:44
Music From Steven Spielberg Presents Taken 2003
Various Artists
Dreamworks 2:25
Golden Era of Rock 'n' Roll: 1954-1963 2004
Various Artists
Hip-O 2:25
Sweets for Sweden: The Very Best of Roy Orbison 2004 Virgin
Platinum Collection 2004 Virgin 2:31
Definitive Collection [Single Disc] 2004 Sony Music Entertainment 0:00
Greatest Hits [Video] 2004 Eagle Vision 2:51
Hits! Hits! Hits! 2004 Orbison Records 2:28
Forever Roy Orbison [3 Disc] 2006 Madacy 2:27
The Very Best of Roy Orbison [Sony/BMG Australia] 2006 Virgin 2:27
100 Hits: 60s 2007
Various Artists
DMG / DMG TV 2:27
Dreamboats and Pettycoats 2007
Various Artists
Universal Distribution
Peace And Love [Madacy] 2008
Various Artists
Madacy 2:28
The Soul of Rock & Roll 2008 Legacy / Monument / Orbison / Sony Music Entertainment 2:26
Purely Roy Orbison 2008 Impact 2:27
Summer Holiday: 40 Summer Classics from Yesteryear 2009
Various Artists
Sony Music 2:26
The Monument Singles: A-Sides (1960-1964) 2011 Legacy / Monument Records / Orbison Records / Sony Music / Sony Music Distribution 2:25
The Roots of U2 2012
Various Artists
Complete Blues / Complete Roots / Snapper / Snapper UK 2:23
America's Greatest Hits, Vol. 11: 1960 2012
Various Artists
Acrobat Music 2:26
The Greatest Ever... Love Songs [Bellevue] 2014
Various Artists
Bellevue / Wienerworld 2:29
80th Birthday Celebration 2016 ZYX / ZYX Music 2:27
1960 R&B Hits Collection
Various Artists
Acrobat Music 2:24
300 Hits: Saturday Night Party
Various Artists
Bellevue Publishing / Wienerworld 2:27
Definitive Collection [2 Disc] Phantom
Essential: Cool Cats
Various Artists
Sony Music 2:28
Finest Singer/Songwriter Collection
Various Artists
ZYX Music 2:26
For Lovers Only: Cruisin' Classics 1955-1960
Various Artists
Dynamic 2:28
Legendary Voices
Various Artists
StarVista / Time / Life Music 2:25
The U2 Jukebox: The Songs that Inspired the Band
Chrome Dreams / United States of Distribution 2:10
Time Life Presents: Greatest Love Songs of the 60's [5 Discs]
Various Artists
Time / Life Music 2:26