Roy Orbison – Running Scared

I’m participating in HansPostcard’s 2021 Song Draft. Here’s my 7th round pick.

Ok so far during the draft, I have 3 songs from the 1970s, 2 from the 1980s, and 1 from the 1990s.  Time to go back, to the foundational times, and feature a song by, for my money, one of rock and roll’s best voices ever – Roy Orbison.  Orbison’s voice seemed otherworldly at times, and gave his songs an added power emotion that would exist with someone else singing it.

While there are any number of songs I could feature, I have always loved Running Scared.  It was released in March 1961, and went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, #9 on the UK Singles chart.

 Written by Orbison and his songwriting partner Joe Melson, the song is a great example of the kind of melodramatic mini-opera type song that Orbison excelled at.  Its unusual in that it has no chorus, and begins in a bolero style, with the insistent guitar strumming immediately setting the tension of the song.  The singer is with his girl but is “running scared” that her former lover is going to show up and steal her away. As AllMusic puts its: “The keys to the building tension of “Running Scared” are the mounting layers of instrumentation to the arrangement, as orchestral instruments and backup voices slowly pile on over the first few verses to create an atmosphere of growing suspense.”  You can feel the singer’s anxiety building, his insecurity about his status with his girl evident in his voice.  Then the climax of the song, as his worst fears are realized, and there in front of them stands the former lover.  What will his girl do?  The music builds to a crescendo as she makes her choice.  It’s a testimony to the power of Orbison’s powerful vocal performance that even though the lyric’s rhyme scheme kind of gives it away (“be” doesn’t rhyme with “him”), you aren’t totally sure what’s going to happen until the final line (“ You turned around and walked away with me.”  A life time’s worth of drama, all in 2 minutes and 15 seconds!

A couple of interesting facts I discovered while researching the song, all according to Songfacts – Orbison and Melson claim they wrote the song in 5 minutes. The recording engineer for the session gave the song an exaggerated dynamic range – while most songs of that era had a range of 3 decibels, Running Scared had a range of 24 decibels. 

This was the last song Roy Orbison ever sang live. As was his usual habit, he closed his December 4, 1988 show with Running Scared, just two days before his sudden passing from a heart attack on December 6.

As an added bonus, I’ve also included a clip of Orbison performing Running Scared live as part of A Black and White Night, a 1988 concert film that featured Orbison backed by an all star band, and I mean all star – Elvis Presley’s TCB band, along with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, Bonnie Raitt, among others.  It gives you a sense of Orbison’s incredible talent to hear him sing the song live, and its also a kick to see all these famous musicians in the background and happy, in fact honored to be backing Orbison.

4 thoughts on “Roy Orbison – Running Scared”

  1. Paul, excellent choice! Running Scared is one of my favorite Roy Orbison songs. I like everything you say about it, and I like learning the origin story and production info on how the tension builds. I really don’t think anyone other than Orbison could sing this song. Very neat to learn he sang it as his shows closer. That Black & White Nights is a wonderful concert. Glad Roy got into this draft. Good write-up!

    Liked by 1 person

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