While this is one of the sadder songs ever recorded, projecting the misery onto Orbison would be a mistake. In 1980, he explained to the NME that many of his most painful songs were written in happier times. Said Roy: "I've always been very content when I wrote all those songs. By this I'm saying that a lot of people think you have to live through something before you can write it, and that's true in some cases, but I remember the times that I was unhappy or discontent, and I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't communicate, and I certainly couldn't write a song, no way. All the songs I wrote that were successful were written when I was in a contented state of mind."
Roy Orbison wrote this with his songwriting partner Joe Melson, but intended to offer the song to either Elvis Presley or the Everly Brothers (who had already recorded Orbison's song "Claudette"). The Everly Brothers persuaded Orbison that he should cut it himself.
The song was subtitled "Know The Way I Feel" to avoid confusion with another song called "Only The Lonely," which Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen had written for Frank Sinatra in 1958.
This quickly became Orbison's biggest hit and one of the songs that exemplified his poignant lyrics and soulful vocal delivery as he sings about what it's like to be lonely.
Orbison recorded this song in RCA Studio B with the elite session musicians known as "The Nashville A Team." Bob Moore, who was the bass player, did the arrangement.
Orbison's first recordings were at Sun Studios in Memphis, where under Sam Phillips he had a rockabilly sound similar to fellow Sun artists Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. His Nashville songs for Monument Records were far more complex, with string sections, backup singers and liberal use of studio effects, all crammed into about two and half minutes - this one runs just 2:24.
When Orbison was in The Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, he wrote a sequel to this song called "Lonely No More."
This was one of the first songs Roy Orbison and Joe Melson wrote together. The inspiration for the lyrics came from Melson, who as a teenager fell in love with a girl who left him brokenhearted. Melson says that she took off in a Cadillac and the words to this song came to him naturally.
Melson also says that the song was his proudest moment as a songwriter, as it was his first hit with Orbison. The pair would write many more hits for Orbison, including "Running Scared
" and "Blue Bayou."
After Orbison's death, Royal Crown Cola tried to use this song as part of a campaign to fight homelessness. His widow, Barbara Orbison, liked the idea but didn't own the publishing rights, so the deal fell through. She still wanted to aid the homeless in Roy's name, so she organized a tribute concert with Royal Crown signed on as a sponsor. Bob Dylan signed on and got The Byrds (or at least three of them: David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, and Chris Hillman) to reunite for the show, which was held at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles on February 24, 1990 and later broadcast as a Showtime special. B.B. King, John Fogerty, k.d. lang, Booker T. Jones, Michael McDonald, Emmylou Harris and Chris Isaak also performed. The 4-hour concert ended with many of the performers joining Dylan and The Byrds on stage for "Only The Lonely."