Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988), nicknamed "The Big O," was an influential American singer-songwriter and a pioneer of rock and roll music. His recording career spanned more than four decades, its peak having occurred between 1960 and 1964. Orbison is internationally recognized for his rhythmically advanced melodies, characteristic dark sunglasses, and occasional distinctive usage of falsetto. In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and posthumously, in 1989, into the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Orbison managed to overcome years of personal suffering and periods of sub-par recordings to secure his legendary status with a resurgence in the 1980s. Today, Orbison is best remembered by fans as a staple in the realm of popular music, and in the music community, he is revered for his unparalleled voice and exhilarating ballads of lost love.
Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, to a blue-collar family, the second son of Nadine and Orbie Lee. After moving to Fort Worth around 1943, to find work in the munitions and aircraft factories which had expanded due to the second World War, the family moved to the West Texas oil town of Wink, in late 1946.
Music was an important part of his family life and in 1949, when he was just thirteen years of age, Roy organized his first band, "The Wink Westerners." During this time, Roy developed his vocal skills, guitar playing, and songwriting ability. Soon, the band began to appear weekly on KERB radio in Kermit, Texas.
In 1954, Orbison graduated from Wink High School and went on to attend North Texas State College in Denton, Texas, for a year before enrolling at Odessa Junior College in 1955. By this time, the Wink Westerners were enjoying some success on local television, being given 30 minute weekly shows on KMID and then KOSA. One guest on their show was Johnny Cash, who advised them to seek a contract with his record producer, Sam Phillips, of Sun Records. Phillips, who at the time was also producing music for Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley, would eventually add the Wink Westerners to his roster, changing their name to The Teen Kings. Orbison then left college in March of 1956, determined to pursue a career in music.
Phillips felt that Roy had more potential as a solo artist than he and his friends did as a group. His first commercial success was achieved in June 1956, with "Ooby Dooby," which was written by his former bandmates. Soon after, his song "Claudette" was recorded by the Everly Brothers as the B-side to their Number 1 hit, "All I Have To Do Is Dream." At this point, Orbison entered a rough patch, working first at Acuff-Rose Music in Nashville, as a songwriter and then for a brief period at RCA. Although working in the field he loved, Oribison's dream extended far beyond writing songs for other musicians.
Roy's break came in 1957, when he met songwriter Joe Melson in Odessa, Texas. After hearing a song Joe had written entitled "Raindrops," Roy suggested that the two of them become writing partners. Together, they created a sound unheard of in rock and roll at the time: The dramatic rock ballad. In 1959, Roy moved to Fred Foster's Monument Records, where they were given full support by Foster to develop their vision.
Roy's first record, Uptown, was moderately successful, but it was with the release of "Only The Lonely" and its immediate rise to the top of the charts (number 2 in the U.S., number 1 in the UK) that he went on to become an international rock and roll star. His follow-up single, "Running Scared" became a U.S. number 1, and from there, Roy would enjoy five years on top with other such hits as, "Crying" (1961), "Dream Baby" (1962), "In Dreams" (1963), and "Oh, Pretty Woman (1964)."
In 1963, he headlined a European tour with The Beatles, who had not quite emerged to their superstar status at the time. Roy would become lifelong friends with the band, especially John Lennon and George Harrison. Orbison would later record with Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. During their tour of Europe, Orbison encouraged the Beatles to come to the United States. When they decided to tour America, they asked Orbison to manage their tour, but his schedule forced him to decline what was to become the start of "Beatlemania."
Unlike many artists, Orbison maintained his success as the British Invasion swept America in 1964. His single "Oh, Pretty Woman" broke the Beatles' stranglehold on the Top 10, soaring to number 1 on the Billboard charts. The record sold more copies in its first ten days of release than any 45rpm up to that time, and would go on to sell seven million copies in all.
In 1964, Roy toured with The Beach Boys, and then in 1965, with The Rolling Stones in Australia. After his tour with the Stones, Orbison signed a contract with MGM Records, and starred in the MGM-produced western-musical motion picture The Fastest Guitar Alive, in which he performed several songs from an album of the same name.
With MGM, Orbison would have only moderate success with a string of U.S Top 100 hits, none of which would earn a Top Ten status. And after 1967, due to changes in popular musical taste, Roy would have difficulty breaking into even the American Top 100, though he would continue to record music steadily through the 1970s.
He also had problems in his personal life during this time, first with the death of his wife, Claudette (Frady), in a motorcycle accident on June 6, 1966. Then, in September of 1968, the family home at Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee, burned to the ground while Orbison was touring in England. Two of his three sons, Roy Jr. (b. 1958) and Anthony (b. 1962), died in the fire. His youngest son Wesley, three at the time, was saved by Orbison's parents.
On May 25, 1969, Orbison married his second wife, Barbara, whom he had met in Leeds, England, the year prior. Though his top status in America had faded by this point, still, the artist enjoyed success overseas, particularly in Australia, Germany, England, the Netherlands, as well as behind the Iron Curtain. In France, he was viewed as the master of the ballad of lost love in the vein of that country's most popular singer, Édith Piaf.
His contract with MGM ended in 1973, at which point he signed with Mercury Records. He re-signed with Monument in 1976, but his career would languish until the late 1980s.
In 1980, Orbison teamed with Emmylou Harris to win the 1981 Grammy Award for "Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal" for their song, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again." In 1985, Orbison recorded Wild Hearts for the Nic Roeg film, Insignificance, released on the ZTT Records label. The inclusion of "In Dreams" in the 1986 David Lynch film, Blue Velvet, also added to Orbison's rise in popularity. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, with Bruce Springsteen giving the induction speech. His pioneering contribution was also recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Having signed a recording contract for the first time in 10 years, with Virgin Records, he re-recorded his 1961 hit song, "Crying," as a duet with K.D. Lang in 1987, for the soundtrack of the motion picture, Hiding Out. The song would earn the Grammy Award for "Best Country Collaboration with Vocals."
Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, was a black and white Cinemax television special recorded in 1988, at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The program, which brought the musician to the attention of a younger generation, featured Orbison accompanied by a who's-who supporting cast organized by musical director, T-Bone Burnett. On piano was Glen Hardin, who played for Buddy Holly as well as Elvis Presley for several years. Lead guitarist James Burton had also played with Presley. Male background vocals, with some also playing the guitar, came from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, and Steven Soles. Jennifer Warnes, K.D. Lang, and Bonnie Raitt provided female background vocals.
Shortly after this critically acclaimed performance, whilst working with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra on tracks for a new album, Orbison joined Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty to form the Traveling Wilburys, achieving substantial commercial and critical success. He subsequently recorded a new solo album, Mystery Girl, produced by Orbison, Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers), and Jeff Lynne.
At an awards ceremony in Antwerp a few days before his death, Roy Orbison gave his only public rendition of the hit, "You Got It," to the applause of a huge crowd.
Orbison smoked most of his life, and had triple heart bypass surgery on January 18, 1978. On December 6, 1988, at the age of 52, he suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting his mother in the Nashville, Tennessee suburb of Hendersonville. At the direction of his wife, Barbara, Orbison was interred at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California, on December 15, 1988.
His new album, Mystery Girl, and the single from it, "You Got It" were posthumous hits, and are generally regarded as Orbison's best work since the 1960s. He was the posthumous winner of the 1991 Grammy Award for "Best Male Pop Vocal Performance" and in 1992, the popular "I Drove All Night" and "Heartbreak Radio" appeared on the posthumous album, King of Hearts, produced by Jeff Lynne.
It has been written of Orbison, that for a man who had created such an impact in the music world, very few of his musical trends ever caught on. It has been noted that this is perhaps due to the fact that his style was so distinct and personal that ultimately it was a sound only fit for him. Yet, he has influenced many world-stage performers at least in part, including groups such as The Bee Gees and The Ramones, and solo acts such as Bob Dylan and Chris Isaak.
From the stage in Las Vegas in 1976, Elvis Presley called Orbison "the greatest singer in the world," and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees referred to him as the "Voice of God." Multiple Academy Award–winning songwriter Will Jennings called him a "poet, a songwriter, a vision," after working with him and co-writing "Wild Hearts."
Three songs written and recorded by Orbison, "Only The Lonely," "Oh, Pretty Woman," and "Crying," are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. And in 2004, Rolling Stone named those three songs plus "In Dreams" on its list of "The 50 Greatest Songs of All Time." In the same year, Rolling Stone ranked Orbison #37 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
In 2006, Roy was remembered with a new book edited and authored by Chris O'Neil, containing contributions from fans worldwide describing how the legendary performer had impacted their lives. The book, titled Straight From Our Hearts, was a very successful hit among fans on both sides of the Atlantic and even Barbara Orbison has asked for a copy to keep at the Orbison office located in Nashville. The book was a series of stories from fans describing how Roy had impacted their lives. Along with the book, The Essential Roy Orbison CD collection was released, containing many rare songs. The collection charted in the top ten in seven countries and has triggered interest in releasing additional rare material.
In 1989, he was inducted posthumously into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Two misconceptions about Orbison's appearance continue to surface: That he was an albino, and that he wore his trademark dark glasses because he was blind or nearly so. Neither is correct, though his poor vision required him to wear thick corrective lenses. From childhood, he suffered from a combination of hyperopia, severe astigmatism, anisometropia, and strabismus. Orbison's trademark sunglasses were a fashion statement arising from an incident early in his career. Orbison had left his regular glasses in an airplane. Due to go on stage in a few minutes and unable to see without corrective lenses, his only other pair of glasses were dark prescription sunglasses. "I had to see to get on stage," so he wore the glasses throughout his tour of England with the Beatles in 1963, and he continued the practice for the remainder of his professional career. "I'll just do this and look cool." However, Orbison once said in an interview that he wore his glasses on a plane because the sun was bright and forgot he was wearing them, especially while on stage. Shortly after he finished performing, he looked in the mirror and noticed he had not taken his glasses off, so he laughed about it and continued to wear them for the rest of his career.
Record producer and Orbison fan Don Was, commenting on Orbison's writing skills, said: "He defied the rules of modern composition." Bernie Taupin, lyricist for Elton John, and others referred to Orbison as far ahead of the times, creating lyrics and music in a manner that broke with all traditions. Roy Orbison's vocal range was impressive (three octaves), and his songs were melodically and rhythmically advanced and lyrically sophisticated, often incorporating the bolero form.
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