Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988) nicknamed "The Big O" was one of the most influential American singer-songwriters and a pioneer of rock and roll whose recording career spanned more than four decades. Orbison went on to pioneer an entirely different brand of country/pop-based rock & roll in the early '60s. What he lacked in charisma and photogenic looks, Orbison made up for in spades with his quavering operatic voice and melodramatic narratives of unrequited love and yearning.
In the process, he established rock & roll archetypes of the underdog and the hopelessly romantic loser. These were not only amplified by peers such as Del Shannon and Gene Pitney, but also influenced future generations of roots rockers such as Bruce Springsteen and Chris Isaak, as well as modern country stars the Mavericks.
Born in Vernon, Texas, Orbison was raised in the tiny oil town of Wink, Texas, with music an important part of his family life. Two misconceptions stubbornly continue to surface about Roy: one, that he was an albino, and two, that he wore his trademark dark glasses because he was blind or nearly so. Neither is correct, although his myopia required thick corrective lenses.
The reason for weraring sunglasses on stage as a gimmick began with an early career performance. Due to go onstage in a few minutes, Roy broke his regular glasses. Unable to see without corrective lenses, the only other pair of glasses he had available were darkly tinted sunglasses. The crowd and management loved the look, and he continued it as a trademark for the rest of his professional career.
At age 13 he organized his first band, "The Wink Westerners," and when not singing with the band he spent his time playing guitar and writing songs. Recognizing that a career in music was a long shot, the group disbanded after graduating high school and Roy Orbison went to North Texas State College. In 1955 Orbison left college, determined to give music a serious try. With a new band named "The Teen Kings", he headed for Memphis, Tennessee, and to Sun Records. There, Orbison (along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley) recorded for Sam Phillips.
Many of the earliest songs he recorded were produced by Sam Phillips. But the rockabilly and blues sounds of Sun's artists did not bring Orbison much success and his career seemed over, although fans of rockabilly music count his records among the best that this kind of music has to offer. For a time, he worked at Acuff-Rose Music in Nashville, Tennessee, as a songwriter but eventually Chet Atkins referred him to Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records. There, Foster encouraged Orbison to break from his established style. Under Foster's guidance, he began writing his own songs alone or in collaboration with Joe Melson, and later Bill Dees, developing his signature operatic voice, and creating a sound unheard of in Rock and Roll at the time. With the release of "Only The Lonely", and its immediate rise to the top of the charts, Orbison would go on to become an international rock and roll star.
Throughout Orbison's stay at Monument Records, his backup band was a group of outstanding studio musicians led by Bob Moore. The play of Orbison's voice against the dynamic yet uncluttered sound of the band gave Orbison's records a unique, identifiable sound.
Orbison is most remembered for his ballads of lost love, and within the music community, he is revered for his song writing abilities. Master record producer and Orbison fan Don Was, commenting on Orbison's writing skills, said: "he defied the rules of modern composition." Songwriter Bernie Taupin (composer of many lyrics 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 (he had a three octave range) and his songs were melodically and rhythmically advanced and lyrically sophisticated. Three songs written and recorded by Orbison, "Only The Lonely", "Oh, Pretty Woman", and "Crying", are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone named those three songs plus "In Dreams" on its list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." In 1989, Roy Orbison was inducted posthumously into the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Elvis Presley called Roy "the greatest singer in the world" (from onstage in Las Vegas, in 1976), Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees referred to Orbison as the "Voice of God". Multiple Academy Award winning songwriter Will Jennings ("My Heart Will Go On", from the Titanic soundtrack), called him a "poet, a songwriter, a vision", after working with him and co-writing Roy's song "Wild Hearts" for the 1985 motion picture, Insignificance. Bob Dylan (later a bandmate of Orbison's in the Traveling Wilburys) writes, "Orbison … transcended all the genres. … With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. … [He sang] his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal. … His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, 'Man, I don't believe it.' His songs had songs within songs. Orbison was deadly serious–no pollywog and no fledgling juvenile. There wasn't anything else on the radio like him."
A powerful influence on his contemporaries such as The Rolling Stones, in 1963 Roy Orbison headlined a European tour with The Beatles, becoming lifelong friends with the band, in particular with John Lennon and George Harrison (Orbison would later record with them both). During their tour of Europe, an impressed Roy Orbison encouraged The Beatles to come to the United States. When they finally decided to try America, they asked Orbison to manage their first tour but his own schedule forced him to turn down what was to become an astounding success.
Even as the British Invasion swept America in 1964, Orbison's single "Oh, Pretty Woman" broke the Beatles' stranglehold on the Top 10, soaring to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The smash hit record sold more copies in its first ten days of release than any 45rpm up to that time and would go on to sell more than seven million copies.
In 1966 Orbison signed a contract with MGM Records and starred in MGM Studios' western-musical motion picture The Fastest Guitar Alive in which he would perform several songs from an album of the same name. However, due to changes in musical taste, he suddenly ceased to have hits in the United States after 1967, and although he would remain popular elsewhere his American popularity did not recover until the 1980s.
Roy Orbison wrote and recorded numerous songs specifically for motion pictures and many of his hit songs became part of motion picture soundtracks, the most famous of which is the blockbuster film Pretty Woman. Named for his song, the music was integral to the movie that brought fame to actress Julia Roberts. As well, his hit song "In Dreams" was used extensively in the David Lynch film Blue Velvet (Lynch also featured a Spanish version of "Crying" in his film, Mulholland Drive.)His early Sun side, "Domino", was used repeatedly in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train.
A number of other artists have recorded songs written by Orbison, including the Everly Brothers, Don Gibson, Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean, Mireille Mathieu, Chris Isaak, Dwight Yoakam, and Van Halen. Singer Sonny James would have a number 1 hit on the country music charts with a cover of Orbison's "Only The Lonely".
Roy Orbison first toured Australia with the Rolling Stones in 1965 and would build a devout following there. A few songs that had only reasonable success in North America, such as "Penny Arcade" and "Working for the Man" would go to #1 on the Australian charts. Similarly, he was enormously popular in England, logging three No.1 hit singles and was several times voted top male vocalist of the year. His popularity extended to Germany, and he recorded his hit song "Mama" in German. Even behind the Iron Curtain, his records were in great demand on the "black market". 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 and a cover version of Orbison's "Blue Bayou" sung in French by Mireille Mathieu went to the top of France's record charts. Adoring fans in the Netherlands founded his largest world-wide fan club. Much loved in Belgium, at an awards ceremony in Antwerp, a few days before his passing, Roy Orbison gave his only public rendition of the hit "You Got It" to the thundering applause of a huge crowd. Adopted by intensely loyal fans in Ireland, where he continued to perform despite the constant terrorist activities, his powerful rendition of the ancient Irish folk ballad "Danny Boy" on the 1972 Memphis album is considered one of the best recordings ever made of this much-recorded song.
In 1980 he teamed up 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." He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the induction speech made by his devout follower Bruce Springsteen. That year, he rerecorded his 1961 hit song, "Crying" as a duet with k.d. lang for the soundtrack of the motion picture, "Hiding Out". The song would earn the Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.
Described as a cinematographic masterpiece, 1988's black and white Cinemax television special titled Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night, brought Orbison a whole new generation of fans. Put together by musical director, T-Bone Burnett, Orbison was accompanied by a who's who supporting cast, all fans, and all volunteers who lobbied to participate. On piano was Glen Hardin, who had played for Buddy Holly as well as working with Elvis Presley for a number of years, plus master guitarist James Burton. Male background vocals, with some on guitar, were handled by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, and Steven Soles. k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, and Bonnie Raitt sang the 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. Subsequently, a new solo album was recorded. Titled Mystery Girl, it was produced by Orbison & Mike Campbell (of the Heartbreakers), Jeff Lynne and one track by U2's Bono (who copies Orbison's trademark dark glasses and also co-wrote the track She's A Mystery to Me specifically for Orbison with the Edge). The album was released posthumously in 1989.
Roy Orbison's life was filled with personal tragedies. His first wife, Claudette (Frady), died in a 1966 motorcycle accident. (The Everly Brothers hit "Claudette" had been written about her, by Roy.) Two years later, the family home at Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee burned to the ground while Roy was touring in England, and two of his three young sons, Anthony and Roy Jr., died in the fire. The youngest boy, Wesley, at the time only three, was saved by Roy's parents. These events affected him profoundly but after a few years he would continue to play to loyal audiences all across the globe. Tragedy would strike again, when, in 1973, Orbison's elder brother Grady Lee Orbison, died in a motor vehicle accident in Henderson, Tennessee when on his way to visit Roy for Thanksgiving.
Several years after having had bypass surgery, Orbison suffered a massive heart attack and passed away at the age of only 52 while visiting at his mother's home in the Nashville, Tennessee suburb of Hendersonville just before midnight on December 6, 1988 before his last album Mystery Girl could be released.1 Both the album and the single from it, "You Got It", were hits, and are generally regarded as Orbison's best work since his success of 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.
At the direction of his second wife Barbara, Roy Orbison was interred December 15th, 1988 in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. His two sons and their mother, Claudette, who predeceased him, had been laid to rest at his request in the Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.
- Roy Orbison is one of only two singers to ever simultaneously have two Top 5 albums on the Billboard Charts (the other is Elvis Presley).
- He was also well known in the much smaller world of radio controlled model aircraft as a champion modeler and flier.
Video & televised feature performances
- Roy Orbison - Live from Australia - 1972
- Roy Orbison - Live at Austin City Limits - 1982
- Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night - 1987
- In Dreams: The Roy Orbison Story - 1999
Colin Escott, Roadkill on the Three-Chord Highway, Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-93783-3 — has a chapter devoted to Roy
- 1 Escott