1936 – Roy Orbison is born in Vernon, Texas. His biggest hit is “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which stays at No. 1 for three weeks in 1964. He is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and dies of a heart attack on Dec. 6, 1988, in Madison, Tenn.
Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988), nicknamed “The Big O,” was an influential Grammy Award-winning American singer-songwriter, guitarist and a pioneer of rock and roll whose recording career spanned more than four decades. Orbison is best known for the songs, “Ooby Dooby,” “Only the Lonely,” “In Dreams,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Crying,” “Running Scared,” and “You Got It”. In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1989, he was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Early life and career
Orbison was born in Vernon, the seat of Wilbarger County in north Texas. He was the second son of Nadine Shults and Orbie Lee Orbison. His family moved to Fort Worth about 1943 to find work in the munitions and aircraft factories which had expanded during Second World War. They relocated to the West Texas oil town of Wink in Winkler County near the border of New Mexico, in late 1946.
Music became an important part of Orbison’s family life. In 1949, at the age of thirteen, Orbison organized his first band “The Wink Westerners”. When not singing with the band, he played guitar and wrote songs. The band appeared weekly on KERB radio in Kermit, Texas. Orbison graduated from Wink High School in 1954. He attended North Texas State College in Denton, Texas for a year, then enrolled at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, the following year to study history and English. The Wink Westerners had some success on local television, and were given 30 minute weekly shows on KMID and 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. At first, Phillips turned them down, but he eventually agreed to add the band to Sun Records’ roster after hearing a recording made at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico. The Wink Westerners were renamed “The Teen Kings”, and Orbison left college in March of 1956, determined to have a career in music. He ultimately headed for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.
Orbison achieved his first commercial success in June 1956 with “Ooby Dooby”, written by Orbison’s friends from college, and produced at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Many of the earliest songs he recorded were produced by Sam Phillips, who also produced Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Named after his first wife, his song “Claudette” was recorded by the Everly Brothers as the b-side to their No. 1 hit, “All I Have To Do Is Dream”. The rockabilly and blues sound of Sun’s artists brought Orbison little success and his career seemed over, although fans of rockabilly count his records among the best of this genre. He worked at Acuff-Rose Music in Nashville, Tennessee as a songwriter, and then was given a contract by RCA. Eventually, Chet Atkins referred him to Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records, where he moved after his contract with RCA ended in 1959.
In 1957, Orbison met songwriter Joe Melson in Odessa, Texas. After hearing a song Melson had written entitled “Raindrops”, which featured melodic twists and lyrical styling, Roy soon asked him to write with him. Together they created a sound unheard of in rock and roll at the time: the dramatic rock ballad. Fred Foster liked the new direction and assisted with the writing team’s vision. Roy’s first record, “Uptown”, was moderately successful. With the release of “Only the Lonely” and its immediate rise to the top of the charts (#2 in the US, #1 in the UK), he went on to become an international rock and roll star. His single, “Runnin’ Scared” became a US #1 hit. Later, Roy wrote many songs with writer Bill Dees including “Oh, Pretty Woman” which may be the most well-known song of Roy’s career. Throughout his stay at Monument Records, his backup band was a group of 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 and identifiable sound. He also encouraged Foster to record songs for Virgil Johnson’s pre doo-wop group, The Velvets.
Orbison was a powerful influence on contemporaries such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In 1963, he headlined a European tour with The Beatles. He became 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 toured America, they asked Orbison to manage their tour, but his schedule forced him to decline.
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 No. 1 on the Billboard charts and No. 1 on the British charts. The record sold more copies in its first ten days of release than any single up to that time, and eventually sold over seven million copies. The song later became the signature tune for the film Pretty Woman, named for his song, which brought fame to actress Julia Roberts.
Orbison toured with The Beach Boys in 1964, and with The Rolling Stones in Australia in 1965. He was successful in England, logging three No.1 hit singles and was voted top male vocalist of the year several times.
Career decline in North America
Orbison signed a contract with MGM Records in 1965, and starred in MGM Studios’ western-musical motion picture ‘The Fastest Guitar Alive, in which he performed several songs from an album of the same name. Possibly due to changes in musical taste, he had no hits in the U.S. after 1967. He remained popular elsewhere, but his American popularity did not recover until the 1980s.
Success outside North America
Songs that had limited success in North America, such as “Penny Arcade” and “Working for the Man” would go to No. 1 on the Australian charts, and “Too Soon to Know” went to No. 3 in England. His popularity extended to Germany, and he recorded his hit song “Mama” in German. His records were in great demand on the “black market” 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. A cover version of Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” sung in French by Mireille Mathieu went to the top of France’s record charts. Fans in the Netherlands founded his largest world-wide fan club. He continued to perform in Ireland, despite the constant terrorist activities in Northern Ireland. In 1972, Orbison covered the popular Irish anthem, “Danny Boy”, featured on his album, Memphis.
In Britain, Orbison had no hit singles during the 1970s, although compilation albums of his past material always sold well (with the 1975 release “The Best of Roy Orbison” hitting the #1 spot). This trend continues to this day. (For example the 2001 collection “Love Songs” reached #4).
Career in the 1970s
In 1973, Orbison’s contract with MGM ended and he signed with Mercury Records soon after. He released a country style album on the label entitled I’m Still In Love With You. The original liner notes said how Orbison’s career was suffering, and mentioned his lack of hits in the States. According to these liner notes, that was to change with the release of the songs on the album. The song, “Sweet Mama Blue”, was a single from the album, but it failed to chart.
In 1976, Orbison re-signed with Monument Records, hoping to revive his career. Orbison re-teamed with Fred Foster for the album Regeneration. The album failed to make an impact with the public, and despite having enough material for another album to be released, Orbison asked Foster to be released from his contract in 1978.
In 1977, multi-Grammy winning vocalist Linda Ronstadt included “Blue Bayou” in her triple-platinum album Simple Dreams. The single reached No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart and was certified platinum by the RIAA. Ronstadt’s interpretation of “Blue Bayou” is Orbison’s greatest commercial songwriting success, with the single having reported sales of over 7 million copies worldwide.
Orbison continued to tour heavily in the late 1970s, and at times, non-stop for weeks at a time. That all came to a halt in late 1977 when he discovered that he needed open heart surgery following a heart attack at the age of 41. On January 18, 1978, Orbison underwent an operation and had a new lease on life. Over the next decade, his voice and music would become as big as, if not bigger than in the early 1960s.
Orbison’s last contract in the 1970s came in 1979, with Elektra/Asylum Records where he finished the album Laminar Flow. The album was a new direction for him, as it was his attempt at doing disco. The album also features a tribute song to Elvis Presley, who died in 1977, “Hound Dog Man”. Presley was a fan of Orbison’s and during a show in Las Vegas in 1976, he called Orbison “the greatest singer in the world” According to Orbison’s brother, Sam Orbison, Roy was “saddened by the sordid treatment of Elvis Presley in the aftermath of his death in 1977”.
Resurgence in the 1980s
In 1980, Orbison teamed with Emmylou Harris for the song “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again”. The song would go on to win the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. In 1985, Orbison recorded “Wild Hearts” for the Nicolas Roeg film Insignificance, released on the ZTT Records label, produced by David Briggs and Will Jennings. The inclusion of “In Dreams” in the 1986 David Lynch film Blue Velvet also aided Orbison’s return to popularity. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, with the induction speech made by Bruce Springsteen (who had famously referenced Orbison and “Only the Lonely” in his 1975 song “Thunder Road”). 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.
In 1988, Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night, a black-and-white HBO television special was recorded at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Orbison was accompanied by a who’s-who supporting cast organized by musical director T-Bone Burnett. All were fans and all were volunteers who lobbied to participate. 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 and Ricky Nelson. Male background vocals, with some also playing the guitar or piano, came from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther and Steven Soles. A “million-dollar” trio of Jennifer Warnes, k.d. Lang and Bonnie Raitt provided female background vocals. He was also joined by keyboardist Michael Utley, a long time member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. All members of this first-class group of supporting artists displayed great respect and admiration for Roy. This TV special performance brought Orbison to the attention of a younger generation.
Shortly after this critically acclaimed performance, while 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. It included one track by U2’s Bono (who also wears trademark dark glasses and co-wrote the song “She’s a Mystery to Me” with the Edge specifically for Orbison). 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.
Roy came back to America and played his last show for 1988 in Highland Heights, Ohio. He had big European and American tours planned out already for the next year.
Orbison headed down to Nashville on 4 December and on Tuesday, 6 December, spent time shopping for model airplane parts and flying them, but during the afternoon he complained of chest pains. He collapsed at his mother’s house just before midnight. At 52 years of age, the singer was reported dead at 11:46 pm on 6 December 1988. He had suffered a massive heart attack.
Orbison endured a great deal of tragedy in his relatively short life. His first wife, Claudette Frady, died in a motorcycle accident on June 6, 1966 in Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 14, 1968, the Orbison 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, who was three at the time, was saved by Orbison’s parents.
Orbison met his second wife Barbara in August 1968 in Batley, West Yorkshire, England. They were married in Nashville on May 5, 1969, and built a new house one block away from where Roy’s old house had once stood. The family moved to Malibu, California in 1985. They had two sons, Roy Kelton Orbison, Jr. born in 1970 and Alexander “Orbi” Lee Orbison born in 1975. “Orbi” is a drummer with the band Whitestarr.
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 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.
Orbison’s album, Mystery Girl, and the single, “You Got It,” were posthumous hits, At the time of his death, he was the first person since Elvis Presley to have two albums in the top 5 (Mystery Girl and Traveling Wilburys). He was the posthumous winner of the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and in 1992, the tracks “I Drove All Night” and “Heartbreak Radio” appeared on the posthumous album, King of Hearts, produced by Jeff Lynne.
Orbison is remembered for his ballads of lost love, and in the music community he is revered for his song writing ability. Record producer and Orbison fan Don Was, commenting on Orbison’s writing skills, said: “He defied the rules of modern composition”. Songwriters such as Elton John and Bernie Taupin along with many 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 (four octaves), his voice effortlessly powerful, and his songs were melodically and rhythmically advanced and lyrically sophisticated, often incorporating the bolero form.
Three songs written and recorded by Orbison, “Only The Lonely”, “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Crying” are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 1989, Orbison was inducted posthumously into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 1998, Orbison was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2004, Rolling Stone named those three songs plus “In Dreams” on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. The same year, the magazine ranked him #37 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Bob Dylan, later a band mate of Orbison’s in the Traveling Wilburys, wrote “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”.
In 2006, Orbison was remembered with a new book that fans from around the world came together and wrote with main author Chris O’Neil. The book titled Straight From Our Hearts was a hit among fans on both sides of the Atlantic and 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 impacted their lives and many tributes were also contained in the book. On December 7th, it was announced that a second volume of the book would be published. It is set to be released in 2008, which will mark the 20th anniversary of Roy’s passing. In addition to the book, a CD, The Essential Roy Orbison, was released to huge fan praise; it contained many rare songs including “Life Fades Away”, which was previously only available on the long-out-of-print soundtrack to Less Than Zero. The collection charted into the top ten in seven countries, and has opened the door to upcoming releases of unheard Orbison material that fans have been longing for.
In addition to Roy’s many commercial releases, there have been many bootlegged releases that have surfaced over the years. One of the most popular Orbison bootlegs is the 1981 recording of his “Country Club” concert,
On June 12, 2007, The Traveling Wilburys Collection box set was released worldwide to huge sales topping over one million copies. It was also the first time in more than ten years that the original masters were available.
A reissue of Orbison’s last two studio albums, Mystery Girl and King of Hearts, are slated for release on October 23, 2007. It will be the first time in more than fifteen years that King of Hearts will be available again to the public.
In popular culture
The song “Please Please Me” by The Beatles was inspired by “Only the Lonely” as Paul and John explained it in the The Beatles Anthology series.
k.d. Lang lent her vocals in a remake of the 1961 classic, “Crying”.
Orbison performed “Oh, Pretty Woman” in the Season 3 Dukes of Hazzard episode, “The Great Hazzard Hijack”.
His posthumously-released music video for “I Drove All Night” featured Jennifer Connelly and Jason Priestley.
Roy contributed very recognizable backup vocals on the Jimmy Buffett song “Beyond the End” from the album Last Mango in Paris.
Main article: Roy Orbison discography
Video and televised feature performances:
1972: Roy Orbison – Live from Australia
1982: Live at Austin City Limits
1987: Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night
1999: In Dreams: The Roy Orbison Story