December 6, 1988 – Roy Kelton Orbison was born on April 23, 1936, in Vernon, Texas to Nadine and Orbie Lee. He formed his first band at age 13. The singer-songwriter dropped out of college to pursue music. He signed with Monument Records and recorded such ballads as “Only the Lonely” and “It’s Over.”
Born to a working-class Texan family, Orbison grew up immersed in musical styles ranging from rockabilly and country to zydeco, Tex-Mex and the blues. His dad gave him a guitar for his sixth birthday and he wrote his first song, “A Vow of Love,” in 1944 while staying at his grandmothers. In 1945 he entered and won a contest on KVWC in Vernon and this led to his own radio show singing the same songs every Saturday. By the time Roy was 13 he had formed his own band “The Wink Westerners”. The band appeared weekly on KERB radio in Kermit, Texas. Roy graduated from Wink High School in 1954. He attended North Texas State College in Denton, Texas for a year, and enrolled at Odessa Junior College in 1955 to study history and English.
The band, now renamed “The Teen Kings” appeared weekly on local TV, where they met Johnny Cash, who put them in touch with his record producer, Sam Phillips, of Sun Records. Roy also married Claudette in 1955, for who he wrote the song “Claudette”. (a hit for The Everly Brothers).
Roy achieved his first commercial success with Sam Phillips in June 1956 with “Ooby Dooby”, a song written by friends of Orbison from college. But Sun Records were more hillbilly than Roy, so staying with his love, music, he took a job at Acuff-Rose Music in Nashville as a songwriter, and given a contract by RCA. In 1959 Bob Moore, who was a partner in Monument Records, played bass on Roy Orbison’s final RCA recording session. During the session, Roy told Bob Moore he was being dropped by RCA.
Bob told Roy not to worry about it and spoke to his personal manager Wesley Rose and soon thereafter Roy signed with Monument records. Throughout his stay at Monument Records, his backup band was a group of outstanding studio musicians led by Bob Moore. Under Fred Fosters guidance Roy developed his own sound, his voice so distinctive & unique with a four-octave vocal range, never heard before or since in rock n roll. The early 60’s see’s Roy an international star, with chart topping tracks such as “Only The Lonely”, “Running Scared”, “Oh, Pretty Woman”, “In Dreams”, “Love Hurts”, “Dream Baby”, “Blue Angel”, “Great Pretender”, “Blue Bayou” “In Dreams”, “Crying” and tours with the Beatles as his warm up band in 1963, The Beach Boys in 1964, and with The Rolling Stones in 1965, having a huge influence on all these bands. In 1963 he struck up a life long friendship with the Beatles, and it was Roy who encouraged them to tour America.
A year before Beatlemania overtook the United States in 1964, the four lads from Liverpool had invited Orbison to open for them on their English tour. On his first night, Orbison performed 14 encores before the Beatles even made it on stage.
Roy Orbison, who didn’t have the Beatles’ looks, Sinatra’s swagger or Elvis’s pelvis, was perhaps the most unlikely sex symbol of the 1960s. He dressed like an insurance salesman and was famously lifeless during his performances. “He never even twitched,” recalled George Harrison, who was simultaneously awestruck and confounded by Orbison’s stage presence. “He was like marble.” What Orbison did have was one of the most distinctive, versatile and powerful voices in pop music.
After Orbison landed his record deal with the Nashville-based label Monument in 1960, he began perfecting the sound that would define his career. His big break came after he tried to pitch his composition “Only the Lonely” to both Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers, and was turned down by both. Deciding to record the song himself, Orbison used his vibrato voice and operatic style to create a recording unlike anything Americans had heard at the time.
Reaching as high the No. 2 spot on the Billboard singles chart, “Only the Lonely” has since been deemed a pivotal force in the development of rock music. Between 1960 and 1965, Orbison recorded nine Top 10 hits and another ten that broke into the Top 40. These included “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “It’s Over” and “Oh, Pretty Woman,” none of which adheres to a conventional song structure. When it came to composition, Orbison called himself “blessed … with not knowing what was wrong or what was right.” As he put it, “the structure sometimes has the chorus at the end of the song, and sometimes there is no chorus, it just goes … But that’s always after the fact—as I’m writing, it all sounds natural and in sequence to me.”
As distinctive as his four-octave voice and unorthodox songwriting technique was Orbison’s unglamorous style, which some have described as “geek chic,” producer Don Was, commenting on Orbison’s writing skills, said: “He defied the rules of modern composition”; Elton John’s Songwriting partner Bernie Taupin referred to him “Far ahead of the times, creating lyrics and music in a manner that broke with all traditions”; Will Jennings called him a “poet, a songwriter, a visionary”; Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees referred to him as the “Voice of God”; and the great Elvis Presley proclaimed him “the greatest singer in the world”.
Stricken with both jaundice and bad eyesight as a child, Orbison had sallow skin and thick corrective eyewear, not to mention a shy demeanor. On a fateful day during his 1963 tour with the Beatles, Orbison left his glasses on the plane before a show, which forced him to wear his unsightly prescription sunglasses for that night’s show. Although he considered the incident “embarrassing,” the look became an instant trademark.
Orbison’s unhip underdog look suited his music well, as his lyrics were marked by incredible vulnerability. At a time when rock music went hand-in-hand with confidence and machismo, Orbison dared to sing about insecurity, heartache and fear. His stage persona, which has been described as borderline masochistic, went a long way toward challenging the traditional ideal of aggressive masculinity in rock ‘n’ roll.
Although the first half of the 1960s saw the rise of Orbison’s star, the second half of the decade brought much harder times. Tragedy struck when Orbison’s wife, Claudette, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966, and again when his two oldest sons died in a house fire in 1968. Following those incidents, a devastated Orbison failed to generate many hits—and with the rise of the psychedelic movement in rock ‘n’ roll, the market for rockabilly had all but dried up anyway.
Roy signed with MGM Records in 1966, starring in MGM Studios’ western-musical motion picture The Fastest Guitar Alive. Throughout the 60’s and early 70’s Roy remained on the top, with many world wide hits. His 1972 rendition of “Danny Boy” is considered one of the best recordings ever made of this ever popular ballad.
He met his second wife, Barbara, in August 1968, in Leeds, England, and they were married in Nashville on May 25, 1969. Roy continued to have a very strong fan base in Europe, but not so much in his native USA until the 80’s. Late 70’s sees him in poor health, Roy had triple heart bypass surgery on January 18, 1978. In 1980, he teamed up with Emmylou Harris to win the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again”. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the induction speech made by Bruce Springsteen. His pioneering contribution was also recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. 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 the late 80’s, Roy, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty got together and formed the great band the Traveling Wilburys, His last appearance, a few days before his death, was at an awards ceremony in Antwerp, where Roy gave his only public rendition of the hit “You Got It”. Many artists and bands have covered Roy’s songs, including Van Halen, Linda Ronstadt, Al Green, The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin, Count Basie, Dwight Yoakam, Buddy Holly, John Mellencamp, Kitty Wells, Chris Isaak, Waylon Jennings and Glen Campbell.
Peter Lehman, director of the Department of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Arizona State University, said about that period, “I was living in New York between 1968 and 1971, and even in Manhattan I could not find a record store that bothered to stock one copy of a newly released Orbison album; I had to special order them.” By the mid-1970s, Orbison stopped recording music altogether.
Orbison returned to his musical career in 1980, however, when the Eagles invited him to join them on their “Hotel California” tour. That same year, he rekindled his relationship with country music fans by performing a memorable duet with Emmylou Harris on “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again,” which went on to win a Grammy Award. When Van Halen covered “Oh, Pretty Woman” in 1982, rock fans were reminded that gratitude for the song was owed to Orbison. By 1988, Orbison had staged a successful comeback, joined the all-star supergroup The Traveling Wilburys (alongside Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison) and been admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Despite his sales, charts and accolades, Orbison is most remembered today as an improbable rock star who put his heart on his sleeve and moved people with his music. “When you were trying to make a girl fall in love with you,” Tom Waits once recalled, “it took roses, the Ferris wheel and Roy Orbison.”
Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. The Big “O”, the most unique voice in Rock and Roll history died of a heart attack on December 6, 1988 while visiting his mother in Nashville. His posthumously released comeback album, Mystery Girl, reached No. 5 on the charts, becoming the highest-charting solo album of his career. Although he was only 52 when he died, Orbison lived to see his rightful place in music history restored.
Pretty Woman on the finale of the Black & White Night Concert September 30, 1987. Backed by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, Tom Waits, kd lang, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, JD Souther, T Bone Burnett, Steven Soles, and Jennifer Warnes.