Born Vernon, Texas, April 23, 1936
Died Hendersonville, Tennessee, December 6, 1988
Like all early white rockers, Roy Orbison began as a country singer. By the early 50's he was performing professionally under the guidance of Norman Petty (later Buddy Holly's manager), though his break came when Johnny Cash, then signed to Sun, put him in touch with that label. Orbison sent a tape of "Ooby Dooby" ("because that was the kind of material that Sun was releasing at the time") and got himself a deal.
A rockabilly classic, "Ooby Dooby" was a hit in 1956, and was followed by several similar records. Though Orbison's leaning was more towards the ballads for which he would become famous, these early releases are worth pursuing; his melodic tenor cuts across the rock beat with strange grace. Amongst the best were "Domino", covered by the Cramps, "Problem Child", and the weird-as-hell "Chicken Hearted", a raw semi-instrumental in which Orbison boasts of his cowardice in seemingly the wrong key.
Even at this early stage, however, Roy was looking beyond rockabilly and was convinced that his true calling was as a songwriter. Roy Orbison left Sun in 1957 and signed to music publishers Acuff-Rose. Indeed his song "Claudette", written while at Sun was a top 30 hit for The Everly Brothers in 1958. Then followed "Down the Line", a stable mate for Jerry Lee Lewis.
It was as a songwriter that he was invited to move to Nashville. Signing a new contract with Monument, Orbison began collaborating with fellow Texan, Joe Melson. Beginning with Up Town, the pair had a long and extremely productive writing partnership. Of Roy's first 15 top 40's hits, six were penned by the Orbison/Melson team. They included the breakthrough record Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel), which became #1 in Britain and #2 in America. (This record sold two million and established Orbison as the premier balladeer of the Kennedy years.) In Britain however, it didn't just top the charts but remained in the Top 40 for nearly 6 months. Only The Lonely is, of course, the song regarded by many as the starting point of Roy's classic ballad sound. Most of the hits that would follow before he left Monument in 1965, such as Running Scared, Crying, Dream Baby, In Dreams, and It's Over, contain a vivid combination of hurtful romantic longing combined with near operatic vocals that established Roy as a truly unique talent.
Eight top ten hits in the four years between 1960 and 1964 paved the way for the biggest selling record of his career, Oh, Pretty Woman. Estimated to have sold over 7 million copies in 1964 alone, it topped the American charts for three weeks holding at bay the British invasion by bands such as The Animals and Manfred Mann. In Britain it gave Roy his second straight number one (It's Over had dominated the UK charts in the spring of '64) and, like its predecessor, remained on the charts for over four months. And what made the songs even more stunning was his performance. Wearing a plain dark suit, with jet black hair and shades, Orbison would stand absolutely still, the eye of the musical storm that crashed around him.
While he was the only American vocalist to ride out the British invasion, Orbison also toured Britain regularly, initially sharing a bill with The Beatles (who, at the time, were by and large unknowns in America).
"I messed up the first day I got there. I walked out in this little theatre and they had Beatle placards everywhere, life-size ones. And I said, 'what's all this? What is a Beatle anyway?' John Lennon said, 'I'm one'. He was standing right behind me."
The Beatles of course, were hugely influenced by Orbison and their slow-tempo version of Please Please Me was very much a tribute to him.
In 1965 Orbison signed to MGM, lured by a lucrative deal that also offered the potential of Presley-level movie stardom. Indeed he did star in 1968's The Fastest Guitar Alive, but MGM was getting into financial trouble and Orbison's rich vein of hits began to dry up. To compound this, Roy's private life was marred when, in the midst of reconciliation with his ex-wife Claudette, (heroine of the Everlys hit), she was killed in a motorcycle accident. Two years later in 1968, two of Roy's sons were killed in a house fire. Reduced to touring clubs, Roy returned to his country roots and recorded for Mercury and Asylum in the '70's. His reputation as an influential master, however, began to soar once again via covers of his early work.
Linda Ronstadt set the ball rolling with Blue Bayou (1977) and three years later, Roy won a grammy for his duet with Emmylou Harris (That Loving You Feeling Again). A year later Don McLean scored with Crying, but real success came Roy's way again when his re-recording of the 1963 hit In Dreams became a pivotal element of David Lynch's 1986 movie, Blue Velvet.
Signing to Virgin, and with all of his old recordings embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings, Orbison set about re-recording his songs "just so they would be available" and released a double-set In Dreams.
In 1987, Roy Orbison was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and within twelve months had become a member of the Traveling Wilburys alongside Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison. With his career rejuvenated, Orbison fronted the extraordinary TV special recorded at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles-Roy Orbison and Friends: a Black and White Night. Roy's friends who became his backing band were indeed stellar: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Kd Lang (duetting with him on the revival of Crying), Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Jennifer Warnes and more.
Then in December 1988 at the age of 52, Roy Orbison died suddenly from a heart attack at Hendersonville Hospital in Hendersonville Tennessee, after complaining of chest pains at the home of his mother.
Posthumously released in 1989, Roy's Mystery Girl album became the biggest selling record of his career. That success was sparked by two more Top Ten hits, You Got It (written by fellow Wilburys' Petty and Jeff Lynne) and I Drove All Night. In 1992 Virgin released King Of Hearts , a collection of previously unissued songs.
Now as we head towards a new millennium, the world continues to mourn the loss of one of music's all time greatest performers, most especially because only in death is his vast talent conspicuously receiving the long over due recognition it so richly deserved in life!