Roy Orbison - Biography
Texas-born balladeer/songwriter/guitarist Roy Orbison’s extraordinary career took him from an unlikely start as a moon-faced rockabilly to becoming one of modern country-pop’s most artistically ambitious and commercially successful stylists. With his ever-present dark sunglasses, a volcanic gift for hot guitar playing, a big, soaring voice and a unique musicality that embraced everything from bolero rhythms to an almost operatic sense of melodrama, Orbison crafted his own distinct niche in the pop marketplace. Orbison’s distinctive mix of empathic lyricism, theatrical dynamics and Southern-bred, soulful expression made for a sound almost impossible to categorize; he traded in country, pop, blues and rock & roll, yet always reshaped and customized each style into a wholly individualistic, fresh presentation. His songs carry timeless appeal, and have been recorded by such rock extremists as Van Halen and The Cramps. Critics dubbed him the “Caruso of rock & roll” and Elvis Presley once said Orbison was “the greatest singer in the world.”
Orbison also led a life marked by the blackest of tragedy, enduring a series of misfortunes that reached shattering, near Shakespearean proportions, and despite a steady tour schedule of SRO dates, he became an intensely withdrawn loner. But after director David Lynch’s 1987 art-house smash Blue Velvet memorably showcased Orbison’s “In Dreams,” he enjoyed a surprising and impressive mid-1980s comeback that earned him hit records and star-studded collaborations, while introducing him to several generations of eager new listeners. This triumphant achievement was made all the more bittersweet by the fact that it immediately preceded the singer’s sudden, untimely death in 1989.
Born Roy Kelton Orbison on April 23, 1936 in Vernon, Texas, he grew up steeped in the country music that hung over Texas like an atmospheric layer. Raised in the small-town of Wink, he was proficient on guitar by high school, and formed his own band, the Wink Westerners, circa 1952. After graduating, Orbison threw it all into music, gigging as often as he could, getting encouragement from another up-and-comer, Pat Boone, and after witnessing an Elvis Presley performance, pretty much gave up straight country in favor of Elvis’ supercharged new hybrid sound. Orbison formed a tough new combo, The Teen Kings, and in 1956 made his first record at Norman Petty’s Clovis, New Mexico studio (soon to be a home away from home for West Texas rockers like Buddy Holly and Buddy Knox). The song, a hard-bopping Orbison original, was “Ooby Dooby” but after small indie Je-Wel released it, the song died.
On the road, Orbison impressed Sun Records cats Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, both of whom urged him to get a copy of the disc to Sun Records president, Sam Phillips. Although Phillips was at first dismissive (“Johnny Cash doesn’t run my business,” he grumbled), he changed his mind and issued a new version of “Ooby Dooby”—which immediately shot into the Pop Chart’s Top 60 and established Orbison as one of the new breed who seemed to be changing not just pop music, but the entire world. He cut some classic rockabilly at Sun—the clattering “Domino,” a great version of Harold Jenkins’ (a.k.a. Conway Twitty) “Rock House”—yet Orbison’s own tastes tended increasingly towards ballads.
In many ways, Orbison seemed perhaps the Sun stable’s least likely to succeed beast. His less-than-glamorous physical image and quavering vocal style sounded, next to hardcore wildmen like Carl Perkins, Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess, tentative, boyish, almost half-hearted and decidedly vulnerable. Business hassles led to an early departure from Sun, but he was soon making significant headway as a staff writer at Nashville publishing firm Acuff-Rose, particularly after the Everly Brothers used his “Claudette” (which Roy had written for his new bride) as the flipside for “All I Have to Do is Dream.” Orbison bought his first Cadillac with that royalty check. RCA Victor came calling in 1958, but the deal did not produce any fireworks. After a meeting with Monument Records head Fred Foster, Orbison decided to sign with the label, at the time little more than a fledgling indie, in 1960.
Their first release, the lush string and vocal chorus laden “Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel),” shot to #3 on the pop chart and hit #1 in both the UK and Australia. The same vulnerable quality that had made him seem out of place at Sun was now harnessed and shrewdly exploited, and between the unique arrangement and Orbison’s three-octave range tenor, he and Foster struck gold.
It was the first in an impressive string of hits, virtually all of them still oldies radio staples; each was deftly constructed and movingly delivered, usually bruised romantic tales about perpetually unguarded protagonists whom almost always got very badly burned. In Orbison’s world, panic was a theme as much as loss and even Christmas was painful—hear his superb version of the Willie Nelson ballad “Pretty Paper.” “Love Hurts,” “Falling,” “Crying,” “Running Scared,” all perfectly realized, glittering agony gems, were put over with his peerless vocals and orchestrated to perfection. He also cranked out tough, bluesy numbers like “Workin’ for the Man,” “Mean Woman Blues,” and “Candyman.”
The song “In Dreams” proved key even at it’s 1963 release—a Top Ten hit in America and in the UK, when Orbison left for England (to tour with The Beatles), he forgot to pack his glasses and as a result did the entire tour wearing his prescription shades, that, with his black stage wear, created a powerful, career-long image. 1964 saw “Oh, Pretty Woman,” his signature song, hitting number one in the US and Britain (in the process, dethroning The Beatles).
But at the height of his success at Monument, Orbison outsmarted himself. Switching to MGM Records when they reportedly offered him a million dollar deal, the hits almost stopped coming. While he did pepper the Top 40 with his MGM singles, that psychologically manipulative Midas Touch evaporated, and after his wife Claudette was killed in a fiery 1966 motorcycle crash, Orbison stayed out on the road more than ever, and became increasingly detached from reality. By the time he pulled himself together enough to start writing songs again, just over two years after Claudette’s death, he suffered a grisly coup de grace: his two sons, ten-year-old Roy and six-year-old Anthony were in their Tennessee home, and seeking kicks, began using matches to ignite the spew of an aerosol can, a fire broke out and both burned to death (Orbison parents were able to save only the youngest, three-year-old Wesley). Orbison, touring in Britain at the time, was devastated.
But even on autopilot, Orbison’s performances were still electrifying and by the mid-’70s, he returned to Monument for the well-received Regeneration album (1977), the same year of Linda Ronstadt’s hit version of his, “Blue Bayou.” In 1980, when Don McLean’s cover of Orbison’s “Crying” clogged pop charts worldwide, Orbison’s duet with EmmyLou Harris, “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again,” made the country Top Ten and later won them the Grammy for “Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.”
Although passionately revered by his fellow musicians, Orbison was still largely an unknown quantity beyond his very loyal cult of fans (who were thrilled when he teamed with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash for the Sun reunion Class of ‘55 [1985 Polygram]), but after Lynch’s Blue Velvet surrealistically showcased “In Dreams,” Orbison’s career took off all over again. 1987’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction accelerated his return, and when Virgin Records signed him, it resulted in In Dreams: the Greatest Hits (1987 Virgin) and the high-profile, feature-length HBO cable TV special, A Black & White Night, with Orbison performing alongside rock luminaries Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and K.D. Lang (to name but a few). Next, the stellar Traveling Wilburys Vol. I (1988 Warner) with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Tom Petty—netted another Grammy, followed by yet another, for his 1989 duet with K.D. Lang on a re-make of “Crying,” which emphatically demonstrated that Roy still had what it took.
He had, in fact, pulled off one of the most remarkable comebacks in rock & roll history, finding himself a hot commodity at the age of 51. Orbison (who had re-married in 1969) was finally satisfied, personally and professionally, and it seemed as if the future held as many triumphs as he cared to perpetrate. But, shockingly, on December 6, 1989, he was at his Nashville-area home, entertaining visitor Jean Shepherd (the California-born Grand Ole Opry star was an old pal), when he excused himself, walked into the bathroom and suffered a massive heart attack. Within hours, Orbison was dead.
Fittingly, after his death, the posthumously released album Mystery Girl (1989 Virgin) and the Wilburys' disc were both firmly lodged in the Billboard album charts top five, a remarkable feat that only Elvis Presley had previously managed. A flood of reissues followed his passing, and continued for years, climaxing with the comprehensive, one hundred-plus song box set, The Soul Of Rock And Roll (2008 Sony).