Born Roy Kelton Orbison on April 23, 1936 in Vernon, Texas, Roy Orbison transformed the landscape of American popular music and culture via his profoundly influential recordings, iconic persona, and deeply felt performances. As a young singer-songwriter in the 1950s, Orbison became one of the founding fathers of the emerging American art form, Rock & Roll, and, over the course of a career spanning more than four decades, created an enduring catalog of songs -- "Only The Lonely," "In Dreams," "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Crying" and countless others -- distilling love's yearnings and heartbreaks into the essence of his other-worldly four-octave voice, effortlessly gliding from glottal growls of desire to the long lonesome sorrow and spiritual triumphs of his celestial falsetto.
Roy's mother, Nadine, was a nurse and his father, Orbie Lee, a factory worker who gave him his first guitar. The first proper song Roy learned to play was the 1939 standard, "You Are My Sunshine," penned by former Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis. By 1944, Roy had written his first song, "A Vow of Love," in front of his grandmother's house in Vernon, where Roy landed his own radio show on local KVWC in 1945 after winning a contest. In 1946, the already peripatetic Orbison moved with his family to the West Texas oil town of Wink, where, at the age of 13, he formed his first band, "The Wink Westerners." Roy Orbison graduated from Wink High School in June 1954 and, before long the Wink Westerners were becoming regulars on local television and radio programs performing a protean rock & roll repertoire which included "That's All Right, Mama," "Rock Around The Clock," and "Ooby Dooby," a song written by Wade Lee Moore and Dick Penner, two friends of Roy's from his abbreviated term at North Texas State College in Denton.
The band became "The Teen Kings" to reflect an increasing interest in rock & roll and were given a weekly local Saturday TV show in Odessa, Texas, on KOSA-TV, which was part of the national CBS network. Among the guests on Roy's Texas TV program were Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, who gave Orbison the phone number of Sun Records owner, Sam Phillips, in Memphis. Though he initially passed on "The Teen Kings," Phillips signed Roy Orbison to Sun Records after hearing Roy and the Kings' version of the Clover's "Trying To Get To You" c/w "Ooby Dooby," a single they'd recorded at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings re-recorded "Ooby Dooby" for Sun Records on March 27, 1956, the single peaked at #59 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in June 1956 and Roy Orbison achieved his first commercial success.
Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings toured with a number of country and rockabilly stars including Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Warren Smith, Sonny Burgess, Faron Young, Johnny Horton, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. Subsequent singles failed to achieve the success of "Ooby Dooby" and, after the Teen Kings split up in December 1956, Orbison began concentrating on his songwriting, scoring his first smash when "Claudette," a song inspired by his first wife which he'd written on the top of a shoebox, became a hit for the Everly Brothers as the b-side of "All I Have To Do Is Dream" in March 1958. Roy Orbison would leave Sun Records that same year. During this period, Roy Orbison songs were recorded by Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ricky Nelson among other top artists of the era.
Following a brief stint at RCA, Roy Orbison signed with the newly emerging independent label Monument Records in mid-1959. While his second single for Monument, "Uptown," became his biggest hit as a performer since "Ooby Dooby," it was Orbison's third single for the label, "Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel)," which announced to the world the true artistry of Roy Orbison. The song peaked at #2 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, crossed over to #14 on the Billboard Black Singles chart, and rocketed up to #1 on the UK charts.
Orbison followed up the breakthrough with a pair of respectfully charting singles -- "Blue Angel" (#9 Pop, #23 Black) and "I'm Hurtin'" (#27 Pop) -- before knocking it out of the park with "I'm Hurtin'," his first US #1.
After that came an unbroken four-year string of Top 40 hits -- "Crying," "Candy Man," "Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)," "Working for the Man," "Leah," "In Dreams," "Pretty Paper," "Blue Bayou," "Mean Woman Blues, "It's Over" -- during which Roy Orbison became America's top-selling recording artist and one of the world's most celebrated entertainers.
In May 1963, Roy Orbison accepted an invitation to tour England on a bill with the Beatles, a group then-unknown in the United States. The tour was sold-out in a single afternoon one afternoon. On the tour's opening night, Roy Orbison was called back for 14 encores before the Beatles could get on-stage.
Roy Orbison was one of the few established hit-makers from the late 1950s and early 1960s to not only hold his ground, but to actually increase his popularity in the wake of the British Invasion. He maintained his popularity through music which displayed an extraordinary variety of content, structure, tempo and rhythm and an authentic emotional connection that transcended mere craft. A prime example is his signature classic, "Oh Pretty Woman," recorded on August 1st, 1964. Written by Orbison with his new writing partner Bill Dees, "Oh Pretty Woman" became Roy's biggest hit and is one of the most immediately recognized and popular rock songs of all time. Released in August 1964 in the US and in September of that year in the UK, the song hit the #1 slot in virtually every country in the world where people had record players, selling some seven million copies that year. He toured Australia with the Beach Boys in 1964 and with the Rolling Stones 1965.
That same year, Orbison left Monument to sign a contract with MGM Records before going on to star in the MGM Studio western-musical "The Fastest Guitar Alive" in 1967.
Orbison's private life was stalked by tragedy during the mid-to-late 1960s. In 1966, his wife Claudette, whom he married in 1957, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Two years later, on September 14, 1968, he suffered the loss of two his three children who perished when his family home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, burned to the ground. Though unable to write songs, Orbison maintained a positive outlook on life and continued to tour, finding solace in his music and the love and support of his fans.
In May 1969, Roy Orbison married Barbara Anne Marie Wilhonnen Jacobs, whom he'd met the year prior at one of his concerts in Leeds, England. Together, the pair worked through the heartache, tragedy and loss of Orbison's life and began a healing process which enabled the artist to honor his legacy while creating anew for the future. Barbara Orbison would become Roy's manager in 1985.
After his MGM contract ran out in 1973, Orbison inked a one-year deal with Mercury Records in 1974. During the 1970s, Orbison would often say that he always had a record on the charts somewhere in the world, whether it was "Penny Arcade" at #1 in Australia or "Too Soon To Know" sitting at #3 in the UK. After his brief stint on Mercury, Orbison re-signed with Monument in January 1976, in the midst of heavy touring in the Far East, Australia, Asia and Europe. He underwent open-heart surgery at the St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville in January 18, 1978, but he was back on the road three weeks later just to prove he could.
Roy's career was entering a renaissance in the late 1970s, when Linda Ronstadt's recording of "Blue Bayou" sold more than 7 million copies worldwide, bringing Orbison his greatest commercial success to-date as a songwriting. Van Halen had an enormous smash with their hard-rock rendition of "Oh Pretty Woman" while Don McLean had a hit with a version of "Crying."
Orbison finally won a Grammy in 1980 for "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," a duet with Emmy Lou Harris. His songs began appearing in films including "Wild Hearts" for Nicolas Roeg's "Insignificance." David Lynch's usage of "In Dreams," lip-synced into a hurricane lamp by Dean Stockwell in his 1986 cult film "Blue Velvet" alerted a whole new generation to the mysterious power of Roy Orbison's music.
Bruce Springsteen, who'd referenced Orbison and "Only The Lonely" in his 1975 anthem, "Thunder Road," inducted Roy Orbison into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on January 21, 1987. Shortly thereafter, Roy Orbison signed a new record contract, his first in a decade, with Virgin Records, for whom he'd re-record "Crying" as a duet with k.d. lang for the soundtrack of the film, "Hiding Out." That record earned Roy Orbison a Grammy in 1988.
Roy Orbison, who'd always dreamed of his own television special, filmed "Black & White Night" one of his most emotionally powerful and historically important concerts, a year before his death. Conceived and produced by Barbara Orbison and T Bone Burnett, "Black & White Night" was a gathering of great artists who came to perform out of love for the songwriter and singer who had influenced them so tremendously. "Roy Orbison & Friends: A Black & White Night" was filmed in starkly beautiful black & white at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles on September 30, 1987. The all-star lineup that night included T Bone Burnett, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Steven Soles, k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, and Bonnie Raitt as well as Glen D. Hardin, who'd played piano for Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, on keyboards and mythic lead guitarist James Burton.
Shortly after the filming of "Black & White Night," Orbison and Jeff Lynne, who were working on tracks together, formed an impromptu all-star supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys, achieving considerable critical acclaim and popular success with the album, "Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1," which was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy.
In late 1988, Roy Orbison entered the studio with Lynne to record his final album, "Mystery Girl" with members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and guest artists including Bono, The Edge, Steve Cropper, George Harrison, T-Bone Burnett and others. The album, posthumously released in February 1989, became the biggest selling album of his career, peaking at #5 on the Billboard 200 and certified RIAA double platinum.
Roy Orbison performed his final concert in Highland Heights, Ohio in late 1988. He died of a heart attack on December 6, 1988 in Nashville.
Roy's legacy continues to thrive as his wife Barbara devotes her time to managing his estate and releasing Orbison products through her label, Orbison Records. In 1998, Barbara accepted the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award on Roy's behalf for his unparalleled contribution to the recording industry.
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Roy Orbison: b. April 23, 1936 d. December 6, 1988
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