Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 - December 6, 1988) 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, "Only the Lonely," "In Dreams," "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Crying," "Running Scared," and "You Got It." He was known for his smooth high baritone voice, with a range of at least two and a half octaves. He was rarely seen on stage without his trademark tinted prescription glasses. 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 around 1943 to find work in the munitions and aircraft factories which had expanded during the Second World War. They moved to the West Texas oil town of Wink in Winkler County, near the New Mexico border, in late 1946.
Music became an important part of Orbison's family life. In 1949, the 13-year-old Orbison organized his first band, "The Wink Westerners," which appeared weekly on radio station KERB in Kermit, Texas. When not singing with the band, he played guitar and wrote songs.
Orbison graduated from Wink High School in 1954, and then attended North Texas State College in Denton, Texas, studying history and English. Meanwhile, The Wink Westerners had some success on local television, and were given 30-minute weekly shows on KMID and KOSA-TV. One guest on their show was Johnny Cash, who advised them to seek a contract with his record producer, Sam Phillips of Sun Records.
Orbison achieved his first recording experience in June 1956 with the rockabilly-style song, "Ooby Dooby," which was written by Orbison's college chums. The record was produced at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico.
Taking the advice that Cash gave him, Orbison and his band drove to Memphis, Tennesee to try their luck at Sun Records. At first, Sam Phillips turned them down, but he eventually agreed to add the band to the Sun roster after hearing a recording the band had made in Clovis. The Wink Westerners were renamed "The Teen Kings."
One of the songs that Orbison recorded at Sun Records was named after his wife, Claudette. Orbison got a big break when "Claudette" was recorded by the already popular Everly Brothers (who were not part of the Sun roster) as the b-side to their No. 1 hit, "All I Have To Do Is Dream."
Overall, the rockabilly and blues sound of Sun's artists brought Orbison little success and his career seemed to be over. Orbison left Sun Records, and found work as a songwriter for Acuff-Rose Music in Nashville. Eventually, he signed a contract with RCA Records. Chet Atkins of RCA Records referred him to Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records, where he moved after his contract with RCA ended in 1959.
Songwriter Joe Melson became a big part of Orbison's life. The two met in Odessa, Texas after Orbison heard a song Melson had written entitled "Raindrops," which featured melodic twists and lyrical styling. Orbison soon asked him to write with him, and they created a sound unheard of in rock and roll at the time: the dramatic rock ballad. Fred Foster of Monument liked the new direction and assisted with the writing team's vision. Orbison's second Monument single, "Uptown," was moderately successful in the United States in early 1960. With the release of the follow-up single, "Only the Lonely," which rose swiftly to the top of the charts (#2 in the US, #1 in the UK), Orbison became an international rock'n'roll star. His sixth Monument single, "Runnin' Scared", became a #1 hit in the United States during the spring of 1961. The follow-up to "Runnin' Scared," "Crying," reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (#1 on Cashbox) later the same year.
Starting in 1963, Orbison wrote many songs with fellow songwriter Bill Dees, including "Oh, Pretty Woman," which may be the most well-known song of Orbison's career, and "It's Over," a UK #1 single in June 1964. Throughout his stay at Monument Records, his backup band was a group of studio musicians led by Bob Moore. The juxtaposition 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 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 British tour with The Beatles, but by the end of the tour he was playing second fiddle to the Fab Four as Beatlemania gathered pace. John Lennon later claimed that he had joked to Orbison that the Beatles were tiring of opening for him so Orbison agreed to switch, but the audience greeted Orbison with such enthusiasm that the Beatles became concerned that they would not get to perform, and called out to him from backstage, "Yankee, go home." 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 UK tour together, Orbison encouraged the Beatles to come to the United States. When they toured America in the summer of 1964, they asked Orbison to appear with them, 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 eponymous 1990 film Pretty Woman, 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 arguably more successful in Britain than his home country, especially from 1963 onwards, logging three No.1 hit singles and being voted top male vocalist of the year several times there.
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 songs "Mama" and "Shahdaroba" in German (the latter being retitled "San Fernando"). 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 worldwide fan club. He continued to perform in Ireland, despite the continual 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 between "Penny Arcade" in 1969 and "You Got It" in 1989, but compilation albums of his past material always sold well (with the 1975 release "The Best of Roy Orbison" and the 1988 release "The Legendary Roy Orbison" both hitting the No.1 spot). Greatest Hits compilations of Orbison's material continue to do well in the UK to this day (for example the 2001 collection "Love Songs" reached No.4).
Career decline 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, Orbison 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," which won 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. 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 earned the Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.
In September 1987, Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night, a black-and-white HBO television special was recorded at the Cocoanut 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 Orbison. 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. For this album Orbison adopted the stage name Lefty Wilbury. 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.
Orbison 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 December 4th, and on Tuesday, December 6th, he spent time shopping for model airplane parts and flying them, but during the afternoon he complained of chest pains. He was visiting at the home of his widowed mother, Nadine Orbison, and eldest son Wesley when he was found collapsed and unresponsive in the bathroom by his brother, Sam Orbison. Although rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Hendersonville, Tennessee, he was declared dead at 11:54 p.m. on December 6, 1988. He had suffered a massive heart attack.
On December 15, Orbison was buried in an unmarked grave at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Orbison's last album, Mystery Girl, on which he had worked for some time, was released posthumously.
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 DeWayne (b. 1958) and Anthony King (b. 1962), died in the fire. His youngest son Wesley Kelton, 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 Orbison'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 songwriting 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, his voice effortlessly powerful with little apparent physical effort, and his songs were melodically and rhythmically advanced and lyrically sophisticated.
* 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". Dylan was also quoted as saying "Roy was an opera singer. He had the greatest voice."
* 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, were released on October 23, 2007. It was the first time in more than fifteen years that King of Hearts was available again to the public.
* On September 30, 2008, "The Soul Of Rock And Roll" box set was released from Sony Records. It contains over one hundred songs spanning Orbison's entire career, including over a dozen unreleased and rare songs including "Precious" (unreleased from 1970) and as well a live performance of "It's Over" from his final concert on December 4, 1988. Also the box set had a book containing pictures and more of Orbison and his personal and career life. The box set on October 6, 2008, charted number one at Amazon.com's charts in Rock, Box Sets, and Oldies categories at the same time for three weeks straight.
* On December 2, 2008, Orbison's final concert from The Front Row Theatre was released on iTunes. The only song missing from the concert is "Running Scared".
* On January 2, 2009, The Orbison estate released a letter to the public that the box set "The Soul Of Rock And Roll" was one of the highest selling sets for the 2008 holiday season, and as well the new website receives daily over 100,000 hits worldwide. The letter also stated that the final concert release is also very huge success, making 2008 the biggest year for Roy Orbison since 1989.
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."