In 1949, at age 13, he organized his first band, “The Wink Westerners”, and when not singing with the band he spent his time playing guitar and writing songs. The band appeared weekly on KERB radio in Kermit, Texas. Orbison 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 Wink Westerners had some success on local television, being given 30 minute weekly shows on KMID and then KOSA. One of the guests on their show was Johnny Cash, who advised them to seek a contract with his record producer, Sam Phillips, of Sun Records. Having renamed The Wink Westerners as “The Teen Kings”, Orbison left college in March 1956, determined to give music a serious try, and headed for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.
Many of the earliest songs he recorded were produced by Sam Phillips, who also produced Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Orbison achieved his first commercial success in June 1956 with “Ooby Dooby”, a song written by friends of Orbison from college. His song “Claudette”, named after his first wife, was recorded by The Everly Brothers as the B-side to their Number 1 hit “All I Have To Do Is Dream”. However, the rockabilly and blues sounds of Sun’s artists did not bring Orbison much success and his career seemed over, although fans of rockabilly music count his records among the best that this kind of music has to offer. For a time, he worked at Acuff-Rose Music in Nashville, Tennessee as a songwriter, and then was given a contract by RCA, but eventually Chet Atkins referred him to Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records, where he moved after his contract with RCA ended in 1959.
Breakthrough and sudden decline
At Monument, Foster encouraged him to break from his established style. Under Foster’s guidance, he began writing his own songs alone or in collaboration with Joe Melson and later Bill Dees, developing his signature operatic voice, and creating a sound unheard of in rock and roll at the time. His first record, “Uptown” was moderately successful. With the release of “Only the Lonely” and its immediate rise to the top of the charts (#2 in the US, #1 in the UK), he went on to become an international rock and roll star. His follow-up single, “Running Scared” became a US #1. Throughout his stay at Monument Records, his backup band was a group of outstanding studio musicians led by Bob Moore. The play of Orbison’s voice against the dynamic yet uncluttered sound of the band gave Orbison’s records a unique, identifiable sound.
A powerful influence on his contemporaries such as The Rolling Stones, in 1963, Roy Orbison headlined a European tour with The Beatles, becoming lifelong friends with the band, in particular with John Lennon and George Harrison. Orbison would later record with Harrison as part of The Traveling Wilburys. During their tour of Europe, an impressed Roy Orbison encouraged The Beatles to come to the United States. When they finally decided to try America, they asked Orbison to manage their first tour but his own schedule forced him to turn down what was to become an astounding success.
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. The record sold more copies in its first ten days of release than any 45rpm up to that time and would go on to sell more than seven million copies. The song later became the signature tune for the film Pretty Woman, named for his song, which brought fame to actress Julia Roberts.
He toured with The Beach Boys in 1964, and with The Rolling Stones in Australia in 1965. He was very successful in England, logging three No.1 hit singles and was several times voted top male vocalist of the year.
Orbison signed a contract with MGM Records in 1966, and starred in MGM Studios’ western-musical motion picture The Fastest Guitar Alive in which he would perform several songs from an album of the same name. However, due to changes in musical taste, he suddenly ceased to have hits in the United States after 1967, and although he would remain popular elsewhere, his American popularity did not recover until the 1980s.
He also suffered problems in his personal life, with the death of his first wife, Claudette (Frady), in a motorcycle accident in 1966 after 11 years of marriage. Two years later, the family home at Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee burned to the ground while Orbison was touring in England, and two of his three young sons, Anthony and Roy Jr., died in the fire. The youngest boy, Wesley, at the time only three, was saved by Orbison’s parents. He met his second wife, Barbara, in August 1968, in Leeds, England, and they were married in Nashville on May 25, 1969.
His contract with MGM ended in 1973, and he signed for Mercury Records. Songs that had only reasonable success in North America, such as “Penny Arcade” and “Working For The Man”, would go to Number 1 on the Australian charts, and “Too Soon To Know” was Number 3 in England. His popularity extended to Germany, and he recorded his hit song “Mama” in German. 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, and 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 world-wide fan club. He continued to perform in Ireland, despite the constant terrorist activities in Northern Ireland. A rendition of the popular ballad “Danny Boy” on the 1972 Memphis album is considered one of the best recordings ever made of this much-recorded song.
He re-signed with Monument in 1976, but his career remained in the doldrums until the late 1980s.
Resurgence in the 1980s
In 1980, Orbison teamed up with Emmylou Harris to win the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for their song, “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again”. In 1985, Orbison recorded “Wild Hearts” for the Nic 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 filmBlue Velvet also aided Orbison’s popular resurrection. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the induction speech made by Bruce Springsteen (who had famously referenced Orbison and “Only the Lonely” in his 1975 song “Thunder Road”). 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 would earn the Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.
Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, a black and white Cinemax television special recorded at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1988, brought Orbison to the attention of a younger generation. Orbison was accompanied by a who’s-who supporting cast, organized by musical director T-Bone Burnett, all fans and all volunteers who lobbied to participate: on piano was Glen Hardin, who had played for Buddy Holly as well as working with Elvis Presley for a number of years; lead guitarist James Burton had also played with Presley; male background vocals, with some also playing the guitar, came from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, and Steven Soles; and k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, and Bonnie Raitt provided female background vocals.
Shortly after this critically acclaimed performance, whilst 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. 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 track “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 had triple heart bypass surgery on January 18, 1978 and enjoyed smoking most of his life. On December 6, 1988, at the age of 52, he suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting his mother in the Nashville, Tennessee suburb of Hendersonville. At the direction of his second wife, Barbara, Roy Orbison was interred on December 15, 1988, in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. 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, Tennessee.
His new album, Mystery Girl, and the single from it, “You Got It”, were posthumous hits, and are generally regarded as Orbison’s best work since his success of the 1960s. He was the posthumous winner of the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and in 1992, the popular “I Drove All Night” and “Heartbreak Radio” appeared on the posthumous album, King Of Hearts, produced by Jeff Lynne.
Orbison is most remembered for his ballads of lost love, and within the music community he is revered for his song-writing abilities. Record producer and Orbison fan Don Was, commenting on Orbison’s writing skills, said: “He defied the rules of modern composition.” Songwriter Bernie Taupin, composer of many lyrics for Elton John, and 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 (three octaves) 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 2004, Rolling Stone named those three songs plus “In Dreams” on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” In 1989, he was inducted posthumously into the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame.
From the stage in Las Vegas in 1976, Elvis Presley called Orbison “the greatest singer in the world”, and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees referred to him as the “Voice of God.” Multiple Academy Award–winning songwriter Will Jennings (“My Heart Will Go On,” from the Titanic soundtrack) called him a “poet, a songwriter, a vision,” after working with him and co-writing “Wild Hearts.” Bob Dylan, later a bandmate 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.”