Born Roy Kelton Orbison, 23 April 1936, Vernon, Texas
Singer, songwriter, guitarist. Nicknamed "The Big O".
Between 1955 and the end of the 1950s, Roy Orbison tried - with varying degrees of conviction - to become a rock and roll singer. But by his own admission, his heart lay elsewhere. It wasn't until 1960 that he found his true style : dramatic pop ballads of doomed romance, sung in a near-operatic style.
Born in Vernon, Texas, Roy grew up in the West Texas town of Wink. His father, Orbie, worked in the oil fields and his mother, Nadine, was a nurse. Orbie gave his son a guitar at the age of six and by the time Roy was eight he was playing on a Sunday morning country show on KVWC, a radio station in Kermit, Texas. At 13, he formed his own group, the Wink Westerners, with members of his high school band. While studying geology in college, Roy met Pat Boone, who advised him to take a rockabilly turn. The Wink Westerners changed their name to The Teen Kings and recorded a song called "Ooby Dooby" at the Clovis studio of Norman Petty, who placed the recording with the small Je-Wel label in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Aided by Johnny Cash, Roy and his group then signed with Sun Records, where they re-recorded "Ooby Dooby" on March 27, 1956. As Orbison was the vocalist and lead guitarist, it was only fair that the record was credited to Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings. The flip, "Go! Go! Go!", his first original composition to be recorded, became known under the title "Down the Line" through later versions by Jerry Lee Lewis and Ricky Nelson.
Released in May on Sun 242, "Ooby Dooby" reached # 59 on the Billboard charts. But three subsequent Sun singles failed to chart and it looked as if Orbison's future lay in songwriting rather than singing. His "Claudette" was a # 30 hit for the Everly Brothers and "Solong I'm Gone" by Warren Smith peaked at # 72, while "Down the Line" by Jerry Lee Lewis also brought in handsome royalties on the back of the Top 10 hit "Breathless".
In 1958 Roy bought himself out of his Sun contract by signing over all of his copyrights (except "Claudette") and went to Nashville to work for Acuff- Rose. A short liaison with RCA (two singles) was followed by a deal with Fred Foster's Monument label where Orbison finally found his true musical voice.
The first Monument single ("Paper Boy"/"With the Bug") flopped and the second one ("Uptown") stalled at # 72. But then came "Only the Lonely", released in April 1960. Co-written by Roy and Joe Melson (who sang the strong "dum-dum-dum-dumby-doo-wah" intro), the song went to # 2 in the USA and # 1 in the UK and set the pattern for Roy's subsequent career. With his soaring three-octave range, Orbison drew legions of fans with plaintive, slightly eerie songs such as "Blue Angel" (# 9, 1960), "Running Scared" (his first number one, 1961), "Crying" (# 2, 1961), "Dream Baby" (# 4, 1962) and "In Dreams" (# 7, 1963). The British Invasion of 1964 put an end to the success of many American artists, but not so in the case of Roy Orbison. He scored his biggest hit, "Oh, Pretty Woman", in the middle of Beatlemania, in September 1964. Co-written by Orbison's new songwriting partner, Bill Dees, it topped the Billboard charts for three weeks. In a 68-week period that began August 8, 1963, Roy was the only American artist to have a number one single in the UK. He did it twice, with "It's Over" on June 25, 1964, and "Oh, Pretty Woman" on October 8, 1964. Orbison was so popular in Britain that he toured the country in 1963 as the headliner, with the Beatles as his opening act. It was on this tour that Roy introduced his trademark dark glasses.
But Roy's string of nine Top 10 US singles ended with "Pretty Woman". He left Monument Records in 1965 and signed with MGM, a label that promised him more money as well as motion picture work. He never made the US Top 20 again and acted in only one film, "The Fastest Guitar Alive".
Then personal tragedy struck. His wife Claudette died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and two years later a fire at his house killed two of his three children. Orbison had reached a low point in his career, reduced to touring clubs. In the 1970s he turned to country, recording for Mercury, Monument (again) and Asylum with no success. Still, he was recognized as a major influence and others covered his songs : Linda Ronstadt had a # 3 hit in 1977 with "Blue Bayou", Don McLean a # 5 hit (# 1 UK) with "Crying" in 1980 and Van Halen reached # 12 with "Oh Pretty Woman" in 1982. A 1980 duet with Emmylou Harris, "That Loving You Feeling Again" (made for the film "Roadie") won him a Grammy and returned him to the Top 100 (# 55) for the first time since 1967.
In 1986 he recorded the album "Class Of '55" with three former Sun stablemates, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Orbison was among the first artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987. In 1988 he made a triumphant return to the pop scene as a member of The Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup whose other members were Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. The album "The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1" was a worldwide success and led to the recording of a comeback album by Roy, "Mystery Girl", with the help of Jeff Lynne. A single from the album, "You Got It", went to # 9 on the Billboard charts in 1989 (# 3 UK), but Roy would not live to witness his return to the Top 10. He died of a heart attack at his mother's home in Hendersonville, Tennessee in December 1988, aged 52. His widow, Barbara, devotes her time to managing his estate and releasing Orbison products on her label, Orbison Records. Roy Orbison is a monument in the history of popular music.
More info :
DVD : A Black and White Night (64 minutes). In 1987 Roy appeared in a Showtime special called "A Black and White Night" with luminaries ranging from Bruce Springsteen to James Burton to Elvis Costello.
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Alan Clayson, Fred Bronson, Wikipedia
Dik, October 2013
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