Roy Orbison

Although his background was in country music, Roy Kelton Orbison produced perhaps the most completely realized pop records of the early 1960s. They were symphonic in their composition and execution, and at their best they conveyed a sense of longing, as if Orbison himself was the lonely man who populated his work.

Birth: April 23, 1936 - Death: December 6, 1988
Birthplace: Vernon, Texas

Over a music career that spanned more than three decades, Orbison became a master of the pop single, with “Crying,” “In Dreams,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “That Loving You Feeling Again” (a duet with Emmylou Harris), and “End of the Line” (with the Traveling Wilburys) among his many charting hits.

Roy Orbison grew up in Wink, Texas, and his father was an oil rigger in Jal, New Mexico. A nearsighted child, Roy turned to music early. He was performing on local radio at age ten, and his first group, the Wink Westerners, played country music on local radio and television. Studying in Odessa in 1955, Orbison assembled the Teen Kings band and, touched by the furor attending Elvis Presley’s early Texas tours, plunged into rock & roll.

The Teen Kings’ first single, “Ooby Dooby,” issued on Je-Wel Records, caught the ear of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who brought Orbison to Memphis to recut it. For two years Orbison tried hard to rock & roll at Phillips’s behest, but nothing except the remake of “Ooby Dooby” charted. Shortly after writing “Claudette” for The Everly Brothers in 1958, Orbison bought his way off Sun and signed with RCA in Nashville. Two undistinguished pop singles followed, and after a year Orbison was dropped. Orbison’s music publisher, Wesley Rose, helped him sign with Monument Records in 1959, and 1960’s “Only the Lonely” defined the classic Orbison style. Between 1960 and 1965 he became a master of the pop single. “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “In Dreams,” “Blue Bayou,” and “It’s Over” were among his hits, all written by Orbison, some cowritten with Joe Melson or Bill Dees. All featured his hypnotic tenor voice, and most reflected song structures that ventured far from standard formulas, though the biggest hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” cowritten with Dees, was rooted in 1950s rock & roll.

Orbison had moved to Nashville in 1960, and all his hits were recorded there with the same musicians who played on country sessions. One crucial difference, however, was that Monument’s Fred Foster would not push for the industry norm of recording four songs in a three-hour session but settled instead for one song—if it was the one.

Until his death, Orbison enjoyed worldwide success, especially in Europe and Australia. At home his career went off the rails almost immediately after “Oh, Pretty Woman,” His next two Monument singles sold poorly, and in July 1965 he signed with MGM Records, where this pattern continued.

In addition, Orbison’s personal life was touched by tragedy in the late 1960s. He had married his high school sweetheart, Claudette Frady, in 1957, but she died in a motorcycle accident in June 1966. In September 1968, two of their sons died in a house fire while Orbison was on tour in England. In March 1969 he married a seventeen-year-old German, Barbara Wellhonen.

After leaving MGM in 1973 Orbison went through a succession of contracts, including a short, artistically arid return to Monument in 1976. A 1980 Grammy for “That Loving You Feeling Again”—a #6 country duet with Emmylou Harris—and the movie Blue Velvet (1986), which used “In Dreams” to haunting effect, hastened his comeback, as did Bruce Springsteen’s honorific speech at Orbison’s 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Orbison was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame that same year. TV appearances, including the 1988 special Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, acquainted younger generations with his work. His duet with k.d. lang on “Crying” won a 1988 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The Grammy-winning The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (Wilbury, 1988), of which Orbison was a part, climbed to #3 on the pop album charts. His rehabilitation was completed when “You Got It,” from his Virgin Records solo album Mystery Girl, reached #9 pop in 1989, and the album posthumously reached #5. His widow, an astute businesswoman, has extended his legacy with various projects, including the boxed set The Soul of Rock and Roll (Legacy/Monument/Orbison, 2008). — Colin Escott

— Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.