Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison

A rock and roll pioneer, Roy Orbison left us with a catalog of songs that touched the hearts of generations. With his characteristic dark sunglasses, deep vibrato (with the occasional punctuating falsetto), “The Big O,” as he was nicknamed, produced hits that regularly broke the Top Ten, hits that were a touchstone for generations of the lovelorn and heartbroken.

Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas in 1936 and spent a lot of his childhood moving around the Lone Star State. Eventually they settled in the West Texas oil town of Wink, and by 1949, at the age of 13, Orbison organized his first band, The Wink Westerners. He played guitar, wrote the songs and occasionally sang for the band, performing weekly on KERB radio in Kermit, Texas.

After graduating from high school, success for The Wink Westerners picked up, and they were given 30 minute weekly shows on local stations KMID and eventually KOSA. One guest on their show was the incomparable Johnny Cash, who suggested that The Wink Westerners pick up a contract with his producer. After initially turning them down, Sun Records picked them up after hearing a demo. They left for Memphis, Tennessee and got a new name, The Teen Kings.

The group picked up their first hit with the song “Ooby Dooby” and Orbison found success as a songwriter after the Everly Brothers recorded his song “Claudette” as a B-side to their hit song “All I Have to Do is Dream.” Though blues rockabilly fans count his recordings with The Teen Kings among the best in the genres, Orbison found little commercial success.

After hearing the songs written by Joe Melson, Orbison asked him to be his writing partner. Together, they would create a sound that was new to music and would move generations: the dramatic rock ballad. Now with Monument Records, Orbison recorded the modestly successful “Uptown” following it up with his breakthrough hit, “Only the Lonely.” The song rose to the top of the charts, hitting #2 in the States, and #1 in the U.K. Orbison was jettisoned into international stardom. His next single “Running Scared” went to #1 in the U.S.

Orbison became a power influence on his contemporaries, like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, with whom he had a lifelong friendship. In 1963, Orbison headlined a European tour with The Beatles. During their tour of Europe, it was Orbison who convinced The Beatles to come to the United States, changing music forever. Though the British Invasion would wipe many American artists off the musical map, Orbison was able to maintain success. In fact, his single “Oh, Pretty Woman” broke the grip The Beatles had on the Top Ten, topping the chart in 1964.

In fact, the record sold more copies in its first ten days than any other 45rpm up to that time, and would eventually sell over seven million copies. It stayed popular through generations to come, and even became the signature song for the hit 1990 flick, Pretty Woman. He went on to tour with The Beach Boys in 1964, and toured Australia with the Rolling Stones in 1965. He even starred in the MGM western-musical movie The Fastest Guitar Alive, performing several songs from an album of the same name. However, American musical tastes had changed. Though he would make hits elsewhere in the world, his American popularity wouldn’t recover until the 1980s.

In the mid-60s, Roy Orbison faced a great number of personal tragedies; the loss of his wife in 1966 and the 1968 fire at his family home that burnt the house to the ground. Orbison lost two of his sons in the fire, Roy Jr. and Anthony. His youngest son survived. Despite these tragedies, he ended the decade by marrying again in 1969.

His popularity around the world soared. His music was in great demand on the black market behind the Iron Curtain. The French considered him the master of love ballads, and covers of his hits by French songstresses Édith Piaf and Mireille Matheiu went to the top of the French charts. His largest world-wide fan club was founded in the Netherlands, and his 1972 recording of the popular and oft-recorded “Danny Boy” is considered by many to be one of the best.

In 1980, Orbison teamed with country queen Emmylou Harris for the song “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again” which earned them the 1981 Grammy for best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. In 1985, Orbison recorded “Wild Hearts” for the Nic Roeg film Insignificance, and his single “In Dreams” was included in the 1986 David Lynch film, Blue Velvet. The resurgence of his popularity helped in getting him recognition, and in 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of Fame as well as the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. That same year, he re-recorded his 1961 hit “Crying” with k.d. lang for the soundtrack to Hiding Out. He took home another Grammy for the re-make for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.

Backed by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, k.d. lang and Bonnie Raitt, in 1988 he recorded a black and white television special for Cinemax titled Roy Orbison and Friends, a Black and White Night. Shortly after the critically acclaimed performance, Orbison teamed up with his friend George Harrison, as well as Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty to form the group the Traveling Wilburys.

Together, they achieved incredible commercial and critical success, a fresh breath of familiar air. Their song “Handle With Care” was originally intended to be musical filler as the B-Side to George Harrison’s “This Is Love.” Instead, “Handle With Care” became the lead single to Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 and the record went to #3 in the U.S. charts, and continued to chart for forty weeks. As one critic put it, it was “one of the great commercial coups of the decade.”

Unfortunately, at the end of 1988, following the resurgence of his success, Roy Orbison died of a fatal heart attack at the age of 52. His new album, Mystery Girl, and its hit single “You Got It,” were released posthumously, and was considered some of his greatest works since the 60s. He won the 1991 Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. He would score two more posthumous hits in 1992 with “I Drove All Night” and “Heartbreak Radio” on the album King of Hearts.

Orbison will forever be remembered for his ballads about lost love and heartbreak, but to many in the industry, he’ll also be remembered as an innovator, breaking the rules of composition as they were at the time. He stayed ahead and wowed audiences and critics alike with his vocal style and range, influencing countless of his contemporaries, and artists who would follow, such as Elvis Presley and the Bee Gees. Though he may be gone, every time you hear a broken-hearted love song on the radio, listen carefully, for you will hear the echoes of the legend of Roy Orbison.

If you count yourself as one of Roy Orbison’s many fans, we welcome all of your thoughts and recollections in our comments section below.

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