Born on April 23, 1936, in Vernon, Texas, Roy Orbison formed his first band at age 13. The singer-songwriter dropped out of college to pursue music. He signed with Monument Records and recorded such ballads as "Only the Lonely" and "It's Over." Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Nearly one year later, in December 1988, he died of a heart attack.
Roy Kelton Orbison was born on April 23, 1936, in Vernon, Texas. A year before Beatlemania overtook the United States in 1964, the four lads from Liverpool invited Orbison to open for them on their English tour. On his first night, Orbison performed 14 encores before the Beatles even made it on stage.
Roy Orbison, who didn't have the Beatles' looks, Sinatra's swagger or Elvis's pelvis, was perhaps the most unlikely sex symbol of the 1960s. He dressed like an insurance salesman and was famously lifeless during his performances. "He never even twitched," recalled George Harrison, who was simultaneously awestruck and confounded by Orbison's stage presence. "He was like marble." What Orbison did have was one of the most distinctive, versatile and powerful voices in pop music. In the words of Elvis Presley, Orbison was simply "the greatest singer in the world."
Born to a working-class Texan family in 1936, Orbison grew up immersed in musical styles ranging from rockabilly and country to zydeco, Tex-Mex and the blues. His dad gave him a guitar for his sixth birthday and he wrote his first song, "A Vow of Love," when he was 8.
In high school, Orbison played the local circuit with a group called the Teen Kings. When their song "Ooby Dooby" came to the attention of Sam Phillips, the legendary producer at Sun Records, Orbison was invited to cut a few tracks. In addition to a highly collectible album called Roy Orbison at the Rockhouse, their collaboration yielded a re-recording of "Ooby Dooby" that became Orbison's first minor hit.
Acclaimed Musical Career
After Orbison landed a record deal with the Nashville-based label Monument in 1960, he began perfecting the sound that would define his career. His big break came after he tried to pitch his composition "Only the Lonely" to both Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers, and was turned down by both. Deciding to record the song himself, Orbison used his vibrato voice and operatic style to create a recording unlike anything Americans had heard at the time. Reaching as high the No. 2 spot on the Billboard singles chart, "Only the Lonely" has since been deemed a pivotal force in the development of rock music.
Between 1960 and 1965, Orbison recorded nine Top 10 hits and another ten that broke into the Top 40. These included "Running Scared," "Crying," "It's Over" and "Oh, Pretty Woman," none of which adheres to a conventional song structure. When it came to composition, Orbison called himself "blessed ... with not knowing what was wrong or what was right." As he put it, "the structure sometimes has the chorus at the end of the song, and sometimes there is no chorus, it just goes ... But that's always after the fact—as I'm writing, it all sounds natural and in sequence to me."
As distinctive as his three-octave voice and unorthodox songwriting technique was Orbison's unglamorous style, which some have described as "geek chic." Stricken with both jaundice and bad eyesight as a child, Orbison had sallow skin and thick corrective eyewear, not to mention a shy demeanor. On a fateful day during his 1963 tour with the Beatles, Orbison left his glasses on the plane before a show, which forced him to wear his unsightly prescription sunglasses for that night's show. Although he considered the incident "embarrassing," the look became an instant trademark.
Orbison's unhip underdog look suited his music well, as his lyrics were marked by incredible vulnerability. At a time when rock music went hand-in-hand with confidence and machismo, Orbison dared to sing about insecurity, heartache and fear. His stage persona, which has been described as borderline masochistic, went a long way toward challenging the traditional ideal of aggressive masculinity in rock 'n' roll.
Although the first half of the 1960s saw the rise of Orbison's star, the second half of the decade brought harder times. Tragedy struck when Orbison's wife, Claudette, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966, and again when his two oldest sons died in a house fire in 1968. Following those incidents, a devastated Orbison failed to generate many hits—and with the rise of the psychedelic movement in rock 'n' roll, the market for rockabilly had all but dried up anyway.
Peter Lehman, director of the Department of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Arizona State University, said about that period, "I was living in New York between 1968 and 1971, and even in Manhattan I could not find a record store that bothered to stock one copy of a newly released Orbison album; I had to special order them." By the mid-1970s, Orbison stopped recording music altogether.
Last Years and Legacy
Orbison returned to his musical career in 1980, however, when the Eagles invited him to join them on their "Hotel California" tour. That same year, he rekindled his relationship with country music fans by performing a memorable duet with Emmylou Harris on "That Lovin' You Feeling Again," which went on to win a Grammy Award. When Van Halen covered "Oh, Pretty Woman" in 1982, rock fans were reminded that gratitude for the song was owed to Orbison. By the late 1980s, Orbison had staged a successful comeback, joined the all-star supergroup The Traveling Wilburys (alongside Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Jeff Lynn) and been admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Orbison died of a heart attack on December 6, 1988. His posthumously released comeback album, Mystery Girl, reached No. 5 on the charts, becoming the highest-charting solo album of his career. Although he was only 52 when he died, Orbison lived to see his rightful place in music history restored.
Despite his sales, charts and accolades, Orbison is most remembered today as an improbable rock star who put his heart on his sleeve and moved people with his music. "When you were trying to make a girl fall in love with you," Tom Waits once recalled, "it took roses, the Ferris wheel and Roy Orbison."
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