Just as Elvis Presley set the mold for the handsome and charismatic rock star and Jerry Lee Lewis defined the outrageous and dangerous rock n’ roll Wildman, their Sun Records label mate Roy Orbison helped to create his own archetype of rock: the hopelessly romantic underdog. Armed with a voice that Dwight Yokam brilliantly described as “the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window” and a quietly unassuming disposition, Orbison became the first male pop star to create an identity intimately tied to loss, heartache, and sorrow.
Roy Orbison first discovered his love for music (and his own voice) as a child in the small town of Wink, Texas. He received his first guitar from his parents at age six, and was singing country tunes on the radio just a couple of years later. He credited these years, which fell during the middle of WWII, with teaching him the importance of passion and emotional honesty. “It was a time of intense emotion in that the boys were going to one front or the other of the war, more than likely to be killed. And so when they were drinking, they drank with gusto, and when they sang, they sang with all their hearts…I guess that level of intensity made a big impression on me, because it’s still there,” he told Rolling Stone in 1988.
Inspired by a wide-range of music, from Lefty Frizzell to Mexican standards to opera, Orbison formed a rockabilly combo called the Teen Kings (formerly the Wink Westerners) and cut a song called
“Ooby Dooby.” In 1955, Orbison met Sun Records star Johnny Cash during a performance in Texas, and the Man in Black convinced the young singer to contact label owner Sam Phillips.
Although initially reluctant–Sam Phillips reportedly told Orbison that “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company!”–Orbison and the Teen Kings were eventually invited to Memphis and signed a contract with Sun in 1956. Under Phillips’ tutelage, the group re-recorded “Ooby Dooby” and the record broke into the Billboard Top 100, giving Orbison his first taste of national success. Orbison continued to record in Memphis for several more years after his bandmates had departed for home, and eventually began focusing more on songwriting. His biggest early success as a songwriter came when his tune “Claudette” became a hit for the Everly Brothers.
By 1959, Orbison had moved to Nashville and signed with Monument Records, a fledgling record label in search of a star. With the guidance of producer and Monument owner Fred Foster, Orbison began to develop a sound that was truly his own and which properly showcased his unique and powerful vocals. Within months, Orbison scored his first big hit with “Only the Lonely,” a song that reached number-two on the charts and that introduced the sound that would make the singer one of the greatest of all time. “Only the Lonely,” like so many of the classic songs that would follow, features Orbison’s brooding vocals on top of a haunting melody that somehow simultaneously elicits the sound of both opera and rockabilly.
Having found the formula for success, Orbison continued to release a massive string of hit songs that would become anthems for forlorn teenagers around the world. Over the next five years, Orbison released 15 hit songs that charted in the top 40, including “Running Scared”, “Crying”, “Candy Man”, “Working for the Man”, “In Dreams”, “Blue Bayou”, and “It’s Over.” With little fanfare or media attention, Roy Orbison quietly became one of the most popular and successful artists in the world.
In May of 1963, riding the success of “In Dreams,” Orbison traveled to England in order to tour with an up-and-coming British band called The Beatles. When he arrived in Britain, he was immediately struck with the fanfare around the Beatles, who had yet to make a mark in the United States. “What’s a Beatle anyway?” he reportedly asked, to which John Lennon answered “I am.” The tour sold out in an afternoon, and on the first night of the tour Orbison did a staggering fourteen encores before the Fab Four could even take the stage.
Years later, George Harrison recalled “he’d had so many hit songs and people could sit and listen to him all night. He didn’t have to do anything; he didn’t have to wiggle his legs. In fact, he never even twitched, he was like marble. The only thing that moved were his lips-even when he hit those high notes he never strained. He was quite a miracle. Unique.”
He’d had so many hit songs & people could sit and listen to him all night.
Over the course of the next year, Orbison continued to tour extensively, including joining the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys during their world tours. He also continued to release hit songs, including the all-time-classic “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which would go on to sell over seven million copies. Undaunted by the enormity of “the British Invasion” that had largely taken over the airwaves, Orbison claimed “Their coming to America didn’t do anything but help me that year. Their biggest year was my biggest year.” As Billboard Magazine noted at the time “In a 68-week period that began on August 8, 1963, Roy Orbison was the only American artist to have a number-one single in Britain. He did it twice, with “It’s Over” on June 25, 1964, and “Oh, Pretty Woman” on October 8, 1964. The latter song also went to number one in America, making Orbison impervious to the current chart dominance of British artists on both sides of the Atlantic.”
While on tour with the Beatles, Roy Orbison left his pair of prescription eyeglasses on an airplane and was forced to wear his prescription Wayfarer sunglasses on stage. Due to his shyness and problems with stage fright, Orbison came to prefer the sunglasses, which helped him somewhat hide from the attention. Along with his penchant for wearing black clothing and dying his hair jet black, Orbison’s sunglasses became part of his mysterious and introverted personae. “I wasn’t trying to be weird, you know? I didn’t have a manager who told me how to present myself or anything. But the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black somewhat of a recluse, although I never really was, really,” he explained years later.
Unfortunately, “Oh, Pretty Woman” would mark the peak of Orbison’s success in the 1960s. For the rest of the decade, Orbison faced many heartbreaking and world-shattering setbacks, including the death of his wife Claudette in a 1966 motorcycle accident and the deaths of two of his children in a house fire in 1968. Understandably, his musical career suffered during this period as well, especially with the rise of counterculture figures like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. “I didn’t hear a lot I could relate to so I kind of stood there like a tree where the wind blows and the seasons change, and you’re still there and you bloom again,” he said.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Orbison continued to quietly work and release music, but without the recognition or fanfare that had greeted his earlier output. As author Peter Lehman observed, his public absence was actually in line with his mysterious persona:
Since it was never clear where he came from, no one seemed to pay much mind to where he had gone; he was just gone.
Despite the absence of the man himself, Orbison’s influence could still be felt as admiring artists like Bruce Springsteen, Don McLean, Gram Parsons, Van Halen, and Linda Ronstadt sent cover versions of his songs back to the top of the charts.
In 1987, Roy Orbison’s career was revived due to a deeply strange confluence of events. First, his song “In Dreams” played a prominent (and otherworldly) role in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, which introduced the singer to a new generation of listeners. Also in 1987, Orbison was inducted into both the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was given a heartfelt tribute speech by Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps most importantly, ’87 was also the year when Orbison joined the super-group The Traveling Willburys, which also included Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and his old friend George Harrison.
The Traveling Willburys were an immediate hit and their album Travling Willburys Vol. 1 spent 53 weeks on the U.S. charts, peaking at number three. Orbison’s contributions to the project were heralded by both the press and the public and the man of mystery was suddenly back in the national spotlight. “It’s very nice to be wanted again, but I still can’t believe it,” he said at the time. Determined to not let his second chance at stardom pass him by, Orbison worked doggedly over the next few months, including a grueling touring and recording schedule. In November 0f 1988, he completed the album Mystery Girl, which featured appearances from many of his musician friends and admirers and included the hit song “You Got It.” Barely a month later on December 6, 1988, Roy Orbison died of a heart attack at the age of 52.
Today, Roy Orbison is remembered and revered as a true rock n’ roll pioneer who was radical in his determination to follow his own unique vision. Numerous critics cite Orbison as one of the most influential artists of all time, and there are countless musicians who are willing to back up this claim. As his friend and admirer Bob Dylan said, “With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. With him, it was about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from the Olympian mountaintop…His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it.’”