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Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988) was an American singer-songwriter and musician, well known for his distinctive, powerful voice, complex compositions, and dark emotional ballads. Orbison grew up in Texas and began singing in a rockabilly / country & western band in high school until he was signed by Sun Records in Memphismarker. His greatest success was with Monument Records in the early 1960s where 22 of his songs placed on the Top Forty, including "Only the Lonely", "Crying", "In Dreams", and "Oh, Pretty Woman". His career stagnated through the 1970s, but several covers of his songs and the use of one in a film by David Lynch revived his career in the 1980s. He joined the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne and released an album in 1988. He died of a heart attack at the age of 52, at the zenith of his resurgence.

Orbison was a natural baritone, but since 1961 writers have speculated that he had a three or four-octave range. The combination of Orbison's powerful, impassioned voice, and the complex musical arrangements in his songs led many in rock and roll to refer to his music as operatic, calling him the "Caruso of Rock". Performers as disparate as Elvis Presley and Bono stated his voice was, respectively, the greatest and most distinctive they had ever heard. While most men in rock and roll in the 1950s and 1960s portrayed a defiant masculinity, many of Orbison's songs instead conveyed a quiet, desperate vulnerability. He experienced tragedies in his life including the death of his first wife and his children on separate occasions. He was known for performing while standing still and solitary, wearing black clothes and dark sunglasses which lent an air of mystery to his persona.

Orbison was initiated into the second class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famemarker in 1987 by longtime admirer Bruce Springsteen. The same year he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone listed Orbison as No. 37 in their list of The Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2002, Billboard magazine listed Orbison at No. 74 in the Top 600 recording artists. Rolling Stone rated Orbison at No. 13 in their list of The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time in 2008.

Early life

Roy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texasmarker, the middle son of Orbie Lee Orbison, an oil well driller and car mechanic, and Nadine Shultz, a nurse. Both were unemployed during the Great Depression, so the family lived in Fort Worthmarker for several years to find work, until a polio scare made them return to Vernon. To find work again, the family moved to West Texas to the town of Winkmarker. Orbison would later describe the major components of life in Wink as "Football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand", and in later years expressed relief that he was able to leave the desolate town. All the Orbison children were afflicted with poor eyesight; Roy was nearly blind and used thick corrective lenses from an early age. A bout with jaundice as a child gave him a sallow complexion, and his ears protruded prominently. Orbison was not particularly confident in his appearance; he began dyeing his nearly white hair black when he was young. He was quiet and self-effacing, remarkably polite and compliant—an homage, biographer Alan Clayson wrote, to his Southern upbringing. However, Orbison was readily available to sing, and often became the focus of attention when he did. He considered his voice memorable if not great.

At the age of six, Orbison was given a guitar by his father for his birthday; by seven, Orbison stated, "I was finished, you know, for anything else". Music would be his life. Orbison's major musical influences as a youth were in country music. He was particularly moved by the way Lefty Frizzell sang, slurring syllables. He also enjoyed Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. One of the first musicians he heard in person was Ernest Tubb playing on the back of a flatbed truck in Fort Worth. In West Texas, however, he was exposed to many forms of music: "sepia"—a euphemism for what became known as rhythm and blues (R&B), Tex-Mex, orchestral Mantovani, and Zydeco. The Zydeco favorite "Jole Blon", was one of the first songs Orbison sang in public. At eight, Orbison began appearing on a local radio show. By the late 1940s, he was the host.

In high school, Orbison and his friends formed The Wink Westerners, an informal band that would play country standards and Glenn Miller songs. When they were offered $400 to play at a dance, Orbison realized that he could make a living in music. Following high school, Orbison enrolled at North Texas State College, planning to study geology to work in the oil fields to fall back on if music did not pay. Orbison formed another band called The Teen Kings and sang at night while working in the oil fields or studying during the day. Orbison watched his classmate Pat Boone get signed for a record deal, further strengthening his resolve to become a professional musician. His geology grades dropped so he switched to Odessa Junior College to consider becoming a teacher. While living in Odessa, Orbison drove to Dallas to see and be stunned by the onstage antics of Elvis Presley. Johnny Cash toured the area in 1955, playing on the same local radio show as the Teen Kings and suggested that Orbison approach Sam Phillips at Sun Records, home of rockabilly legends Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Cash. Phillips told him curtly, "Johnny Cash doesn't run my record company!" but was convinced to listen to a record by the Teen Kings named "Ooby Dooby", a song composed in mere minutes atop a fraternity house at North Texas State. Phillips was impressed and offered the Teen Kings a contract in 1956.

Sun Records and Acuff-Rose: 1957–1959

The Teen Kings went to Memphis and although Orbison had grown weary of "Ooby Dooby", Phillips wanted to cut the record again in a better studio. Orbison rankled quietly at Phillips' dictating what the band would play and how Orbison was to sing it. However, with Phillips' production, the record broke into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 59 and selling 200,000 copies. The Teen Kings toured with Sonny James, Johnny Horton, and Cash. Much influenced by Elvis Presley, Orbison performed frenetically, doing "everything we could to get applause because we had only one hit record". The Teen Kings also began writing more material such as "Go! Go! Go!" and "Rockhouse", which centered mostly on rockabilly standard elements. The band split apart during a Sun Records rehearsal, ultimately over writing credits and royalties, but Orbison stayed in Memphis and asked his 16-year-old girlfriend, Claudette Frady, to join him. They stayed in Phillips' home where they slept in separate rooms; in the studio Orbison concentrated on the mechanics of recording. Sam Phillips remembered being much more impressed with Orbison's mastery of the guitar than his voice. A ballad Orbison wrote called "The Clown" was met with lukewarm appreciation at best. Sun Records producer Jack Clement told Orbison after hearing it that he would never make it as a ballad singer.

He found a modicum of success at Sun Records and found his way into Elvis Presley's social circle, once going to pick up a date for Presley in his purple Cadillac. Orbison sold a song he wrote about Frady—whom he married in 1957—to The Everly Brothers, and "Claudette" appeared on the B side of "All I Have To Do Is Dream". The first and perhaps only royalties Orbison earned from Sun Records gave him a down payment on his own Cadillac. Frustrated at Sun, however, Orbison gradually stopped recording, toured music circuits around Texas to make a living, and for seven months in 1958 quit performing completely. His car repossessed and in dire financial straits, he often depended on family and friends for funds.

For a brief period in the late 1950s Orbison made his living at Acuff-Rose, a songwriting firm concentrating mainly in country music. After spending an entire day writing a song, he would make several demo tapes at a time and send them to Wesley Rose, who would try to find the musical acts to record them. Orbison attempted to sell songs he recorded that were written by other writers to RCA Victor as well, working with and being completely in awe of Chet Atkins, who had played guitar with Presley. Orbison tried one song penned by Boudleaux Bryant called "Seems to Me". Bryant's impression of Orbison was "a timid, shy kid who seemed to be rather befuddled by the whole music scene. I remember the way he sang then—softly, prettily but almost bashfully, as if someone might be disturbed by his efforts and reprimand him." After two tepid attempts with RCA Victor, they decided not to option Orbison for another song. Wesley Rose maneuvered Orbison into the sights of Fred Foster at Monument Records.

Arrival: 1960–1964

In his first sessions at Monument in Nashville, Orbison took on a song that RCA refused, "Paper Boy" and wrote another, "Pretty One". Playing shows late into the night and with a young child in his tiny apartment, he often sought refuge by taking his guitar to his car and writing songs there. Songwriter Joe Melson had a passing acquaintance with Orbison, but tapped on his car window one day in Texas in 1959 and the two decided to try to write some songs together. They experimented with the doo-wop backup singers arranged by Anita Kerr in a song called "Uptown"; Orbison was allowed to use strings on the record, which he enjoyed. Melson later recalled, "We stood in the studio, listening to the playbacks and thought it was the most beautiful sound in the world". The song earned a modest spot at No. 72 on the Billboard Top 100, and Orbison set his goal on negotiating a contract with an upscale nightclub somewhere. Rock and Roll itself, in its infancy in the late 1950s, was stalled. Elvis Presley was in the Army. Eddie Cochran and fellow Texan Buddy Holly—both of whom Orbison had previously toured with—had died, to Orbison's deep astonishment. Little Richard found religion and Chuck Berry had been arrested and spent time in jail. Orbison's former Sun Records colleague Jerry Lee Lewis was disgraced when his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin was reported widely in the press. In their wake pop music filled the radio waves, dominated by teen idol crooners who sang cleansed formulas like those about The Twist dance craze and "death discs" like "Teen Angel" and "Endless Sleep".

Writing for the voice

Orbison studied the songs on the Top Forty, hoping to capture whatever success they earned. Influenced by "Come Back to Me My Love" and "Come Softly to Me", Orbison and Melson wrote a song in April 1960 that used strings, the Anita Kerr doo-wop backup singers, and finally, an astounding note hit by Orbison in falsetto that revealed his powerful voice that, according to biographer Clayson, "came not from his throat but deeper within". It was titled "Only the Lonely", and Orbison and Melson tried to pitch it to Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers, who turned them down. Orbison released it on his own instead and it shot to No. 2 on the Hot 100 in the U.S. and hit No. 1 in the U.K. and Australia; it spent 15 weeks on the U.S. charts. According to Orbison, this period is when songs he wrote with Melson were constructed with his voice in mind, specifically to showcase its range. He told Rolling Stone in 1988: "I liked the sound of [my voice]. I liked making it sing, making the voice ring, and I just kept doing it. And I think that somewhere between the time of 'Ooby Dooby' and 'Only the Lonely', it kind of turned into a good voice."

Instantly he was in high demand. He appeared on American Bandstand, quite different from the Elvis-inspired gyrator he once was with the Teen Kings, and toured the U.S. for three months non-stop with Patsy Cline. Presley heard "Only the Lonely" and bought a box of singles to pass out to his friends. Melson and Orbison followed it with a more complex but less successful song, "Blue Angel" that peaked at No. 9, a self-performed version of "Claudette", and "I'm Hurtin'", which rose as high as No. 27.

Orbison was able to move his wife and son to Nashville full-time. Back in the studio, Melson and Orbison tried to diverge from the opening doo-wop sounds of "Only the Lonely" and "I'm Hurtin'", but encountered frustration with Fred Foster in the composition of their next single. It was based on the beat of Ravel's Boléro, and it also featured a note so high Orbison was unable to hit it without his voice breaking. He was also backed by an orchestra in the studio and the sound engineer told him he would have to sing louder than his accompaniment because the orchestra was unable to be softer than his voice. Foster put Orbison in the corner of the studio and surrounded him with coat racks in an improvised isolation booth to emphasize his voice. The melodramatic song was about a man on the run with a woman, followed by another man who was trying to take her away. Orbison was unhappy with the first two takes, but in the third, he abandoned the idea of a falsetto, sang the final high G sharp naturally, revealing that the woman chose him instead. The studio fell apart, the session musicians and producers in shock. On the third take, "Running Scared" was completed. Fred Foster later recalled, "He did it, and everybody looked around in amazement. Nobody had heard anything like it before."

Developing the image

Just weeks later "Running Scared" was No. 1 on the Hot Hundred. The composition of Orbison's following hits reflected "Running Scared": a story about an emotionally vulnerable man facing loss or grief, culminating with a surprise ending in a crescendo that employed Orbison's dynamic voice. "Crying" followed this in July 1961 and reached No. 2; it was coupled with an R&B up-tempo song titled "Candy Man" that was on the charts for two months. Orbison's second son was born in 1962, and he hit No. 4 in the U.S. and No. 2 in the U.K. with "Dream Baby", an upbeat song written by veteran country songwriter Cindy Walker. The rest of the year he charted with "The Crowd", "Leah", and "Workin' For the Man", which he wrote about working one summer in the oil fields near Wink. His relationship with Joe Melson, however, was deteriorating over Melson's growing concerns that his own solo career would never get off the ground.

Without the scorching sex appeal of his rock and roll colleagues, Orbison eventually developed a persona that did not reflect his personality. He had no publicist in the early 1960s, no presence in fan magazines, and his single sleeves did not feature his picture. Life magazine called him an "anonymous celebrity". After leaving his thick eyeglasses on an airplane in 1962 or 1963, Orbison was forced to wear his Ray-Ban Wayfarer prescription sunglasses on stage. His biographers suggest that although he had a good sense of humor and was never morose, when he was in front of crowds and met people for the first time, he was very shy and suffered from severe stage fright; wearing sunglasses helped him hide somewhat from the attention. The black clothes and desperation in his songs led to an aura of mystery and introversion. It was an image that fell together more accidentally than from deliberation. Years later, Orbison said "I wasn't trying to be weird, you know? I didn't have a manager who told me to dress or 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 was, really."

The dark and brooding persona, combined with his tremulous voice in lovelorn ballads marketed to teenagers ensured that Orbison cornered the market in rock and roll in the early 1960s. He had a string of hits again in 1963 with "In Dreams" (No. 7 in the U.S.), "Falling", "Mean Woman Blues" (No. 5 in the U.S.), and "Blue Bayou", all in the Top 10 in the U.K. He finished the year with a Christmas song written by Willie Nelson titled "Pretty Paper". As "In Dreams" was released in April 1963, Orbison was asked to replace guitarist Duane Eddy on a tour of the U.K. in top billing as "The Big O", with a local band that was becoming massively popular named The Beatles. When he arrived in England, however, he saw the amount of advertising devoted to the quartet and realized he was not the main draw. He had never heard of them, and annoyed, asked hypothetically, "What's a Beatle anyway?" to which John Lennon replied after tapping his shoulder, "I am." On opening night, Orbison opted to go onstage first although he was the more established act. Known for having raucous shows expressing an extraordinary amount of energy, Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr stood dumbfounded backstage as Orbison performed completely still and simply sang through fourteen encores. Finally, when the audience began chanting "We want Roy!" again, Lennon and McCartney forbade Orbison from going on again by physically holding him back. Starr later said, "In Glasgow, we were all backstage listening to the tremendous applause he was getting. He was just standing there, not moving or anything." Through the tour, however, both acts quickly learned to get along. Orbison felt a kinship with Lennon, but it was Harrison who would connect with him later.

Riding the success

Touring in 1963 took a toll on Orbison's personal life. His wife Claudette began having an affair with the contractor who built their home in Hendersonville, Tennesseemarker. Their friends and relatives attributed it to her youth and that she was unable to withstand being alone and bored; when Orbison toured England again in the fall of 1963, she joined him. He was immensely popular where he went, finishing the tour in Ireland and Canada. Almost immediately he toured Australia and New Zealand with The Beach Boys and returned again to the U.K. and Ireland where he was so besieged by teenage girls that the Irish police had to halt his performances to pull the girls off of him. He continued to tour, however, and visited Australia again, this time with The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger later told of a snapshot he took of Orbison in New Zealand: "A fine figure of a man in the hot springs, he was."

Orbison also began collaborating with Bill Dees, whom he had known in Texas. With Dees, he wrote "It's Over", a No. 1 in the U.K., and a song that would be his signature piece for the rest of his career. When Claudette walked in while Dees and Orbison had begun writing to say she was headed into Nashville, Orbison asked if she had any money, and Dees said "Pretty woman never needs any money". Forty minutes later, "Oh, Pretty Woman" was completed. A riff-laden masterpiece that employed a playful growl he got from a Bob Hope movie, the epithet Orbison uttered when he was unable to hit a note ("Mercy!"), and the merging of his vulnerable and masculine sides, it rose to No. 1 in the fall of 1964 in the U.S. and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks; it hit No. 1 in the U.K. as well, spending 18 weeks total on the charts. The single sold over seven million copies. Orbison's success was greater in Britain; as Billboard magazine noted, "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 chart dominance of British artists on both sides of the Atlantic."

Stagnation 1965–1969

"Oh, Pretty Woman" was the pinnacle of Orbison's career in the 1960s. Following its release, he endured some upheavals. He and Claudette divorced in November 1964 over her infidelities, though they remarried in August 1965. Wesley Rose, who was acting as Orbison's agent, moved him from Monument Records to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), for a million dollars and the understanding that Orbison would expand into television and films as Elvis Presley had. Orbison was a film enthusiast, and would dedicate time when he was not touring, writing, or recording to seeing sometimes three films a day. However, Rose also began acting as the producer on Orbison's newest album. Fred Foster offered his opinion that Rose's participation and takeover led to the failure of Orbison's work at MGM. His first collection at MGM, an album titled Goodnight, sold less than 200,000 copies. The British Invasion also occurred at the same time, changing the sound of music significantly.

While on tour again in the U.K. in 1965, Orbison broke his foot falling off a motorcycle in front of thousands of screaming fans at a race track, and performed his show that evening in a cast. The reconciliation between Claudette and Roy occurred when she went to see if he was recuperating after his accident. Orbison was fascinated with machines and vehicles, and was known to see a car he liked, follow the driver and offer him money to purchase the car on the spot. He had a collection worthy of a museum by the late 1960s. He and Claudette shared a love for motorcycles; she had grown up around them, but Orbison claimed Elvis Presley had introduced him to motorcycles. Tragedy struck however, on June 6, 1966, when Orbison and Claudette were riding home from Bristol, Tennesseemarker, and she was struck by a semi-trailer truck. She was killed instantly.

Orbison threw himself into work, collaborating with Bill Dees to write music for a film MGM scheduled for him also to star in as well. It was initially planned as a dramatic Western, but was rewritten to be a comedy. Based on the premise that Orbison's character was a spy who stole and had to protect and deliver a cache of gold to the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War, he was outfitted with a guitar that turned into a rifle. The prop allowed him to deliver the line "I'll kill you and play your funeral march at the same time", with—according to biographer Colin Escott—"zero conviction". Titled The Fastest Guitar Alive, Orbison was pleased with the film, although it proved to be a critical and box office flop. MGM included five films in his contract; no more were made.

Orbison recorded an album dedicated to the songs of Don Gibson and another of Hank Williams, but both sold poorly. In the late 1960s, as music was very much a part of the psychedelic movement, Orbison felt lost, later saying "[I] didn't hear a lot I could relate to so I kind of stood there like a tree where the winds blow and the seasons change, and you're still there and you bloom again." He continued to tour, and had previously made some smart real estate investments, so money was never an issue for him again. It was during a tour in the Midlands of England that on September 16, 1968 Orbison received the news that his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee had burned down and his two eldest sons had died.

The property was sold to Johnny Cash, who planted an orchard on it. On March 25, 1969, Orbison married a German teenager named Barbara Wilhonnen Jacobs whom he had met a few days before his sons died. His youngest son with Claudette was raised by his parents. He and Barbara had a son in 1970 and another in 1974.


Covers: 1970s

Orbison recorded in the 1970s, but his albums performed so poorly that he began to doubt his talents. Author Peter Lehman would later observe his absence was a part of the mystery of his persona: "Since it was never clear where he had come from, no one seemed to pay much mind to where he had gone; he was just gone." His influence was apparent, however, as several artists released covers of his songs that performed very well. "Love Hurts" was remade by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and again by heavy metal band Nazareth. Sonny James sent "Only the Lonely" to No. 1 on the country music charts. Bruce Springsteen ended his concerts with Orbison songs and Glen Campbell had a minor hit with a remake of "Dream Baby". A compilation LP of Orbison's greatest hits went to No. 1 in the U.K. in 1977. The same year he began to open concerts for The Eagles, who started as Linda Ronstadt's backup band.

Ronstadt herself covered "Blue Bayou" in 1977, which went to No. 3 and stayed on the charts for 24 weeks. Orbison credits this cover in particular to reviving his memory if not his career. "Blue Bayou" came out following an open heart surgery for Orbison. His stress manifested itself in duodenal ulcers as far back as 1960, and he had been a chain smoker since an adolescent. Although he felt revitalized following the triple bypass, he continued to smoke and his weight fluctuated for the rest of his life.

Don McLean covered "Crying" in 1980 that hit No. 5 in the U.S. and was on the charts for 15 weeks; it was No. 1 in the U.K. for three. Although he was all but forgotten in the U.S., Orbison took a chance and toured Bulgaria and was astonished to find he was as popular there as he had been in 1964; he was forced to stay in his hotel room because he was mobbed on the streets of Sofia. Later that year, he and Emmylou Harris won a Grammy for their duet "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again". It was his first and he felt more than ever that the time was ripe for his return to popular music. It would be several more years until it happened.

Revival: 1987

Orbison's career was fully revived in 1987. He released an album of his re-recorded hits titled In Dreams: The Greatest Hits. A song he recorded named "Life Fades Away" was featured in the film Less Than Zero. He and k. d. lang performed a duet of "Crying" and released it on the soundtrack to Hiding Out, winning a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.

However, one film Orbison refused to place his music in was Blue Velvet. Director David Lynch asked to use "In Dreams" and Orbison turned him down. Lynch used it anyway. The song served as one of several obsessions of a psychopathic character named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). It was lip-synced by an effeminate drug dealer played by Dean Stockwell, after which Booth demanded the song be played over and over, once beating the protagonist while the song played. During filming, Lynch asked for the song to be played repeatedly to give the set a surreal atmosphere. Orbison was shocked at its use. He saw the film in a theater in Malibu and said, "I was mortified because they were talking about the 'candy colored clown' in relation to a dope deal... I thought, 'What in the world...?' But later, when I was touring, we got the video out and I really got to appreciate what David gave to the song, and what the song gave to the movie—how it achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to 'In Dreams'."

The same year, Orbison was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and initiated into the second class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famemarker by Bruce Springsteen, who concluded his speech with a reference to his song "Thunder Road": "I wanted a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector—but, most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison. Now everyone knows that no one sings like Roy Orbison." In response, Orbison asked Springsteen for a copy of the speech, and said of his induction that he felt "validated" by the honor. A few months later, Orbison and Springsteen paired again to film a concert at the Coconut Grove Ballroom in Los Angeles. They were joined by T-Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, and k. d. lang. lang later recounted how humbled Orbison had been by the show of support from so many talented and busy musicians: "Roy looked at all of us and said, 'If there is anything I can ever do for you, please call on me.' He was very serious. It was his way of thanking us. It was very emotional." The concert was filmed in one take and aired on Cinemax under the title Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night; it was released on video by Virgin Records, selling 50,000 copies.

Traveling Wilburys and Mystery Girl: 1988

Orbison had begun collaborating with Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne on a new album. Lynne was working on finishing production on George Harrison's Cloud Nine, and all three had lunch one day when Orbison accepted an invitation to sing on Harrison's album. They contacted Bob Dylan who allowed them to use a recording studio in his home. Along the way, Harrison had to stop by Tom Petty's house to pick up his guitar; Petty and his band had backed up Dylan on his last tour. By that evening, the group had written "Handle with Care", which led to the concept of recording an entire album. They called themselves the Traveling Wilburys, and posed themselves as half-brothers from the same father. They gave themselves stage names; Orbison chose his from his musical hero, calling himself "Lefty Wilbury" after Lefty Frizzell. Expanding on the concept of a traveling band of raucous has-beens, Orbison offered a quote about the group's foundation in honor: "Some people say Daddy was a cad and a bounder. I remember him as a Baptist minister."

Lynne later spoke of the recording sessions: "Everybody just sat there going, 'Wow, it's Roy Orbison!'... [E]ven though he's become your pal and you're hanging out and having a laugh and going to dinner, as soon as he gets behind that mike and he's doing his business, suddenly it's shudder time." Orbison was given one solo on the album titled "Not Alone Anymore". His contributions were highly praised by the press. Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 spent 53 weeks on the U.S. charts, peaking at No. 3. It hit No. 1 in Australia and topped out at No. 16 in the U.K. The LP won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. Rolling Stone included it in the top 100 albums of the decade.

Orbison was in high demand for concerts and interviews once again, and thrilled about it. He began writing songs and collaborating with many musicians from his past and newer fans to develop a solo album titled Mystery Girl. U2's lead singer Bono had become aware of Orbison when he saw Blue Velvet and wrote "She's a Mystery To Me" with The Edge. Bono, a bit in awe of Orbison, witnessed the recording of the song:
I stood beside him and sang with him.
He didn't seem to be singing.
So I thought, 'He'll sing it the next take.
He's just reading the words.'
And then we went in to listen to the take, and there was this voice, which was the loudest whisper I've ever heard.
He had been singing it.
But he hardly moved his lips.
And the voice was louder than the band in its own way.
I don't know how he did that.
It was like sleight of hand.

The album was produced by Jeff Lynne, whom Orbison considered the best producer he had ever worked with. Orbison attempted to make a conscientious effort to avoid the type of songs that had been attributed to him throughout his career that were simple prostrations of a man before a woman, almost paranoid in nature. Bono, Elvis Costello, Orbison's son Wesley, and others who offered their songs to him added complexity to the lyrics. The biggest hit from the album was "You Got It", written by Lynne and Tom Petty. It topped out at No. 9 in the U.S. and No. 3 in the U.K.


Orbison pursued his second chance at stardom relentlessly, but reacted to it in constant optimistic surprise, confessing "It's very nice to be wanted again, but I still can't quite believe it." He lost some weight to fit his new image and the constant demand of touring and the newer demand of making videos. In November 1988 Mystery Girl was completed and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was rising up the charts. Orbison went to Europe where he was presented with an award and played a show in Antwerp where footage for the video for "You Got It" was filmed. He gave multiple interviews a day in a hectic schedule. A few days later a manager at a club in Boston saw that he looked ill, but Orbison played the show to another standing ovation.

Finally, exhausted, he returned to his home in Hendersonville to rest for a few days before flying again to London to film two more videos for the Traveling Wilburys. On December 6, 1988, he spent the day flying model airplanes with his sons. After having dinner at his mother's home in Tennessee, Orbison died of a massive heart attack. He was 52 years old.

His death became an international news event. Author Peter Lehman suggests that if he had died in the 1970s when his career had been stalled, it might have earned a minor mention buried in the obituary section of the newspaper. However, the response to his death reflected just how popular he had become. The Nashville Banner put it on the front page across six columns. It also made the front page of the New York Times. The tabloid The National Enquirer suggested on its cover that he had worked himself to death. A memorial was held in Nashville, and another in Los Angeles; he was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemeterymarker. In January 1989 Orbison became the first musician since Elvis Presley to have two albums in the Top Five at the same time.

Style and influence

Although Orbison is counted as a rock and roll pioneer, and has been chosen by several music critics as one of rock and roll's most influential musicians, his style was noted for how it departed from the norm. Rock and roll in the 1950s was defined by a driving backbeat, heavy guitars, and lyrical themes that glorified youthful rebellion. However, very little of what Orbison recorded met these characteristics. The structure and themes of his songs defied convention, and his much-praised voice and performance style was unlike any other in rock and roll. Many of his contemporaries compared his music with that of classically trained musicians, although Orbison never mentioned any classical music influences. Author Peter Lehman summarized it, writing, "He achieved what he did not by copying classical music but by creating a unique form of popular music that drew upon a wide variety of music popular during his youth".

Structure of songs

U2 frontman Bono holds Orbison as a standard in musical creativity, saying in 1999, "The thing people don't talk about enough as far as I'm concerned is how innovative this music was, how radical in terms of its songwriting. As I become more interested in songwriting, you hit a wall where Roy Orbison is standing." Bob Dylan highlighted Orbison's song structure in his book Chronicles: Volume One, specifically noting how they were "songs within songs". Music critic Dave Marsh also wrote that these compositions "define a world unto themselves more completely than any other body of work in pop music". Orbison's music, like the man himself, has been described as timeless, diverting from contemporary rock and roll and bordering on the eccentric, within a hair's breadth of being weird. New York Times writer Peter Watrous declared in a concert review: "He has perfected an odd vision of popular music, one in which eccentricity and imagination beat back all the pressures toward conformity"

In the 1960s, Orbison refused to splice pieces of songs together, and insisted in recording them in single takes with all the instruments and singers together. The only convention Orbison followed in his most popular songs is the time limit for radio fare in pop songs. Otherwise, each seems to follow a separate structure. Using rhyme schemes for verses and choruses, normal pop songs followed the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus structure. Where A represents the first verse and B represents the chorus, most pop songs can be represented by A-B-A-B-C-A-B, like "Ooby Dooby" and "Claudette". Orbison's "In Dreams" was a song in seven movements that can be represented as Intro-A-B-C-D-E-F; no sections are repeated. In "Running Scared", however, the entire song repeats to build suspense to a final climax, to be represented as A-A-A-A-B. "Crying" is more complex, changing parts toward the end to be represented as A-B-C-D-E-F-A-B modified, C modified, D modified, E modified, F modified. Although Orbison recorded and wrote standard structure songs before "Only the Lonely", he claimed never to have learned how to write them:
"I'm sure we had to study composition or something like that at school, and they'd say 'This is the way you do it,' and that's the way I would have done it, so being blessed again with not knowing what was wrong or what was right, I went on my own way....So 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."

Elton John's writing partner Bernie Taupin wrote that Orbison's songs always made "radical left turns", and k. d. lang declared that good songwriting comes from being constantly surprised, such as how the entirety of "Running Scared" eventually depends on the final note, one word. Some of the musicians who worked with Orbison were confounded by what he asked them to do. Session guitarist Jerry Kennedy stated, "Roy went against the grain. The first time you'd hear something, it wouldn't sound right. But after a few playbacks, it would start to grow on you."

Themes of songs

Critic Dave Marsh categorizes Orbison's ballads into themes reflecting pain and loss, and dreaming. A third category is his uptempo rockabilly songs such as "Go! Go! Go!" and "Mean Woman Blues" that are more thematically simple, addressing how he feels and what he will do in a masculine braggadocio. In concert, Orbison placed the uptempo songs between the ballads to keep from being too consistently dark or grim.

In 1990, Colin Escott wrote an introduction to Orbison's biography published in a CD box set: "Orbison was the master of compression. Working the singles era, he could relate a short story, or establish a mood in under three minutes. If you think that's easy—try it. His greatest recordings were quite simply perfect; not a word or note surplus to intention." After attending a show in 1988, Peter Watrous of The New York Times wrote that Orbion's songs are "dreamlike claustrophobically intimate set pieces". As a youth, Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant began an appreciation of American R&B music, but beyond the black musicians, he cited Elvis and Orbison especially as foreshadowing the emotions he would experience: "The poignancy of the combination of lyric and voice was stunning. He used drama to great effect and he wrote dramatically."

The loneliness in Orbison's songs that he became most famous for, he both explained and downplayed: "I don't think I've been any more lonely than anyone else... Although if you grow up in West Texas, there are a lot of ways to be lonely." His music offered an alternative to the postured masculinity that was pervasive in music and culture. Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees stated, "He made emotion fashionable, that it was all right to talk about and sing about very emotional things. For men to sing about very emotional things... Before that no one would do it." Orbison acknowledged this in looking back on the era in which he became popular: "When ["Crying"] came out I don't think anyone had accepted the fact that a man should cry when he wants to cry." Peter Lehman, on the other hand, considered Orbison's theme of constant vulnerability an element of sexual masochism.

Quality of voice

Orbison admitted that he did not think his voice was put to appropriate use until "Only the Lonely" in 1961, when it was able, in his words, to allow its "flowering". Carl Perkins, however, toured with Orbison while they were both signed with Sun Records and recalled a specific concert when Orbison covered the Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald standard "Indian Love Call", and had the audience completely silenced, in awe. Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel both commented on the otherworldy quality of Orbison's voice; a particularly poetic comparison was Dwight Yoakam's, who stated Orbison's voice sounded like "the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window". Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees went further to say that when he heard "Crying" for the first time, "That was it. To me that was the voice of God."

Bob Dylan marked Orbison as a specific influence, stating that there was nothing like him on radio in the early 1960s:
With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera.
He kept you on your toes.
With him, it was all about fat and blood.
He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop.
[After "Ooby Dooby"] (h)e was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff.
He sang like a professional criminal...
His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, 'Man, I don't believe it'.

Likewise, Tim Goodwin, who conducted the orchestra that backed Orbison in Bulgaria had been told that Orbison's voice would be a singular experience to hear. When Orbison started with "Crying" and hit the high notes, Goodwin stated, "The strings were playing and the band had built up, and sure enough, the hair on the back of my neck just all started standing up. It was an incredible physical sensation."

Orbison's severe stage fright was particularly noticeable in the 1970s and early 1980s. During the first few songs in a concert, the vibrato in his voice was almost uncontrollable, but afterwards, it became stronger and more dependable. This also happened with age. Orbison noticed that he was unable to control the tremor in the late afternoon and evenings, and chose to record in the mornings when it was possible.


Orbison often excused his motionless performances by saying that his songs did not allow instrumental sections so he could move or dance on stage, although songs like "Mean Woman Blues" did offer that. He was aware of his unique performance style even in the early 1960s when he commented, "I'm not a super personality—on stage or off. I mean, you could put workers like Chubby Checker or Bobby Rydell in second-rate shows and they'd still shine through, but not me. I'd have to be prepared. People come to hear my music, my songs. That's what I have to give them."

k. d. lang compared Orbison to a tree, with passive but solid beauty. This image of Orbison as immovable was so associated with him it was parodied by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live, as Belushi dressed as Orbison falls over while singing "Oh, Pretty Woman", and continues to play as his bandmates set him upright again. However, lang quantified this style by saying, "It's so hard to explain what Roy's energy was like because he would fill a room with his energy and presence but not say a word. Being that he was so grounded and so strong and so gentle and quiet. He was just there."

Orbison attributed his own passion during his performances to the period when he grew up in Fort Worth while the U.S. was mobilizing for World War II. His parents worked in a defense plant and his father would bring a guitar in the evenings and their friends and relatives who had just joined the military would gather, and drink and sing heartily. Orbison later reflected, "I guess that level of intensity made a big impression on me, because it's still there. That sense of 'do it for all it's worth and do it now and do it good.' Not to analyze it too much, but I think the verve and gusto that everybody felt and portrayed around me has stayed with me all this time."



  • Grammys
* Best Country Performance Duo Or Group (1980) with Emmylou Harris
* Best Spoken Word Or Non-Musical Recording (1986) with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips, Rick Nelson and Chips Moman
* Best Country Vocal Collaboration (1988) with k. d. lang
* Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal (1989) as part of The Traveling Wilburys
* Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male (1990)

See also

Video and televised feature performances:



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  2. Amburn, p. 97.
  3. Comparisons of Orbison's music and voice to opera was further noted by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and songwriter Will Jennings. (Lehman, p. 21)
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  16. Although both Orbison and Cash mentioned this anecdote years later, Phillips denies he was so short on the phone with Orbison or that he hung up on him. One of the Teen Kings later stated that the band did not meet Cash until a week later while they were on tour with other Sun Records artists. (Amburn, p. 42–43).
  17. Clayson, Alan p. 44.
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  103. Hall, Mark. (director) In Dreams: The Roy Orbison Story, Nashmount Productions Inc., 1999.
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  • Amburn, Ellis (1990). Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story, Carol Publishing Group. ISBN 081840518X
  • Brown, Tony; Kutner, Jon; Warwick, Neil (2000). Complete Book of the British Charts: Singles & Albums, Omnibus. ISBN 0711976708
  • Clayson, Alan (1989). Only the Lonely: Roy Orbison's Life and Legacy, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312039611
  • Clayton, Lawrence and Sprecht, Joe, (eds.) (2003). The Roots of Texas Music, Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 1585449970
  • Creswell, Toby (2006). 1001 Songs: The Greatest Songs of All Time and the Artists, Stories, and Secrets Behind Them, Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 1560259159
  • Lehman, Peter (2003). Roy Orbison: The Invention of An Alternative Rock Masculinity, Temple University Press. ISBN 1592130372
  • Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, Billboard Books. ISBN 0823074994

External links

NAME=Orbison, Roy Kelton
SHORT DESCRIPTION=American singer-songwriter
DATE OF BIRTH=April 23, 1936
PLACE OF BIRTH=Vernon, Texasmarker
DATE OF DEATH=December 6, 1988
PLACE OF DEATH=Hendersonville, Tennesseemarker
OFFICIAL TIME OF DEATH {local time}=2354

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