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Spotlighted Artist - Roy Orbison 

 
 
 
 

Roy OrbisonRoy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, the middle son of Orbie Lee Orbison, an oil well driller and car mechanic, and Nadine Shults, a nurse. Both were unemployed during the Great Depression, so the family lived in Fort Worth 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 Wink. 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 remembered that 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 pickup 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 355 miles 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.

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.

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.

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.

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, Tennessee. 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."


"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, Tennessee, 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.

Roy Orbison's career took a roller coaster ride after the 60s but continued to perform and even opened for the Eagles in 1977.  In 1988 later formed a group known as the Traveling Wilburys.  Roy Orbison was inducted into The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 just a little over a year before he passed away on December 6, 1988.

 

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