Roy Orbison Biography

23 April 1936, Vernon, Texas, USA, d. 6 December 1988, Madison, Tennessee, USA. Major critical acclaim came too late for one of the leading singers of the 60s. He became the master of the epic ballad of doom-laden despair, possessing a sensational voice of remarkable range and power, and often finding it more comfortable to stay in the high register. The former reluctant rockabilly singer, who worked with Norman Petty and Sam Phillips in the 50s, moved to Nashville and became a staff writer for Acuff-Rose Music. He used his royalties from the success of ‘Claudette’, recorded by the Everly Brothers, and written for his first wife, to buy himself out of his contract with Sun Records, and signed with the small Monument label. Although his main intention was to be a songwriter, Orbison found himself glancing the US chart with ‘Up Town’ in 1960. A few months later, his song ‘Only The Lonely’ was rejected by Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers, and Orbison decided to record it himself. The result was a sensation: the song topped the UK charts and narrowly missed the top spot in the USA. The trite opening of ‘dum dum dum dummy doo wah, yea yea yea yea yeah’, leads into one of the most distinctive pop songs ever recorded. It climaxes with a glass-shattering falsetto, and is destined to remain a modern classic.

The shy and quiet-spoken Orbison donned a pair of dark-tinted glasses to cover up his chronic astigmatism, although early publicity photos had already sneaked out. In later years his wife Barbara mentioned that he was an albino. Over the next five years Orbison enjoyed unprecedented success in Britain and America, repeating his formula with further stylish but melancholy ballads, including ‘Blue Angel’, ‘Running Scared’, ‘Crying’, ‘Dream Baby’, ‘Blue Bayou’ and ‘In Dreams’. Even during the take-over of America by the Beatles (of whom he became a good friend), Orbison was one of the few American artists to retain his ground commercially. During the Beatles’ peak chart year he had two UK number 1 singles, the powerful ‘It’s Over’ and the hypnotic ‘Oh Pretty Woman’. The latter has an incredibly simple instrumental introduction with acoustic guitar and snare drum, and it is recognized today by millions, particularly following its use in the blockbuster film Pretty Woman. Orbison had the advantage of crafting his own songs to suit his voice and temperament, yet although he continued to have hits throughout the 60s, none except ‘It’s Too Soon To Know’ equalled his former heights; he regularly toured Britain, which he regarded as his second home. He experienced appalling and unprecedented tragedy when, in 1966, his first wife Claudette was killed as she fell from the back of his motorcycle, and in 1968, a fire destroyed his home, also taking the lives of two of his three sons.

In 1967 he starred as a singing cowboy in The Fastest Guitar Alive, but demonstrated that he was no actor. By the end of the decade Orbison’s musical direction had faltered and he resorted to writing average MOR songs such as the unremarkable ‘Penny Arcade’. The 70s were barren times for his career, although a 1976 compilation topped the UK charts. By the end of the decade he underwent open-heart surgery. He bounced back in 1980, winning a Grammy for his duet with Emmylou Harris on ‘That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again’ from the movie Roadie, and David Lynch used ‘In Dreams’ to haunting effect in his chilling Blue Velvet in 1986. The following year Orbison was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame; at the ceremony he sang ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ with Bruce Springsteen. With Orbison once again in favour, Virgin Records signed him, and he recorded an album of his old songs using today’s hi-tech production techniques. The result was predictably disappointing; it was the sound and production of the classics that had made them great. The video A Black & White Night showed Orbison being courted by numerous stars, including Springsteen, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. This high profile led him to join George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne as the Traveling Wilburys. Their splendid debut album owed much to Orbison’s major input, notably a stunning vocal on ‘Not Alone Any More’.

Less than a month after its critically acclaimed release, Orbison suffered a fatal heart attack in Nashville. The posthumously released Mystery Girl in 1989 was the most successful album of his entire career, and not merely as a result of morbid sympathy. The record contained a collection of songs that indicated a man feeling happy and relaxed; his voice had never sounded better. The uplifting ‘You Got It’ and the mellow ‘She’s A Mystery To Me’ were impressive epitaphs to the legendary Big ‘O’. His widow and manager Barbara Orbison filed a sizeable lawsuit against Sony Records in 1998. She is claimed damages for the underpayment of royalties for Orbison's work with Monument Records over a lengthy period.

As with other artists of such high standing, a copy of Orbison’s greatest hits should be every home with a modicum of interest in music; he was that good. He was loved and respected by many; his shy yet warm personality endeared him to all. He also possessed ‘the voice’, certainly of the greatest and most distinctive in the history of popular music.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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