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Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936December 6, 1988), nicknamed "The Big O," was an influential American singer-songwriter and a pioneer of rock and roll whose recording career spanned more than four decades. By the mid-1960s Orbison was internationally recognized for his ballads of lost love, rhythmically advanced melodies, characteristic dark sunglasses, and occasional distinctive usage of falsetto, typified in songs such as "Only The Lonely," "In Dreams," "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Crying," and "Running Scared." In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and posthumously in 1989 into the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Two misconceptions about Orbison's appearance continue to surface: that he was an albino, and that he wore his trademark dark glasses because he was blind or nearly so. Neither is correct, though his poor vision required him to wear thick corrective lenses. From childhood he suffered from a combination of hyperopia, severe astigmatism, anisometropia, and strabismus.[citation needed] Orbison's trademark sunglasses were a fashion statement arising from an incident early in his career. Orbison had left his regular glasses in an airplane. Due to go onstage in a few minutes and unable to see without corrective lenses, his only other pair of glasses were dark prescription sunglasses and he "had to see to get onstage." He wore the sunglasses throughout his tour of England with the Beatles in 1963 and continued the practice for the remainder of his professional career. "I'll just do this and look cool." However, Orbison once said in an interview that he wore sunglasses on the plane because the sun was bright and forgot he was wearing them onstage. Shortly after he finished performing, he looked in the mirror and noticed he had not taken them off, so he laughed about it and continued to wear them for the rest of his career.[citation needed]


Early life and career

Orbison was born in Vernon, the seat of Wilbarger County in north Texas. He was the second son of Nadine and Orbie Lee. After having first moved to Fort Worth about 1943 to find work in the munitions and aircraft factories which had expanded during Second World War, the family moved to the West Texas oil town of Wink in Winkler County near the border of New Mexico, in late 1946. Music was an important part of his family life.

At the age of thirteen in 1949, Orbison organized his first band, "The Wink Westerners". When not singing with the band he played guitar and wrote songs. The band appeared weekly on KERB radio in Kermit, Texas. Orbison graduated from Wink High School in 1954. He attended North Texas State College in Denton, Texas for a year, and enrolled at Odessa Junior College in Odessa, the seat of Ector County, in 1955 to study history and English. The Wink Westerners had some success on local television, being given 30 minute weekly shows on KMID and then KOSA. One guest on their show was Johnny Cash, who advised them to seek a contract with his record producer, Sam Phillips, of Sun Records. At first Phillips turned them down ("Johnny Cash doesn't run my record company!"), but he agreed to add them to Sun Records' roster after hearing a recording made at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico. The Wink Westerners were renamed "The Teen Kings", and Orbison left college in March of 1956, determined to have a career in music. He ultimately headed for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.

Many of the earliest songs he recorded were produced by Sam Phillips, who also produced Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Orbison achieved his first commercial success in June 1956 with "Ooby Dooby", written by Orbison's friends from college. Named after his first wife, his song "Claudette" was recorded by the Everly Brothers as the B-side to their Number 1 hit "All I Have To Do Is Dream." The rockabilly and blues sound of Sun's artists brought Orbison little success and his career seemed over, although fans of rockabilly count his records among the best of this genre. He worked at Acuff-Rose Music in Nashville, Tennessee as a songwriter, and then was given a contract by RCA. Eventually Chet Atkins referred him to Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records, where he moved after his contract with RCA ended in 1959.


In 1957 Orbison met songwriter Joe Melson in Odessa. After hearing a song Melson had written entitled "Raindrops," which featured melodic twists and lyrical stylings, Roy soon asked him to write with him. Together they created a sound unheard of in rock and roll at the time: the dramatic rock ballad. They created many hits for Monument Records. Fred Foster liked the new direction and assisted with the writing team's vision. Roy's first record, "Uptown," was moderately successful. With the release of "Only The Lonely" and its immediate rise to the top of the charts (#2 in the US, #1 in the UK), he went on to become an international rock and roll star. His single, "Running Scared" became a US #1. Later, Roy wrote many songs with writer Bill Dees including "Oh, Pretty Woman" which may be the most well-known song of Roy's career. Throughout his stay at Monument Records his backup band was a group of outstanding studio musicians led by Bob Moore. The play of Orbison's voice against the dynamic yet uncluttered sound of the band gave Orbison's records a unique and identifiable sound.

Orbison was a powerful influence on contemporaries such as The Rolling Stones. In 1963 he headlined a European tour with The Beatles. He became lifelong friends with the band, especially John Lennon and George Harrison. Orbison would later record with Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. During their tour of Europe, Orbison encouraged the Beatles to come to the United States. When they toured America, they asked Orbison to manage their tour, but his schedule forced him to decline.

Unlike many artists, Orbison maintained his success as the British Invasion swept America in 1964. His single "Oh, Pretty Woman" broke the Beatles' stranglehold on the Top 10, soaring to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. The record sold more copies in its first ten days of release than any 45rpm up to that time, and eventually sold over seven million copies. The song later became the signature tune for the film Pretty Woman, named for his song, which brought fame to actress Julia Roberts.

He toured with The Beach Boys in 1964, and with The Rolling Stones in Australia in 1965. He was successful in England, logging three No.1 hit singles and was several times voted top male vocalist of the year.

Orbison signed a contract with MGM Records in 1965, and starred in MGM Studios' western-musical motion picture The Fastest Guitar Alive in which he performed several songs from an album of the same name. Due to changes in musical taste he had no hits in the U.S. after 1967. He remained popular elsewhere, but his American popularity did not recover until the 1980s.

He had problems in his personal life, with the death of his first wife Claudette (Frady) (b. September 7, 1941) in a motorcycle accident on June 6, 1966 in Gallantin, TN. On September 14, 1968 the family home at Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee, burned to the ground while Orbison was touring in England. Two of his three sons, Roy Jr. (b. 1958) and Anthony (b. June 29, 1962), died in the fire. His youngest son Wesley [[b. May 23, 1965, three at the time, was saved by Orbison's parents.

Orbison met his second wife Barbara in August 1968 in Leeds, England. They were married in Nashville on May 25, 1969, and built new house one block away from where Roy's old house once stood.

Songs that had limited success in North America, such as "Penny Arcade" and "Working for the Man," would go to Number 1 on the Australian charts, and "Too Soon to Know" was Number 3 in England. His popularity extended to Germany, and he recorded his hit song "Mama" in German. His records were in great demand on the "black market" behind the Iron Curtain. In France, he was viewed as the master of the ballad of lost love in the vein of that country's most popular singer �dith Piaf. A cover version of Orbison's "Blue Bayou" sung in French by Mireille Mathieu went to the top of France's record charts. Fans in the Netherlands founded his largest world-wide fan club. He continued to perform in Ireland, despite the constant terrorist activities in Northern Ireland. A rendition of the popular ballad "Danny Boy" on the 1972 Memphis album is considered one of the best recordings ever made of this much-recorded song.

His contract with MGM ended in 1973 and he signed with Mercury Records. He re-signed with Monument in 1976, but his career languished until the late 1980s.

Resurgence in the 1980s

In 1980 Orbison teamed with Emmylou Harris to win the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for their song "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again". In 1985 Orbison recorded Wild Hearts for the Nic Roeg film Insignificance, released on the ZTT Records label, produced by David Briggs and Will Jennings. The inclusion of "In Dreams" in the 1986 David Lynch film Blue Velvet also aided Orbison's return to popularity. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, with the induction speech made by Bruce Springsteen (who had famously referenced Orbison and "Only the Lonely" in his 1975 song "Thunder Road"). His pioneering contribution was also recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Having signed a recording contract for the first time in 10 years, with Virgin Records, he re-recorded his 1961 hit song "Crying" as a duet with k.d. lang in 1987 for the soundtrack of the motion picture "Hiding Out". The song would earn the Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.

Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night, a black and white HBO television special recorded at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1988, brought Orbison to the attention of a younger generation. Orbison was accompanied by a who's-who supporting cast organized by musical director T-Bone Burnett. All were fans and all were volunteers who lobbied to participate. On piano was Glen Hardin, who played for Buddy Holly as well as Elvis Presley for several years. Lead guitarist James Burton had also played with Presley and Ricky Nelson. Male background vocals, with some also playing the guitar, came from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther and Steven Soles. Jennifer Warnes, k.d. lang and Bonnie Raitt provided female background vocals.

Shortly after this critically acclaimed performance, whilst working with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra on tracks for a new album, Orbison joined Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty to form the Traveling Wilburys, achieving substantial commercial and critical success. He subsequently recorded a new solo album, Mystery Girl, produced by Orbison, Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) and Jeff Lynne. It included one track by U2's Bono (who also wears trademark dark glasses and co-wrote the track She's A Mystery to Me with the Edge specifically for Orbison). At an awards ceremony in Antwerp a few days before his death, Roy Orbison gave his only public rendition of the hit "You Got It" to the applause of a huge crowd.


Orbison had triple heart bypass surgery on January 18, 1978. On December 6, 1988, at the age of 52, he suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting his mother in the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville, Tennessee. [1] At the direction of his wife Barbara, Orbison was interred at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California on December 15, 1988. His two sons and their mother Claudette, who predeceased him, had been laid to rest at his request in the Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Nashville.

His new album, Mystery Girl, and the single from it, "You Got It," were posthumous hits, and are generally regarded as Orbison's best work since the 1960s. He was the posthumous winner of the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and in 1992 the popular "I Drove All Night" and "Heartbreak Radio" appeared on the posthumous album, King of Hearts, produced by Jeff Lynne.


Orbison is best remembered for his ballads of lost love, and in the music community he is revered for his song writing ability. Record producer and Orbison fan Don Was, commenting on Orbison's writing skills, said: "He defied the rules of modern composition". Writer of many lyrics for Elton John, Bernie Taupin and others referred to Orbison as "far ahead of the times, creating lyrics and music in a manner that broke with all traditions". Roy Orbison's vocal range was impressive (three octaves), and his songs were melodically and rhythmically advanced and lyrically sophisticated, often incorporating the bolero form. Three songs written and recorded by Orbison, "Only The Lonely", "Oh, Pretty Woman" and "Crying" are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone named those three songs plus "In Dreams" on its list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". In 1989 he was inducted posthumously into the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame.

From the stage in Las Vegas in 1976, Elvis Presley called Orbison "the greatest singer in the world" [2], and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees referred to him as the "Voice of God". Multiple Academy Award�winning songwriter Will Jennings ("My Heart Will Go On", from the Titanic soundtrack) called him a "poet, a songwriter, a vision" after working with him and co-writing "Wild Hearts." Bob Dylan, later a band mate of Orbison's in the Traveling Wilburys, wrote "Orbison � transcended all the genres. � With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. � [He sang] 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'. His songs had songs within songs. Orbison was deadly serious�no pollywog and no fledgling juvenile. There wasn't anything else on the radio like him".

The seminal punk band The Ramones adapted some of his ballad style, as well as his style of dress.

In 1998, Orbison was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #37 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.[3]

In 2006, Roy was remembered with a new book that fans from around the world came together and wrote with main author Chris O'Neil, the book titled "Straight From Our Hearts" was a very successful hit among fans on both sides of the Atlantic and even Barbara Orbison has asked for a copy to keep at the Orbison office located in Nashville. The book was a series of stories from fans describing how Roy impacted their lives and many tributes were also contained in the book. On December 7th, it was announced that a second volume of the book would be published. It is set to be released in 2008, which will mark the 20th anniversary of Roy's passing. In addition to the book, The Essential Roy Orbison CD collection was released to huge fan praise, the CD contained many rare songs including "Life Fades Away", which was previously only available on the long-out-of-print soundtrack to "Less Than Zero". The collection charted into the top ten in seven countries and has opened the door to upcoming releases of unheard Orbison material that fans have been longing for.

In addition to Roy's many commercial releases, there have been many bootlegged releases that have surfaced over the years. One of the most popular Orbison bootlegs is the 1981 recording of his Country Club concert, which was originally slated to be released as a made-for-TV comeback concert. The concert footage has never been officially released, but it is considered by fans to be one of the best Orbison bootlegs available.

It was also announced on March 20 2007, that the entire Traveling Wilburys sessions along with the DVD/CD set will finally be released on Rhino Records. See link for full story.



See also CMT's tribute to Roy, also contains in the Video section, some extreme rare music video and concert footage which includes all the songs he did at the Diamond Awards ceremony on Nov. 19th 1988, just weeks before he passed., including "Walk On" and "Heartbreak Radio".


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