It's hard to believe Roy Orbison didn't want to be a rock and roll artist. He wasn't fond of the music he'd made at Sun Records, the same recordings most everyone else considers classics. He was a unique, individual singer, yet it took him several years to find his voice. When he finally got into his comfort zone in 1960 with "Only the Lonely," in a studio environment with the right combination of professionals laying down a precisely constructed arrangement designed to complement his newfound dramatic flair, success was inevitable.
Roy had already beaten the odds to get to that point. Though musically talented, he was afflicted with poor eyesight and was extremely self-conscious about his looks while growing up in the small oil town of Wink, Texas. In high school, he put a group together called The Wink Westerners, their material consisting of current country hits and some older big band numbers. They were good enough to take first place in a local talent contest, which led to a regular show on the recently-established KMID-TV (a dual ABC-NBC affiliate) in nearby Midland. Attempting to establish an image, he began dying his light-colored hair black. Roy came across as a quiet type outside his group of friends and bandmates, but was not without a sense of humor...or grand ambition. His 1954 senior class high school yearbook revealed some immediate plans: "To lead a western band...is his after school wish...and of course to marry...a beautiful dish!"
Orbison enrolled at Odessa College (some 20 miles from Midland) in the fall, forming The Teen Kings there with Westerners James Morrow and Billy Ellis in addition to Odessa cohorts Jack Kennelly and Johnny Wilson. They had their own show for a time on KOSA (the city's CBS station). Johnny Cash, on the verge of his own breakout success in 1955, appeared as a guest and suggested the group approach Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis. A couple of things happened before the fateful meeting with Phillips took place: Orbison enrolled at North Texas State University in Denton (near Dallas, more than three hundred miles away), studying geology (a backup plan in case the music career didn't take)...and, in early 1956, Roy and the Teen Kings recorded two songs at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where Buddy Holly had waxed his great hits.
"Tryin' to Get to You" (a cover of a Mercury release by R&B group The Eagles) and "Ooby Dooby" (written by Wade Moore and Dick Penner, college acquaintances of Roy's), were the songs that came out of that historic session in Clovis. The band auditioned for Columbia Records and the major label seemingly showed no interest, yet "Oobie Doobie" (same song, altered spelling) by Sid King and the Five Strings was released shortly afterward on Columbia. Je-Wel Records, a startup label in Odessa owned by Weldon Rogers, put out the Teen Kings tracks with "Tryin' to Get to You" as the A side. Though only a few weeks passed, the record was showing no signs of life; in March, Orbison and the group headed to Memphis to audition for Sun. Phillips felt "Ooby Dooby" had the potential to be another "Blue Suede Shoes" (a smash for Carl Perkins at the time) but insisted they rerecord it along with a new B side (which turned out to be an Orbison composition, "Go! Go! Go!")
In June '56, "Ooby Dooby" hit the charts, and while not a runaway hit like the Perkins single or Cash's "I Walk the Line" a few months later, it had a nice run and made Orbison enough money that he was able to buy his first Cadillac (one of many goals not mentioned in the high school yearbook due, most likely, to space limitations). "Rockhouse" (written by Orbison with Harold Jenkins, the future Conway Twitty) was a hot follow-up musically but failed to catch on. By this time he was at odds with the Teen Kings over royalites; it seems they felt the money should be divided five ways, but Roy had a different opinion. The breakup was quick but not necessarily painless. For the third single, "Devil Doll," a self-penned ballad, he brought in another Texas group, The Roses. Phillips wasn't thrilled by the song, certain that an uptempo rock raver was the only way to go if Orbison was to have another hit. Label engineer Jack Clement agreed with Sam and took his opinion one step further, telling Roy he would never make it as a ballad singer.
The fourth and final Sun single was "Chicken-Hearted" in early 1958, a rockin' track that, to Roy, was nothing more than a silly novelty. Like the previous two, it was a flop. Unhappy at Sun, he made the best of it by playing guitar on other artists' recordings (while developing a love for session production) and writing music. His marriage to Claudette Frady several months earlier inspired the song "Claudette," which became a hit for The Everly Brothers in the spring. With this turn of events he began to think he had a better chance of making a living as a writer than as a performer. He agreed to give up his composer's royalties on songs written while at Sun in return for a release from his contract. In his mind, he had moved away from singing rock and roll. A new deal with the Everlys' publisher, Acuff-Rose, led to a one year contract to record for RCA Victor. Two singles for the label saw even less action than any of the post-"Ooby Dooby" releases on Sun.
Fred Foster had just started his own label, Monument Records. At the recommendation of session bassist Bob Moore, with whom he'd worked during his time at RCA, Roy signed with the new label. First single "Paper Boy," produced by Foster in Nashville, went unnoticed, but he felt he was on to something that could be refined. He met Joe Melson, a songwriter from Bonham, Texas, and they began working on songs together; first up was "Up Town," possessing a teenage love theme similar to the previous record. This time, though, Foster upped the ante by adding strings, practically unheard of on a pre-1960 Nashville session. He was searching for a sound that went beyond country music and the Nashville norm, an end product with the potential to reach a wider audience. With backing from The Anita Kerr Singers (remember, Roy wasn't rockin' anymore), Moore and other top session musicians, the finished take had a bright, clean sound none of the earlier recordings possessed. "Up Town" was the first Orbison single to chart since "Ooby Dooby" three and a half years earlier.
The next level was achieved with the 'Dum-dum-dum-dum-de-do-wah' that opened "Only the Lonely." The payoff was Orbison's glorious falsetto, hitting notes unforeseen; the key ingredient in many a hit to come. It was an instant smash, barely missing the top of the charts in July 1960, and he followed it with the similarly-constructed "Blue Angel." The public clearly hadn't gotten enough; it too went top ten. "I'm Hurtin'" upped the tempo a bit, then a modification was in order. "Running Scared," based on the beat of Ravel's "Bolero," began softly and built to a big finish with the most powerful falsetto yet. Overdramatic, perhaps; surreal, to be be sure, at least by early-'60s standards. I've heard it referred to as a complete opera in two minutes and ten seconds, suggesting Roy wasn't the only one being overdramatic. One thing it positively was: a number one hit, his first, in June 1961. This despite the objections of Acuff-Rose boss Wesley Rose, who just didn't get it. As insurance, he had them put Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts" on the flip in case the A side failed, regrettable since it had hit potential as well.
With four big hits under his belt, Roy was apprehensive about going on tour. During his younger days with the Teen Kings he had thrown caution to the wind, but with success came responsibility to the fans (and lots of money to be made), but being overly image-conscious, he was certain he couldn't compete with the "pretty boy" singers so common at the time. Partly by accident, he developed a persona all his own, a loner image of a guy wearing dark glasses and dark clothing. This was simply the way he liked to dress, but the image gave off an unintentional aura of mystique that worked. Onstage, he barely moved while singing, but eventually loosened up a bit as energetic concertgoers fed his confidence. But the dark, brooding image was locked in and it fit well with the music, particularly angst-ridden pieces like "Running Scared" and "Love Hurts."
All of the Monument hits to this point had been written by Orbison and Melson. The next single's A side changed the pattern with a Beverly Ross-Fred Neil song, "Candy Man." A harmonica and guitar blues number purposely produced with a Jimmy Reed-inspired arrangement, it became a modest hit but was overshadowed by its flip side, Roy and Joe's "Crying." They hadn't figured on following the chart-topping ballad with another, even slower and obviously more depressing tune, but it seems they underestimated the public's affinity for misery...especially when delineated so expertly by an artist as fascinating as Orbison. The record reached number two in October '61. The tempo picked up a bit in early '62 with Cindy Walker's "Dream Baby," a midtempo driver with an R&B lean; it became his fifth top ten hit in less than two years. "The Crowd" (written with Melson) and Roy's solo compositions "Workin' For the Man" and "Leah" were also top 40 hits in 1962.
In May of 1963, Orbison headed to England to headline a tour that also featured The Beatles. Between the time the date was set and his arrival, the band's popularity had mushroomed to the point that Roy found himself opening for them. He wound up being a hard act for the Fab Four to follow. It didn't really matter to the Beatles, though; as fans, they were too awestruck by his presence on the same stage to be upset about anything. John and Paul admitted to him that "Please Please Me" was their attempt at writing a Roy Orbison type of song. Of the four, Roy hit it off best with George Harrison; the two remained close friends for years afterward and eventually worked together.
Orbison and Melson began moving in different directions by the end of 1962. Roy had been writing by himself more and more, and some of his efforts became hits in 1963, including the haunting ballad "In Dreams" and midtempo heart wrencher "Falling." Foster asked him for something more rocking and Roy answered with a growling, over-the-top "Mean Woman Blues," featuring the hottest lead guitar break yet. Written by Claude DeMetrius several years earlier, it was first recorded by Elvis Presley for the soundtrack of his second film, Loving You. Orbison's remake went top ten, his biggest hit of '63. The flip side, "Blue Bayou," a top 40 hit in its own right, was the last Orbison-Melson collaboration to make the charts...or, for that matter, to be released as a single.
Roy began working with new songwriting partners. He and Bobby Goldsboro, a member of his touring band The Candymen, composed some songs, of which "Baby's Gone" was a minor hit for Gene Thomas towards the end of 1963. Wesley Rose objected to the pairing of the two writers, since Goldsboro was employed by a different publisher, and that put an end to their creative partnership. By the time Christmas rolled around in '63 and he was on the charts with Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper," Roy had begun working with another Texas native, Bill Dees. "It's Over" recalled the dramatic flair of Roy's work with Melson and put him in the top ten once again. The next song written with Dees was Roy's blockbuster, the one he'll always be most remembered for.
"Oh Pretty Woman" was the nation's number one hit in September 1964, sandwiched between a pair of British Invasion chart toppers, The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" and Manfred Mann's "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" (fortunately for all involved, Roy's old friends The Beatles had taken a short break after dominating the charts for eight months prior, temporarily leaving a clearer path for others to aim for the top). The monster that marked Orbison's career peak was also his last major hit (for a long, long time at least), but no one, least of all Roy himself, could have imagined how frustrating, and tragic, the second half of the decade would be. Two Orbison-Dees follow-up singles, "Goodnight" and "(Say) You're My Girl," underwhelmed, yet it didn't prevent an enthusiastic rush by several major labels to sign him when his contract with Monument ended in mid-'65. Foster lobbied to keep him but couldn't compete with MGM's offer of one million dollars up front, sweetening the deal by guaranteeing starring movie roles through the company's film studio.
The songwriting partnership of Orbison and Dees continued well into his tenure with MGM. "Ride Away" hit the top 30 that summer, a promising start, but with Foster's direction gone (supplanted by an increasingly hands-on Wesley Rose, a marginal producer at best) and music trends evolving, Roy was soon spinning his wheels. "Ride Away" was the biggest hit he would ever have while at MGM, a far cry from the period of 1960 through '64 when he could seemingly do no wrong. Two singles made the top 40 in 1966, then shortly afterward Roy disappeared from the charts and the public eye. Just one week after "Twinkle Toes" became his final top 40 hit for MGM, an unforeseen accident marked a downturn in Orbison's life and undoubtedly affected his career.
He and Claudette had divorced in 1964 but reconciled several months later and were seeing each other regularly in 1966. She shared his passion for anything with two or four wheels as he assembled a collection of cars and motorcyles, new and classic. They were riding their cycles one afternoon in June when a truck pulled out from a side road, colliding with Claudette's bike and killing her. Grief-stricken, Roy immersed himself in his work, but the incident wasn't the last, or most devastating, of his setbacks.
The first of MGM's promised film projects was The Fastest Guitar Alive, an awkwardly unfunny western comedy that failed miserably at the box office when it was released in September 1967. It proved that musical talent did not necessarily guarantee even passable acting ability, something the studio could have predicted simply by observing Orbison's onstage image (fellow MGM artist Sam the Sham had a small part in the film and also exposed his inability to transition smoothly from music making to movie acting). Roy's acting career began and ended with this one weak entry, of interest only to curiosity seekers or diehard fans not averse to seeing him in an unflattering light.
Orbison owned a nice piece of lakefront property in Saundersville, Tennessee, a short distance to the north of Nashville, where he lived with his three sons. While away on a summer 1968 tour of England, he met German-born Barbara Jakobs and fell in love. His career may have seen better days, but time, at least, was healing the wounds caused by the tragic loss of his first wife. It was a temporary high; in September 1968, while still on tour overseas, his house caught on fire and two of his sons died. Barbara helped him through this lowest point in his life, moving to the U.S. soon after. They were wed in March 1969 and eventually had two sons together. The marriage was a lasting one and in later years she became his manager.
Of the eight years he spent with MGM, only the first had been of any value to artist or label. From 1973, when the label released him, until the end of the decade, Roy made records with other companies, including a brief return to Monument, but as far as radio listeners and record buyers were concerned, he was strictly an oldies act. Among his peers, though, a different attitude prevailed. Many artists from this later period drew from his catalogue and several Orbison gems became hits in updated versions, including "Crying" (by Jay and the Americans in '66 and Don McLean in '81), "Only the Lonely" (Sonny James in '69), "Dream Baby" (Glen Campbell in '71), "Sweet and Innocent" (Donny Osmond in '71), "Love Hurts" (Nazareth in '76), "Blue Bayou" (Linda Ronstadt in '77) and "Oh Pretty Woman" (Van Halen in '82).
A duet with Emmylou Harris, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," hit the charts in 1980 and won Roy his first of several Grammy Awards. In 1988, the superstar lineup of Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty made its mark as The Traveling Wilburys, scoring a hit late in the year, "Handle With Care." The accompanying album received critical acclaim and platinum sales. Roy recorded new material for Virgin Records at about the same time. His career was back on track after more than 20 years of uncertainty, but he never had a chance to fully enjoy it. He was in Tennessee when he died of a heart attack on December 6, 1988 at age 52. The considerable artistic and commercial triumphs of his chosen career notwithstanding, Roy Orbison experienced more than his share of heartache and disappointment during his lifetime. But the voice he possessed stood apart from all others, and the music, specifically from his most spectacular half-decade of the early 1960s, was as outstanding as anything you'll find in popular music and is unlikely to lose any of its lustre as the centuries pass. Another career high point came four months after his passing, when one of those new recordings, "You Got It," hit the top ten in April 1989.
- Tryin' to Get to You - 1956
as the Teen Kings
- Ooby Dooby - 1956
as Roy Orbison and Teen Kings
- Rockhouse - 1956
as Roy Orbison Teen Kings
- Devil Doll - 1957
with the Roses
- Chicken-Hearted - 1958
- Sweet and Innocent - 1958
- Paper Boy - 1959
- Up Town - 1960
- Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel) - 1960
- Blue Angel /
Today's Teardrops - 1960
- I'm Hurtin' - 1961
- Running Scared /
Love Hurts - 1961
- Candy Man /
Crying - 1961
- Dream Baby - 1962
- The Crowd - 1962
- Workin' For the Man /
Leah - 1962
- In Dreams - 1963
- Falling - 1963
- Mean Woman Blues /
Blue Bayou - 1963
- Pretty Paper - 1963
- It's Over - 1964
- Oh Pretty Woman - 1964
- Goodnight - 1965
- (Say) You're My Girl - 1965
- Ride Away - 1965
- Crawling Back - 1965
- Let the Good Times Roll - 1965
- Breakin' Up is Breakin' My Heart - 1966
- Twinkle Toes - 1966
- Too Soon to Know - 1966
- Communication Breakdown - 1966
- Cry Softly Lonely One - 1967
- She - 1967
- Walk On - 1968
- Heartache - 1968
- That Lovin' You Feelin' Again - 1980
with Emmylou Harris
- Handle With Care - 1988
by the Traveling Wilburys
- You Got It - 1989