Orbison was born in Vernon on April 23, 1936, the second son of Nadine Shults
and Orbie Lee Orbison. His family moved to Fort Worth about 1943 to find work in
the munitions and aircraft factories which had expanded during World War II.
They relocated to the West Texas oil town of Wink in Winkler County near the
border of New Mexico, in late 1946.
Early on, music became an important part of Orbison's family life. His father
gave him his first guitar at the age of six. He learned how to play guitar
copying his father who played country guitar and from his uncle that played the
blues. At the tender age of eight, radio stations were playing his country songs
that could be heard throughout Vernon. Orbison, who took after his father’s
musical taste, played country music throughout his teen years enjoying his
popularity as a country musician.
In 1949, at the age of thirteen, 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. The Wink Westerners had
some success on local television, and were given 30-minute weekly shows on KMID
and 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. Phillips added
the band 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."
Orbison graduated from Wink High School in 1954. He attended North Texas
State College in Denton, Texas for a year, then enrolled at Washington State
University in Pullman, Washington, the following year to study history and
English. While attending North Texas State, he became interested in rock and
roll music when he heard about the early pop success of fellow student, Pat
Boone. Orbison left college in March of 1956, determined to have a career in
music. He ultimately headed for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.
Orbison achieved his first commercial success just three months later, in
June 1956, with "Ooby Dooby," written by Orbison's friends from college, and
produced in Clovis, New Mexico. He worked at Acuff-Rose Music in Nashville,
Tennessee as a songwriter, and then was given a contract by RCA.
In 1957, Orbison met songwriter Joe Melson in Odessa, Texas. Together they
would create a sound unheard of in rock and roll at the time - the dramatic rock
ballad. 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, "Runnin' Scared" became a US #1 hit.
Eventually, Chet Atkins referred him to Fred Foster, the owner of Monument
Records, where he moved after his contract with RCA ended in 1959.Throughout his
stay at Monument Records, his backup band was a group of studio musicians led by
Bob Moore. The play of Orbison's voice against the sound of the band gave
Orbison's records a unique and identifiable sound.
Orbison was a powerful influence on contemporaries such as The Beatles and
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.)
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 and No. 1
on the British charts. The record sold more copies in its first ten days of
release than any single 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.
Orbison had no hits in the U.S. after 1967, though remained popular
elsewhere. He was successful in England and was voted top male vocalist of the
year several times. His popularity extended to Germany, and 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. 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. Orbison's American
popularity would not recover until the 1980s.
Orbison endured a great deal of tragedy in his relatively short life. His
first wife, Claudette Frady, died in a motorcycle accident on June 6, 1966 in
Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 14, 1968, the Orbison 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.
1962), died in the fire. His youngest son Wesley, who was three at the time, was
saved by Orbison's parents.
Orbison met his second wife Barbara in August 1968 in Batley, West Yorkshire,
England. They were married in Nashville on May 5, 1969, and built a new house
one block away from where Roy's old house had once stood. The family moved to
Malibu, California in 1985. They had two sons, Roy Kelton Orbison, Jr. born in
1970 and Alexander "Orbi" Lee Orbison born in 1975.
Orbison toured heavily in the late 1970s and at times, non-stop for weeks at
a time. It came to a grinding halt in late 1977 when he discovered that he
needed open heart surgery following a heart attack at the age of 41. On January
18, 1978, Orbison underwent a triple bypass.
In the 1980s, Orbison star once again rose to popularity. He was inducted
into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, with the induction speech made by
Bruce Springsteen. His pioneering contribution was also recognized by the
Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Roy came played his last show for 1988 in Highland Heights, Ohio. He had big
European and American tours planned out already for the next year. Orbison
headed down to Nashville on December 4. On Tuesday, December 6, he spent time
shopping for model airplane parts and flying them, but during the afternoon he
complained of chest pains. He collapsed at his mother's house just before
midnight. The singer was reported dead at 11:54 pm on December 6, 1988. He
had suffered a massive heart attack at the age of just 52.
Following the direction of his wife Barbara, Orbison was interred at the
Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California December 15,
1988. His two sons and their mother Claudette, had been laid to rest at his
request in the Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Nashville.
Orbison's album, "Mystery Girl," and the single, "You Got It," were
posthumous hits. At the time of his death, he was the first person since Elvis
Presley to have two albums in the Top 5. He was the posthumous winner of the
1991 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and in 1992, the tracks
"I Drove All Night" and "Heartbreak Radio" appeared on the posthumous album,
"King of Hearts," produced by Jeff Lynne.
Orbison is remembered for his ballads of lost love, and in the music
community he is revered for his song writing ability. According to record
producer, Don Was, Orbison "defied the rules of modern composition."
* Three songs written and recorded by Orbison, "Only The Lonely," "Oh, Pretty
Woman" and "Crying" are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
* In 1989, Orbison was inducted posthumously into the Songwriters Hall of
* In 1998, Orbison was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
* In 2004, Rolling Stone named those three songs plus "In Dreams" on its list
of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". The same year, the magazine ranked him
#37 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
All this (and more not covered here) from Roy Orbison of Vernon, Texas.