Roy Kelton Orbison

Roy Kelton 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 Fame.

* 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.