Category: Musician or composer
Roy Kelton Orbison also known as The Big O, was born on April 23, 1936 in Vernon, Texas, U.S. and died December 6, 1988, aged only 52, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, U.S. He was a singer-songwriter and musician able to play both guitar and harmonica, but perhaps best known for his distinctive impassioned voice. Roy Orbison did everything left-handed except play instruments, according to an interview he did, which is especially notable as this would not have been easy.
While most male rock and roll performers in the 1950s and 1960s projected a defiant masculinity, many of Orbison's songs instead conveyed a quiet, almost desperate, vulnerability. His voice ranged from baritone to tenor, and music scholars have suggested that he had a three- or four-octave range. During performances, he was known for standing still and solitary.
Described as “quiet, self-effacing, and remarkably polite and obliging”, Orbison was also unassuming, and somewhat lacking in confidence, even on the stage, Boudleaux Bryant’s impression of Orbison in the early days was of :
"a timid, shy kid who seemed to be rather befuddled by the whole music scene. I remember the way he sang then — softly, prettily but almost bashfully, as if someone might be disturbed by his efforts and reprimand him."
Orbison did not use a publicist, had little presence in fan magazines, and his single sleeves did not feature his picture. Life magazine called him an "anonymous celebrity". All the Orbison children were afflicted with poor eyesight and Roy used thick corrective lenses from an early age. He was not confident about his appearance and began dyeing his hair black when he was still young. After leaving his thick eyeglasses on an airplane in 1963 while on tour with the Beatles, Orbison wore his prescription Wayfarer sunglasses on stage and found that he preferred them. Orbison suffered from severe stage fright and found that wearing sunglasses helped him hide somewhat from the attention.
The black clothes were not a reflection of his personality, despite the later tragedies in his life, but again this desperate wish for self effacement. Years later Orbison said,
"I wasn't trying to be weird, you know. I didn't have a manager who told me to dress or how to present myself or anything. But the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really."
On the other hand, he was extremely sensitive, as we shall see.
His haunting tremulous voice coupled with a string of well-crafted lovelorn ballads, made Orbison into a superstar during the early 1960s. He had a string of hits in 1963 with "In Dreams" (U.S. number 7/UK number 6), "Falling" (22/9), and "Mean Woman Blues" (5/3) coupled with "Blue Bayou". Between 1960 and 1964, 22 of his songs were placed on the Billboard Top 40, including "Only the Lonely" (1960), "Crying" (1961), "In Dreams" (1963), and "Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964).
In 1988, he co-founded the Traveling Wilburys supergroup with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. Orbison was a particular friend of George Harrison and Johnny Cash and we have used quotes from Johnny Cash’s autobiography in this description. Orbison recorded his last solo album, Mystery Girl, in 1988, but died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.
His honours include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in the same year, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1989 and the America's Pop Music Hall of Fame in 2014. The Grammys he received included
- Best Country Performance Duo or Group (1980), with Emmylou Harris
- Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording (1986), with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips, Rick Nelson and Chips Moman
- Best Country Vocal Collaboration (1988), with k.d. lang
- Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (1989), as part of the Traveling Wilburys
- Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male (1990)
He received a Lifetime Achievement Award on 1998 and received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010.
Why is he on the site? His songs alone would merit an entry, inspiration was definitely at work, but Orbison was also special as he had perfect recall, the ability to scan his perceptions and remember everything that had happened. He was thus a form of mnemonist.
Cash – The autobiography of Johnny Cash
I miss Roy. I miss him coming over for breakfast. He had total recall, you know. Around Roy, you didn't dare tell a story about something in which he'd been involved without asking, 'Is that the way it was, Roy?' He'd tell you exactly why you were wrong, or right. He could repeat twenty-year-old conversations word for word. He could tell you what you were wearing. It was almost scary. Roy was just my buddy, but sometimes I'd look at him and wonder.
Life and career
Roy Kelton Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, the middle son of Orbie Lee Orbison (1913–1984), an oil well driller and car mechanic, and Nadine Vesta Shults (July 25, 1913 – May 28, 1992), a nurse.
Both of his parents were unemployed during the Great Depression and, searching for work, moved the family to Fort Worth, when Roy was a child.
He attended Denver Avenue Elementary School until a polio scare prompted the family to return to Vernon. Later, they moved to Wink, Texas. Orbison later described life in Wink as "football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand" .
On Roy's sixth birthday, his father gave him a guitar. He later recalled that by the age of seven, "I was finished, you know, for anything else"; music would be his life. Aged eight, he began singing on a local radio show.
In high school, Orbison and some friends formed a band, the Wink Westerners. After graduating from Wink High School, he enrolled at North Texas State College in Denton, planning to study geology so that he could secure work in the oil fields if music did not pay. Three of the five members of the band moved to Odessa, Texas, and two new members were added to the group, which changed its name to the Teen Kings. The Teen Kings performed on local TV stations, played dances on the weekends, and attended college during the day.
Johnny Cash toured the area in 1955, playing on the same local radio show as the Teen Kings, and suggested that Orbison approach Sam Phillips at Sun Records, but in the end it was Phillips that offered the Teen Kings a contract in 1956. Their first record "Ooby Dooby" broke into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 59 and selling 200,000 copies. The Teen Kings ultimately split over disputed writing credits and royalties, but Orbison stayed in Memphis and asked his 16-year-old girlfriend, Claudette Frady, to join him there. He married Claudette in 1957.
It was not long before his first son was born. Playing shows late into the night, and living with his wife and young child in his tiny apartment, Orbison often sought refuge by taking his guitar to his car and writing songs there.
After the success of Only the Lonely, Orbison was now able to move his wife and son to Nashville permanently.
Then followed Running Scared. The composition of Orbison's following hits reflected "Running Scared": each one telling the story about an emotionally vulnerable man facing loss or grief, with a crescendo culminating in a surprise climax that employed Orbison's dynamic voice. There is thus something of the prophet about Orbison, even from these early days, it is as if he knew what was to come. As we shall see his wife died in a motorbike accident in June 6, 1966. All these hits preceded this accident by several years – Running Scared and Crying, for example, were both penned in 1961. Sensitive emotional people often do express their worst fears in poems, songs or books, but Orbison was almost obsessed with premonitions of loss. Orbison's second son was born in 1962.
Touring in 1963 took a toll on Orbison's personal life. His wife Claudette began having an affair with the contractor who built their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. In order to save their marriage and ensure he did not lose her, Orbison organised it so that when he toured Britain again in the autumn of 1963, she joined him. Nevertheless the song It’s Over well expresses his fears at the time.
The irony is that Orbison was immensely popular wherever he went, finishing the tour in Ireland and Canada. Almost immediately he toured Australia and New Zealand with the Beach Boys and returned again to Britain and Ireland, where he was so besieged by teenage girls that the Irish police had to halt his performances to pull the girls off him. He continued to tour, traveling to Australia again, this time with the Rolling Stones. He was lonely amidst the adulation.
He and Claudette divorced in November 1964 over her infidelities, but the two reconciled and got back together ten months later. While on tour again in the UK in 1965, Orbison broke his foot falling off a motorcycle in front of thousands of screaming fans at a race track; he performed his show that evening in a cast. His reconciliation with Claudette occurred when she went to visit him while he was recuperating from the accident.
Orbison and Claudette shared a love for motorcycles; she had grown up around them, but he claimed Elvis Presley had introduced him to motorcycles. Tragedy struck on June 6, 1966, however, when Orbison and Claudette were riding home from Bristol, Tennessee. She struck the door of a pickup truck which had pulled out in front of her on South Waters Avenue in Gallatin, Tennessee, and died instantly.
A grieving Orbison threw himself into his work, but his heart wasn’t in it and this time of output is probably best forgotten. Since the muse had left him he even recorded an album dedicated to the songs of Don Gibson and another of Hank Williams covers, but both sold poorly. Then a further truly bitter blow to add to his grief. During a tour of The Midlands in England, on September 16, 1968, he received the news that his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, had burned down. The fire killed two of his three children - his two eldest sons.
Cash – The autobiography of Johnny Cash
Roy and I .. were friends for most of Roy's life. It was a particularly close friendship, too. We became like brothers right from the start, when we'd tour together and Roy would come over to my house in Memphis, and we stayed that way until the end. By the time of his death in December 1988, we’d been next-door neighbours on Old Hickory Lake for twenty-plus years. While most of the time we passed like ships in the night the way traveling entertainers must, that didn't distance us; we were close enough that when our schedules coincided, he'd drop by for breakfast and be more than welcome.
I really loved Roy. He was a very kind, considerate man, sweet-natured and good- humoured; funny, too. The tragedies in his life seemed so unfair. Talk about bad things happening to good people: I can't think of any man much better than he was, and I can't think of anything at all that could be worse than having to endure the death of your children just two years after the death of your wife.
Claudette Orbison was Roy's first wife, killed when he and she were riding their motorcycles together in 1966. Roy D. and Tony Orbison, the two youngest of their three young sons, died in 1968 when their house - the house next door to mine – burned while Roy was on the road in Europe. I, too, was gone at the time.
As far as the fire marshalls were able to tell, the fire started when the boys, in their room behind a closed door, were playing with matches and an aerosol can, squirting it and igniting the spray. The inevitable followed. The fire flared up so fast and strong that when their grandparents heard something and went to investigate, it blew them all the way across the house as soon as they opened the door. There was no way they could reach the boys, though they both got burned trying; they were lucky to save themselves. The house was consumed.
When Roy got home only the chimney was left standing.
June and I cancelled our tour dates as soon as we heard the news and chartered a jet to get us home quickly, but there was nothing we could do for Roy. We heard that he didn't want to talk to anybody, so we just stayed home until the funeral, looking out the window now and again at that blackened chimney. I couldn't even approach Roy at the funeral - for the first time in my life I was at a total loss for words, gestures, anything – and it was a week or more before I found it in myself to call him; then I just told him that I loved him.
He said he'd be all right, but I couldn't imagine how he could be.
I didn't see him for a long time after that. He'd moved in with his parents, who lived across the road, and they'd put a ‘No Visitors' sign on the door. I asked his father about him from time to time, but the answer was always the same: he was there in the house, but he stayed shut up in his bedroom.
Eventually I had to act. I crossed the road, told his father I had to see him, and went to his room. And there he was: so pale that he could have been dead himself, just sitting in bed with his shades on, facing a large-screen television with the sound turned all the way down. He didn't get up from the bed when I came in. I don't know if he was crying because I couldn't see his eyes. I don't know if he even looked at me. He didn't speak.
I was still at a loss for words that seemed anywhere close to adequate, so I said what I could: that I loved him and that I wouldn't know how to handle it if I lost my own son that way. 'I don't know how to handle it, either,' he said, and that was all. I left.
The next time I saw him, he'd emerged from his room and decided to build a new house on a lot adjacent to the old one. I walked up to the construction site one day and was happy to find him almost his old self. We talked about the new house, and then he told me that he'd like June and me to have the old lot. Sure, I said. We worked it out and I bought it from him, and then I told him I'd never build on it or sell it to anyone else, even though it was the most valuable land in the neighbourhood. I'd plant a vineyard and an orchard there, and their first fruits each year would always be his.
He liked that; I think he was glad that strangers wouldn't live where his children died.
On March 25, 1969, Orbison married German teenager Barbara Jakobs. Orbison and Barbara had a son (Roy Kelton) in 1970 and another (Alexander) in 1975. The Cashes became close with the new Orbison family. Johnny and June became godparents to two of Barbara Orbison's sons.
Orbison continued recording albums in the 1970s, but none of them sold well and by 1976, he had gone an entire decade without a charting album. His fortunes sank so low that he began to doubt his own talents. A compilation of Orbison's greatest hits did, however, go to No. 1 in the U.K. in January 1976. His name was kept in the public eye only via the other artists who recorded his songs. In 1980, for example, Don McLean covered "Crying" in a version which unexpectedly went to the top of the charts hitting No. 5 in the U.S. and staying on the charts for 15 weeks; and reaching No. 1 in the U.K. and the Netherlands. Perhaps even more bizarre, Van Halen released a hard-rock cover of "Oh, Pretty Woman" on their 1982 album Diver Down, again further exposing a younger generation to Orbison's legacy.
Some of Orbison’s lack of inspiration may simply have been that he was a contented father with a young wife and thus did not have the angst that appears to have been the driver of his earlier work. But by late 1977, Orbison was not feeling at all well and decided to overwinter in Hawaii. While there, he checked into a hospital where testing discovered that he had severely obstructed coronary arteries. On January 18, 1978, Orbison underwent a triple coronary bypass. He was very close to not being here "Yes. I had blockage of ninety percent, seventy percent and sixty percent".
In the early 80s, Orbison’s career revived, he was in demand for concerts and interviews once again, and was seemingly ecstatic about it.
He determinedly pursued his second chance at stardom, but expressed amazement at his success: "It's very nice to be wanted again, but I still can't quite believe it."
In the final three months of his life he gave Rolling Stone magazine extensive access to his daily activities; he intended to write an autobiography and wanted Martin Sheen to play him in a biopic.
In November 1988, Mystery Girl was completed, and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was rising up the charts. Around this time, Orbison confided in Johnny Cash that he was having chest pains and said he would have to do something about his health, but he never did. He went to Europe, was presented with an award there, and played a show in Antwerp, where footage for the video for "You Got It" was filmed. He gave several interviews a day in a hectic schedule. A few days later, a manager at a club in Boston was concerned that he looked ill, but Orbison played the show, to another standing ovation.
Orbison performed at the Front Row Theater in Highland Heights, Ohio, on December 4. Exhausted, he returned to his home in Hendersonville to rest for several days before flying again to London to film two more videos for the Traveling Wilburys. On December 6, he spent the day flying model airplanes with his sons and ate dinner at his mother's home in Hendersonville. Later that day, he died of a heart attack, at the age of 52.
There is a touching addition to this. Wesley (born 1965), his youngest son with Claudette, was raised by Orbison's parents and inevitably the distance between them had grown as Orbison immersed himself in his new family’s life.
Cash – The autobiography of Johnny Cash
Sadly, we lost Roy to a heart attack in 1988, seven years after the bypass surgery that saved him the first time around (which happened to Marty Robbins, too, so I was more than a little worried when I reached my own seventh year after surgery).
Roy's death was sudden and shocking, but something wonderful did occur before it happened.
The day before Roy was taken, he went to see his surviving son from his first marriage, Wesley, and closed the distance that had grown between them. They hugged, said they loved each other, and sat up singing and writing songs late into Roy's last night on earth. Wesley says it was the most wonderful night of his life. Wesley is still within our circle. A few years ago I started seeing him leaning against the fence bordering the place where his brothers died, where the home of his childhood once stood.
One day I stopped and asked him what he was looking at. 'Oh, I like to come up here sometimes and look at this lot, 'he said. 'It gives me a little comfort.' Well, I told him, there were some mighty good fruit trees and grapevines in there and whenever the fruit was ripe he should just go on in and help himself. Bring a basket. 'Okay, 'he said. 'Thank you. I will.'
It was June who got the idea to give him more than the fruit. I agreed, and without any further fuss we signed the lot over to him free and clear. Now when I see him leaning on the fence I know he's thinking about the house he wants to build there someday, and I don't feel like I lost a thing in the deal. I feel like old Roy smiled down and said 'Thank you, John.'
On April 8, 1989, Orbison became the first deceased musician since Elvis Presley to have two albums in the US Top Five at the same time, with the Traveling Wilburys album at number 4 and his own Mystery Girl at number 5. In the United Kingdom, he achieved even greater posthumous success, with two solo albums in the Top 3 in the chart dated to February 11, 1989, Mystery Girl at number 2 and the compilation The Legendary Roy Orbison at number 3.
Cash – The autobiography of Johnny Cash
The last time I saw him was a few months before he died, and my favourite Roy Orbison story begins then. Among other things, we talked about hair. I told him I'd always admired the way men dressed and styled themselves in Thomas Jefferson's and Andrew Jackson's day, and now I really wanted to wear my hair as Jefferson wore his, in a ponytail tied off with a black ribbon.
'I'll see if I can talk June into letting me grow enough hair to do that,' I said.
Roy thought that was a grand idea. 'Tell you what,' he said. 'I'll do it if you do it.'
It was a grand idea, but I chickened out, and I never talked to Roy again. I saw him, though, when I took Wesley down to the funeral home where they'd laid Roy out for his friends and relatives.
Wesley didn't want to see his father dead and wouldn't approach the casket, but I did. I walked up and leaned over to get a good last look at my old buddy. When I saw him I couldn't help myself; I started laughing. That son of a gun had done it!
There, sticking out from under his head, was a neat little ponytail, and it was tied with a black ribbon.
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Orbison, Roy - 1957 Claudette
- Orbison, Roy - 1959 Uptown
- Orbison, Roy - 1960 Only The Lonely
- Orbison, Roy - 1961 Crying
- Orbison, Roy - 1961 Running Scared
- Orbison, Roy - 1962 Working For The Man
- Orbison, Roy - 1963 Blue Bayou
- Orbison, Roy - 1963 In Dreams
- Orbison, Roy - 1964 It’s Over
- Orbison, Roy - 1964 Pretty Woman
- Orbison, Roy - 1985 Coming Home
- Orbison, Roy - 1985 Wild Hearts
- Orbison, Roy - 1987 I Drove All Night
- Orbison, Roy - 1987 Life Fades away
- Orbison, Roy - 1989 She’s a Mystery to me & The Way Is Love
- Orbison, Roy - The importance of faith
- Travelling Wilburys - Not alone anymore