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Music Memories: Roy Orbison

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Roy Orbison in his trademark sunglasses

Roy Orbison was born on April 23, 1936. Orbison was a singer/songwriter, most popular in the early 1960s, who specialized in grandly melodramatic ballads of romantic suffering and torment.

Orbison was given his first guitar at the age of 6; by 7, he said, he "was finished for anything else." He began singing on a local radio show when he was 8, and was hosting the show in his early teens.

He formed a band while attending high school in Wink, Texas, and it wasn't long before the Wink Westerners had a rdio show of their own. Orbison already knew that he wanted a career as a singer, but just in case that didn't work out, he studied geology at North Texas State College, figuring that he could always fall back on a job in oil drilling.

By the mid-1950s, the Wink Westerners had become the Teen Kings, and they had a weekly show on local TV. In March 1956, they recorded a song written by a pair of Orbison's college friends, "Ooby Dooby." The record got them a contract with Sun Records, and a re-recorded version of "Ooby Dooby" was a minor national hit. The Teen Kings split up shortly after that, but Orbison stayed at Sun Records for a few years. He didn't have any luck as a performer, but the company liked his songs, and the Everly Brothers recorded Orbison's "Claudette" in 1958.

In 1959, Orbison moved to Monument Records. Working with producer Fred Foster, he developed the trademark sound of his most successful records—rhythm section in the background of the mix, with the backup singers more prominent than usual. It took some trial and error, but Orbison and his songwriting partner Joe Melson eventually came up with a song that suited Foster's production.

That song was "Only the Lonely," and it was on this song that Orbison thought he had finally discovered his real voice. It was a voice of astonishing range and power, with a dazzling falsetto. Other singers have resorted to dramatic imagery to describe Orbison's voice. Bob Dylan said, "you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera;" Dwight Yoakam called it "the voice of an angel falling backward through an open window." Barry Gibb called it simply "the voice of God."

Roy Orbison in concert

Orbison continued in the same vein, writing and singing songs of anguished heartbreak—"Running Scared," "Crying," "In Dreams," "It's Over." There were a few lighter moments; "Blue Bayou" was a relatively relaxed song, and "Oh, Pretty Woman" found Orbison in a downright frisky mood. (These early songs can all be heard on The Monument Singles Collection.)

Orbison developed one piece of his trademark visual style by accident. He'd worn glasses since he was a child. When he accidentally left his glasses on an airplane, he performed that night in his prescription sunglasses. He was less able to see the audience, and he found that helped with his stage fright, so he continued to wear the sunglasses. Combined with the fact that he wasn't an energetic performer on stage—he didn't dance much and mostly stood still at the microphone—the sunglasses led some fans to believe that he was blind.

In 1965, Orbison moved from Monument Records to MGM, which planned to put him in the movies and turn him into the next Elvis. It didn't work out. Orbison's only movie, The Fastest Gun Alive, was a flop; and MGM's writers and producers didn't have the same understanding of how to write for his voice that his friends at Monument did. Plus, musical styles were changing fast as the British Invasion began, and Orbison's career as a top-line pop star seemed to be over.

He never disappeared entirely, and continued to record at MGM for nearly a decade. (The MGM Years 1965-1973) collects Orbison's best work from that era.) But through the early 1980s, he stayed in the public eye mostly through other singers' performances of his old hits. Sonny James took "Only the Lonely" to the top of the country chart; Linda Ronstadt scored with "Blue Bayou;" Don McLean was well suited to the melodrama of "Crying;" and Van Halen put a campy spin on "Oh, Pretty Woman."

Orbison's comeback as a performer began in 1981, when he won a Grammy Award for a duet with Emmylou Harris, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again." A few years later, he recorded a new song for the soundtrack of the film Less Than Zero; "Life Fades Away" was written by the somewhat improbable team of Orbison and metal singer Glenn Danzig.

Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. His induction speech was given by Bruce Springsteen, who (like just about everyone else) found that only the grandest statements could describe Orbison; Springsteen called him "the true master of the romantic apocalypse."

In 1988, Orbison was having lunch with his old friend George Harrison—Orbison had toured in Europe with the Beatles in the early 1960s—and producer Jeff Lynne, who wanted to produce a new album for Orbison. They began tossing around ideas, and wound up at Bob Dylan's home recording studio, along with Tom Petty, whose band had backed up Dylan's most recent tour. By the end of the day, the five had written a couple of songs and decided to record an album together, calling themselved The Traveling Wilburys. The album, Volume One, was a hit.

In November of that year, Lynne did produce an Orbison solo album. Sadly, Orbison didn't live to see its success; he died of a heart attack on December 6. When Mystery Girl was released in January 1989, it was a critical and commercial success, and "You Got It" became Orbison's first top ten single in 25 years. There were enough unused songs left over from the Mystery Girl recording sessions that Lynne was able to assemble one more album; King of Hearts was released in 1992, and generated a minor hit in "I Drove All Night."

In addition to the songs and albums linked above, more of Orbison's music is available for streaming or download at Hoopla and Freegal. Orbison biographies include John Kruth's Rhapsody in Black (e-book); Ellis Amburn's Dark Star (print); and The Authorized Roy Orbison (e-book), by Orbison's sons, Roy Jr., Wesley, and Alex.