With a recording career that spanned more than three decades and produced such classic self-penned singles as "Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel)," "Crying," "Running Scared," "It's Over" and "Oh, Pretty Woman," Roy Orbison remains one of Texas music's true giants.
Growing up in Wink, in the heart of the Texas oil region, Orbison played and sang in several local bands, including his first, the Wink Westerners, and the better-known Teen Kings. The latter band had recorded a regional single, "Ooby Dooby," that Orbison sent to Sun Records founder Sam Phillips at the urging of Sun artist Johnny Cash; Phillips liked it, Orbison drove to Memphis to recut it, and by June 1956, Sun Records had released its first Roy Orbison single. It was not an altogether happy time for Orbison; now renowned for his strength as a balladeer, his early Sun singles such as "Sweet And Easy To Love," "Chicken Hearted," and "Rock House" were mostly upbeat rockers, and only "Ooby Dooby" had made much of a chart impression. He left the label in 1957 and signed to music publishers Acuff-Rose, convinced his true calling was as a songwriter--and indeed, his song "Claudette" was a top 30 hit for the Everly Brothers in 1958. Following a brief stint at RCA, where he recorded two singles produced by Chet Atkins, the singer soon found his niche at the Washington, D.C.-based Monument Records label.
Orbison began collaborating with fellow Texan songwriter Joe Melson at the time of his Monument deal; beginning with "Uptown," one of the first Nashville sessions to incorporate a string session, the pair began a long, extremely productive writing partnership. Of Orbison's first 15 top 40 hits, six were penned by the Orbison/Melson team, including "Only The Lonely"--regarded by many as the starting point of the singer's classic ballad sound--and the top 10 hits "Blue Angel," "Running Scared," "Crying," and "Blue Bayou." Additionally, Orbison scored as sole author of 1963's No. 7 single "In Dreams," as well as hits "Leah," "Working For The Man," and "Falling." A late 1963 falling out between Orbison and Melson--who was attempting to establish himself as a solo artist on Hickory Records--soon split the pair for several years, though by 1967 they would again work together periodically.
With new songwriting partner Bill Dees, another Texan, Orbison first crafted his extraordinary top 10 hit "It's Over," then produced the biggest-selling single of his life, 1964's "Oh, Pretty Woman." The latter track, estimated to have sold over 7 million copies in the year of its release alone, held the No. 1 slot for three weeks--and showed Orbison capable of holding his own against powerful British Invasion bands such as the Animals and Manfred Mann, who claimed respective No. 1 hits with "House Of The Rising Sun" and "Do Wah Diddy" before and after Orbison's smash.
Whether Orbison truly could hold his own against such powerhouse talents as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones--not to mention the enormous press attention these new bands were getting--became a major issue soon after "Oh, Pretty Woman." Offered an extremely lucrative deal with MGM Records that dangled the potential of Elvis-style movie stardom--and, indeed, he did star in MGM's forgettable 1968 film The Fastest Guitar Alive--Orbison signed on and watched his career falter dramatically after only three more middling hits. On a personal level, there was much more disturbing trouble as well: In the midst of a reconciliation with his ex-wife Claudette, she was killed in a motorcycle accident; two years later, two of his sons were tragically killed in a house fire.
Orbison eventually remarried, rebounded, and turned to country music, recording for Mercury and Asylum in the '70s. His reputation began to soar again via hit covers of his earlier work by Linda Ronstadt (1977's top 5 "Blue Bayou") and Don McLean (1981's top 5 "Crying"). He won a Grammy for his 1980 duet with Emmylou Harris--"That Loving You Feeling Again" from the soundtrack to Roadie--and saw his 1963 hit "In Dreams" play a central role in director David Lynch's 1986 film Blue Velvet. Orbison quickly was moving back into musical prominence: In 1986, he signed to Virgin Records and released In Dreams: Greatest Hits, a re-recorded double-set of his best known songs; in 1987, he was inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame; the next year, he was a member of the Traveling Wilburys alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. He recorded a duet version of "Crying" with singer K.D. Lang that earned a 1989 Grammy, and was the subject of the superb 1988 Cinemax TV special Roy Orbison And Friends: A Black And White Night, featuring guest stars Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, U2's Bono, and T-Bone Burnett, among others.
Following Orbison's death in 1988, his 1989 album Mystery Girl shot to the top 5, went platinum and became the biggest-selling album of his career. Included on the set was Orbison's final hit, the top 10 "You Got It," written by the singer with fellow Wilburys Petty and Lynne. Three years later, Virgin released King Of Hearts, a collection of previously unissued and posthumously completed tracks. Roy Orbison departed at a time when his vast talent was conspicuously receiving the recognition it had long been due. Dubbed "the greatest singer in the world" by Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison (b. Roy Kelton Orbison, April 23, 1936, Vernon, Texas) was inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 by Bruce Springsteen.