Roy Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988), also known by the nickname The Big O, was an American singer-songwriter, best known for his distinctive, powerful voice, complex compositions, and dark emotional ballads. Orbison grew up in Texas and began singing in a rockabilly/country and western band in high school until he was signed by Sun Records in Memphis. His greatest success came with Monument Records between 1960 and 1964, when 22 of his songs placed on the Billboard Top Forty, including “Only the Lonely”, “Crying”, and “Oh, Pretty Woman”. His career stagnated through the 1970s, but several covers of his songs and the use of “In Dreams” in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet (1986) revived his career. In 1988, he joined the supergroup Traveling Wilburys with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne and also released a new solo album. He died of a heart attack in December that year, at the zenith of his resurgence. His life was marred by tragedy, including the death of his first wife and his two eldest sons in separate accidents. Orbison’s vocal instrument bridged the gap between baritone and tenor, and music scholars have suggested that he had a three- or four-octave range The combination of Orbison’s powerful, impassioned voice and complex musical arrangements led many critics to refer to his music as operatic, giving him the sobriquet “the Caruso of Rock”. Elvis Presley and Bono have stated his voice was, respectively, the greatest and most distinctive they had ever heard.While most male performers in rock and roll in the 1950s and ’60s projected a defiant masculinity, many of Orbison’s songs instead conveyed a quiet, desperate vulnerability. He was known for performing while standing still and solitary and for wearing black clothes and dark sunglasses, which lent an air of mystery to his persona.
Orbison was initiated into the second class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 by longtime admirer Bruce Springsteen. The same year he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame two years later. Rolling Stone placed Orbison at number 37 on their list of The Greatest Artists of All Time, and number 13 on their list of The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.In 2002, Billboard magazine listed Orbison at number 74 in the Top 600 recording artists.
Roy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, the middle son of Orbie Lee Orbison (1913-1984), an oil well driller and car mechanic, and Nadine Shultz (1914-1992), a nurse. Both of Orbison’s parents were unemployed during the Great Depression. Searching for work, the family moved to Fort Worth during his childhood. He attended Denver Avenue Elementary School, until a polio scare prompted them to return to Vernon. Later, the family moved to Wink, Texas. Orbison would later describe the major components of life in Wink as “Football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand”, and in later years expressed relief that he was able to leave the desolate town.All the Orbison children were afflicted with poor eyesight; Roy used thick corrective lenses from an early age. Orbison was not particularly confident in his appearance; he began dyeing his nearly white hair black when he was young.He was quiet and self-effacing, remarkably polite and obliging—a product, biographer Alan Clayson wrote, of his Southern upbringing.However, Orbison was readily available to sing, and often became the focus of attention when he did. He considered his voice memorable if not great.
On his sixth birthday, Orbison’s father gave him a guitar. Orbison later recalled that, by the age of seven, “I was finished, you know, for anything else”; music would be his life.Orbison’s major musical influences as a youth were in country music. He was particularly moved by the way Lefty Frizzell sang, slurring syllables.He also enjoyed Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. One of the first musicians he heard in person was Ernest Tubb playing on the back of a flatbed truck in Fort Worth. In West Texas, however, he was exposed to many forms of music: “sepia”—a euphemism for what became known as rhythm and blues (R&B); Tex-Mex; orchestral Mantovani, and zydeco. The zydeco favorite “Joli Blon” was one of the first songs Orbison sang in public. At eight, Orbison began appearing on a local radio show. By the late 1940s, he was the host.
In high school, Orbison and some friends formed The Wink Westerners, an informal band that played country standards and Glenn Miller songs at local honky-tonks, and had a weekly radio show on KERB in Kermit. When they were offered $400 to play at a dance, Orbison realized that he could make a living in music. 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. He formed another band called The Teen Kings, and sang at night while working in the oil fields or studying during the day. Orbison saw classmate Pat Boone get signed for a record deal, further strengthening his resolve to become a professional musician. His geology grades dropping, he switched to Odessa Junior College to consider becoming a teacher.
While living in Odessa, Orbison drove to Dallas to be shocked at the on-stage antics of Elvis Presley, who was only a year older and a rising star in the music scene. 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, home of rockabilly stars including Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Cash. In their conversation, Phillips told Orbison curtly, “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company!” but he was convinced to listen to a song composed by Dick Penner and Wade Moore in mere minutes atop a fraternity house at North Texas State, named “Ooby Dooby”, that the Teen Kings had recorded on the Odessa-based Je–Wel record label.Phillips was impressed and offered the Teen Kings a contract in 1956. For more info