Roy Kelton Orbison was born on 23 April 1936 in Vernon, Texas. Not long after, his family moved to nearby Wink, and when Roy was about six his father started teaching him how to play the guitar.
In his teens, he was the leader of a group called The Wink Westerners, who played country & western music at local functions and even had their own program on Radio KVWC back in Vernon.
The Wink Westerners gradually evolved into The Teen Kings and Roy struck up a friendship with another young Texan singer, Buddy Holly – from nearby Lubbock.
When Holly started working under the supervision of Norman Petty at his studio in Clovis, just over the border from Texas in New Mexico, he arranged for Roy Orbison and The Teen Kings to audition for Petty.
By this time The Teen Kings had developed their country & western music into country-rock, or rockabilly as it was then known, and two of the songs they recorded with Petty – Tryin’ To Get You and Ooby Dooby were released on the Jewel label.
Two states to the east in Memphis, Tennessee, Sam Phillips’ Sun Record Company had become the Mecca for all rockabilly singers seeking to emulate the success of Phillips’ protégé, a local truck driver named Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison made the trip.
Phillips had heard Orbison’s record on Jewel and had him re-cut that and record several new songs in his studio at 706 Union Avenue. The new version of Ooby Dooby was released as Sun 242, backed by Go, Go, Go, and it sold something in the order of 350,000 copies – quite a fair-sized hit.
Orbison went on to record a lot of material for Phillips, and had three more singles released on the Sun label – You’re My Baby, Sweet and Easy and Chicken-Hearted – but none came close to selling as many as Ooby Dooby.
A song Roy had written about his wife, Claudette, was recorded by The Everly Brothers as the B side to All I Have To Do Is Dream, which turned out to be a double-sided million-seller.
The Everly Brothers had been signed to the Acuff-Rose music publishers by Wesley Rose, and he was impressed enough with Claudette to offer Orbison a contract.
Rose also negotiated a recording contract for Orbison with RCA Victor, who were based 200 miles cross-state from Memphis in Nashville.
At the old Victor studios there on 17th Street and Hawkins, Orbison cut several tracks under the supervision of Chet Atkins – who had also been in charge of recording The Everlys.
RCA released Almost Eighteen b/w Jolie as a single, but with little response, and turned down his next offering, Paper Boy. Rose thought a change of labels might do Orbison some good so took him across town to Fred Foster’s newly-formed Monument label. Orbison’s first session with Monument produced Paper Boy – the 18,000 sales, however, seemed to reflect RCA’s good judgement in rejecting it.
His second session with Monument resulted in Uptown which sold 75,000 copies. At their next recording session, Orbison gave Foster two songs he wanted to record. Foster suggested that the two be combined and brought in a string section and a male vocal backing group.
The result was Only The Lonely, a number two hit (number one in the UK) and a million sales. Although the strings were a bit heavy-handed, Orbison had managed in that one record to perfect the art pioneered by Sun artists like Conway Twitty and of course, Presley – namely, channelling rock ‘n’ roll into a traditional ballad form.
Stockily built and forced to wear heavy prescription glasses, Orbison never had the pretty-boy good looks of his contemporary Elvis Presley, but in summer 1961, Running Scared topped the charts and Orbison went on to accumulate the remarkable total of 12 million sellers in four years.
Even as Beatlemania was sweeping all before it he reached the top again with Oh Pretty Woman, also a Number One (his third) in Britain, where he toured consistently during the sixties.
On 7 June 1966, Orbison and his 25-year-old wife Claudette were motorcycling home from a race meeting when her bike was involved in a head-on collision and she was killed instantly. Orbison was almost wiped out emotionally, but poured all of his love into his three sons, Roy junior, Tony and Wesley. He even wrote a song about the tragedy – It’s Too Soon To Know – which made the Top Three in Britain.
Then two years later while he was in Bournemouth on a tour of Britain, his Tennessee home burnt down with two of his kids inside – Roy junior, who was 13, and eight-year-old Tony.
Orbison married a German teenager named Barbara Wilhonnen Jacobs on 25 March 1969. The couple had two sons, in 1970 and 1974. Ill-health ultimately brought his career to a standstill (he had suffered from duodenal ulcers since 1960 and had been a chain smoker since adolescence). He underwent triple bypass heart surgery but continued to smoke for the rest of his life.
He returned to the stage in 1980, just in time to see Don McLean take Orbison’s song Crying to the top of the British charts. By 1987 his career was fully revived. His song In Dreams featured prominently in the David Lynch movie, Blue Velvet, he formed a group called The Traveling Wilburys with some very esteemed colleagues – Jeff Lynne (ELO), Tom Petty, George Harrison and Bob Dylan – and enjoyed massive hits, and he released his first new album in years, Mystery Girl(1988).
Just when it seemed that Roy Orbison had a second chance at superstardom he died of a heart attack on 6 December 1988. He was 52.