Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988) was an American singer, songwriter, and musician known for his powerful voice, wide vocal range, impassioned singing style, complex song structures, and dark, emotional ballads.
While living in Odessa, Orbison saw a performance by Elvis Presley, who was only a year older and a rising star. Johnny Cash toured the area in 1955 and 1956, appearing on the same local TV show as the Wink Westerners, and suggested that Orbison approach Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
Orbison telephoned Phillips and during their conversation was curtly told, “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company! “The success of their KMID television show got them another show on KOSA-TV, and Roy’s band changed their name from the Wink Westerners to the Teen Kings, as they were appealing more and more to a younger audience.
Due to the initial rejection from Sam Phillips, the Teen Kings recorded “Ooby Dooby” for the Odessa-based Je–Wel label. According to the official Roy Orbison discography by Marcel Riesco this was the first release by Orbison in March 1956.
Phillips was impressed with the song, after the local record store owner Poppa Holifield played it for him over the telephone, and offered the Teen Kings a contract in 1956. The Sun release peaked at No. 59 on Billboard’s Top-100 singles chart.
Orbison affiliated himself with the Everlys’ music publisher, Acuff-Rose. Wesley Rose got Orbison a one-year contract with RCA. Roy wrote “Claudette”—about Claudette Frady whom he married in 1957—and the Everly Brothers recorded it for their subsequent release as the B-side of their smash hit “All I Have to Do Is Dream”.
The deal with R.C.A. ended after two failed singles. Fred Foster then gobbled Roy up for his new record label Monument. The second single, “Only The Lonely” skyrocketed to No. 2 on Billboard. Above is a British release. The U.S. release for the first few Monument singles did not have picture sleeves in the U.S.
Roy’s first number ONE single on Billboard was “Running Scared”. It knocked “Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson out of the No. 1 spot, only to be bumped back out of the No. 1 spot by Ricky the week after.
“Mean Woman Blues” (No. 5). Originally recorded by Elvis Presley in 1957 for his second film “Loving You”. Note that the publishing company is “Gladys Music A.S.C.A.P. This was owned by Presley and meant that Presley got royalties every time Orbison’s record got played on the radio.
The ‘Flip’ side of “Mean Woman Blues” was a song Roy co-wrote called “Blue Bayou” and his version went to No. 29 on Billboard. Years later the same song would be a Top-10 smash for this lady, though I can’t remember her name to save my soul.
Then his biggest hit single, No. 1 in the U.S. and many countries around the world, “Oh Pretty Woman” Both “It’s Over” & “Oh Pretty Woman” peaked at No. 1 in Britain and Roy was the only American artist to accomplish that in 1964.
1965 found Roy changing labels from Monument to, a then, major label M.G.M. It is said that the music wasn’t as good as his Monument sides which was cause for his decline in popularity. I disagree wholeheartedly! Many of his initial singles stood up artistically and while, not as popular in the U.S. found places in the Top-10 of many countries. “Ride Away” No. 25 U.S. but No. 1 in Canada.
Of the late 1960’s, Roy had this to say about the music being made later saying: “[I] didn’t hear a lot I could relate to so I kind of stood there like a tree where the winds blow and the seasons change, and you’re still there and you bloom again.”.
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 Water Avenue in Gallatin, Tennessee, and died instantly.
During a tour of England and playing Bournemouth on Saturday, September 14, 1968, he received the news that his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, had burned down, and his two eldest sons had died. The property was sold to Johnny Cash, who demolished the building and planted an orchard on it.
On March 25, 1969, Orbison married German teenager Barbara Jakobs, whom he had met several days before his sons’ deaths. Wesley (born 1965), his youngest son with Claudette, was raised by Orbison’s parents. Orbison and Barbara had a son (Roy Kelton) in 1970 and another (Alexander) in 1975.
In the 1970’s & 1980’s he continued to record for various labels. He was even signed to Asylum Records, the same label as the Eagles & Linda Ronstadt. He was even the opening act for the Eagles on their “Long Run” tour. I saw the show at the Cow Palace in Daly City, CA. Artists like Ronstadt, Don McLean & Van Halen were having huge hits covering his music yet success for him as an artist was elusive.
In 1981, he and Emmylou Harris had won a Grammy Award for their duet “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again” (from the comedy film “Roadie” in which Orbison also had a cameo role) and things were picking up. It was his first such award, and he felt hopeful in making a full return to popular music. However, it would be several more years until this came to fruition.
Then came “A Black And White Night”, a 1988 Cinemax television special originally broadcast on January 3, 1988. The backing band was the TCB Band, which accompanied Elvis Presley from 1969 until his death in 1977: Glen D. Hardin on piano, James Burton on lead guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass, and Ronnie Tutt on drums. Male background vocalists, some of whom also joined in on guitar, were Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther and Steven Soles. The female background vocalists were k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes and Bonnie Raitt. During the end credits, several of the band members are shown talking about how Orbison influenced them. It created a HUGE resurgence in Roy’s carrier.
The Traveling Wilburys (sometimes shortened to the Wilburys) were a British–American supergroup consisting of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. Originating from an idea discussed by Harrison and Lynne during the sessions for Harrison’s 1987 album “Cloud Nine” the band formed in April 1988 after the five members united to record a bonus track or “B” side for Harrison’s third single from that L.P. called “This Is Love”.
When this collaboration, “Handle with Care”, was deemed too good for such a limited release, the group agreed to record a full album. “Handle With Care” was the first single and a huge hit. In 1990, the album won the Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group.
While working as a Wilbury, Roy also recorded his last L.P. while he was alive. “Mystery Girl”. It was completed in November 1988, a month before his death at the age of 52, and according to the official Roy Orbison discography by Marcel Riesco, released on the Virgin record label on January 31, 1989.
The second single, “She’s a Mystery to Me”, written by Bono and The Edge of the Irish Rock group “U2”. This is No. 2, behind “Blue Angel” on my favorite list. It reached No. 5 in Ireland. And Top-20 in Australia, Belgium & The Netherlands.
Another posthumous hit for Roy was “I Drove All Night”. written and composed by American songwriters Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly and made famous by American singer Cyndi Lauper. The song was originally intended for Roy, who recorded it in 1987, the year before his death, but his version was not released until 1992, after Lauper’s version became a top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1989.
Lastly on Roy’s discography is the hit single “Heartbreak Radio” from the L.P. “King Of Hearts”. Much of this material had been recorded for the “Mystery Girl” album released in Oct. 1992. While this single only peaked at No. 31 in Belgium and No. 36 in Britain, this makes it to No. 3 on my all time FAVORITE list. The song just ROCKS!
Grammy Awards for:
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)
Lifetime Achievement Award (1998)
Also inducted in the second class of the Hall of Fame were Bo Diddley and Carl Perkins (Pictured here with Roy),The Coasters, Eddie Cochran, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Bill Haley, B.B. King, Clyde McPhatter, Ricky Nelson, Smokey Robinson, Big Joe Turner, Muddy Waters, Jackie Wilson, Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, Hank Williams, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Jerry Wexler.
Pictured here with Bill Dees co-writer of many of Roy’s songs like “Oh Pretty Woman”. Speaking of song writing, Roy was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1987 and the Songwriters Hall Of Fame (Different from Nashville’s) in 1989.
Pictured here with Fred Foster, owner of Monument records and Roy’s producer in the 1960’s. Roy’s also received a Star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame (2010), America’s pop Music Hall Of Fame (2014) and the Memphis Music Hall Of Fame (2017).
Here’s a photo from Roy’s last live concert Dec. 4th, 1988 at Highland Heights, Ohio. God Bless him for his music and his influence on MY music. To quote one of Roy’s songs “Now that ain’t bad for a country boy”.