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The Legend of Roy Orbison

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To many, Roy Orbison is best known for his highly successful single "Oh, Pretty Woman." But Orbison's career spanned many decades and he was an accomplished songwriter and legendary performer.

Let's explore the life of this music legend:

Roy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas in 1936 and music quickly became an important element in his life. His father gave him a guitar when he was six-years old and by the age of thirteen he organized his first band called "The Wink Westerners," which was named after the town that his family had relocated to. The band had some success on local television and was allotted 30 minute weekly shows. It was at one of these shows where Orbison met one of his guests, a man named Johnny Cash.

Cash advised him to try and get a contract with record producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Phillips would turn them down at first, but relented and added the band to the Sun roster after hearing a recording that was created at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, N.M. The band was renamed "The Teen Kings." Orbison left for college in March of 1956 and ultimately headed for Sun Records in Memphis to pursue a career in music.

His first commercially successful song came in June of 1956 with the rockabilly single called "Ooby Dooby" (which was written by friends of Orbison). His song "Claudette" (named after his first wife) was recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1958 and was included as the B-side to their smash hit, "All I Have To Do Is Dream" (Claudette peaked at #30 in May of 1958).

However, Orbison's breakthrough hit was "Only The Lonely," which was a 1960 #2 hit in the US as well as #1 hit in the UK. Orbison had met songwriter Joe Melson and liking the way that Melson incorporated melodic twists and lyrical styling into his songs, asked him to write with him. Together, they created the unique sound that Orbison would soon be famous for- the dramatic rock ballad.

Orbison also scored a #1 US hit in 1961 with the song "Running Scared,' as well as scoring another #1 hit in the US with the cut "Crying," an almost over-the-top ballad that featured his brilliant and now internationally famous warble.

In 1963, he headlined a tour with the Beatles, but was soon demoted to the opening act. Nonetheless, he developed lifelong friendships with the band, especially George Harrison and John Lennon. In fact, Orbison encouraged the Fab Four to come to the United States and try and sell their sound.

When the British Invasion broke out in 1964, Orbison was one of the few who survived. His single, "Oh, Pretty Woman," actually broke the Beatles stranglehold on the Top Ten, catapulting to the #1 position in August of 1964 (where it would remain for three weeks). In fact, the record sold more copies in the first 10 days than any other single up to that time and would go on to sell more than 7 millions copies.

The song was written in one afternoon while Orbison and his songwriting friend Bill Dees were working. Orbison's wife at the time, Claudette, was leaving to do some shopping when Orbison asked her if she needed any money; to which Bill Dees interjected, "A pretty woman never needs any money." They both thought that it would make a great song title and by the time that Claudette returned home from her shopping trip, the duo had written the now legendary song.

Many people often wonder if Orbison had eye problems which forced him to wear sunglasses, even at night. He did not have a specific eye ailment; the sunglasses actually became part of his persona by pure accident. After flying in to Alabama for a performance, Orbison accidently left his regular glasses on the plane and didn't realize he had his sunglasses on until the evening; but by then he had no choice, he had to wear the sunglasses or no glasses at all and not be able to see.

So he went onstage wearing the dark glasses and the next day he flew to England to tour with the Beatles. Again, he was forced to wear the sunglasses and photographs of him and the Beatles circulated worldwide, and, although it was all unplanned, he was stuck with the new image and kept it throughout his amazing career.

In 1965, Orbison left Monument Records opting to move over to MGM, a label that promised him more money. Unfortunately, he would not make the Top Ten in the US again until 1989 he went to #9 with a song Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne wrote for him, "You Got It."  It was also during this time Orbison worked with Petty, Lynne, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan in the Traveling Wilburys.

But Orbison was a world-wide music sensation and he remained very popular in Europe and Australia. In fact, his cut "Working For The Man" topped the Australian charts and the song "Too Soon To Know" peaked at #3 in England. He was also very popular in Germany, actually recording his hit song "Mama" in the native tongue. In France, he was viewed as the master of lost love ballads and a cover version of his 1963 hit, "Blue Bayou" (#29 on the Billboard Top 40 chart and a #3 hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1977), that was performed in French by Mireille Mathieu topped the French charts. Additionally, fans in the Netherlands formed his largest worldwide fan club.

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  • Rene Dwight

    Roy was greatly underestimated when it comes to his place in recent music history, maybe his sunglasses image held him back but it has to be said he was a “one of a kind”. It is said he took on the songs that Elvis’s voice did not suit [ those with a higher operatic pitch ].. People like Roy, Buddy Holly and Rock Nelson have all been a great influence on my own music and I can only aspire to be even just the slightest bit as good as them..

    Rene Dwight – The Blue Cougars…