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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.

Personal tragedy, sadly, was also a part of Orbison's life. In 1966, he lost his wife Claudette to a motorcycle accident and a couple of years later, while he was away on a tour of England, he lost two of his sons to a terrible house fire that destroyed his home in Tennessee. His third son was miraculously saved by his parents.

Orbison was obviously devastated and to try and block out all his pain by touring constantly. In 1969, he remarried and started a new family, but he did not perform in the United States again until 1977.

The 1970s were a down time for Orbison, although he continued to tour and release music, the albums did not fare as well as his previously released material. He tried his hand at country music with the LP I'm Still In Love With You, and also released the album Regeneration in 1976. Things got so bad that in 1979, Orbison even attempted releasing a disco music album called Laminar Flow.

In the 1980's, Orbison's career enjoyed a rebirth of sorts. He collaborated with Emmylou Harris on the song, "That Lovin' You Feeling Again," which would go on to win the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group. He also recorded the song "Wild Hearts" for inclusion in the film Insignificance and the song "In Dreams" was included in the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet. He also re-recorded his 1961 hit "Crying" as a duet with k. d. lang for the movie Hiding Out (which would earn him another Grammy Award). All these things helped Orbison regain his popularity.

His 1987 HBO Special, Roy Orbison and Friends, was accompanied by a who's-who supporting cast including musical director T-Bone Burnett, pianist Glen Hardin (who had played with Buddy Holly and Elvis), guitarist James Burton (also played with Elvis), background singers Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Warnes. All loved Orbison and lobbied to participate and the special helped Orbison gain the attention of a younger generation.

Shortly after the performance, he teamed up with the previously mentioned rock stars (Lynne, Harrison, Dylan and Petty) to form the Traveling Wilburys, who achieved mass commercial appeal and success. He also recorded a new solo LP, Mystery Girl, which yielded his last hit "You Got It."

Sadly, during the afternoon of December 6, 1988, after spending time shopping for model airplanes (a hobby throughout his career and one he thoroughly enjoyed), he complained of chest pains and was rushed to a hospital in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Roy Orbison died shortly thereafter.

Roy Orbison is fondly remembered by millions of fans for is ballads of lost love and his creative songwriting abilities. His voice was also unique, an instrument of melodic invention.

Let's explore some this legendary rock and roll artist's achievements:

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987)
Songwriter's Hall of Fame (1989)
Grammy Awards (1980, 1988, 1989, 1990)

#1 hits:
"Running Scared" (1961)
"Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964)

Top 10 hits:
"Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel)" (1960)
"Crying" (1961)
"Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)" (1962)
"In Dreams" (1963)
"Mean Woman Blues"(1963)
"It's Over" (1964)
"You Got It"(1989)

"Mean Woman Blues"(1963)

"That Lovin' You Feelin' Again"(1980)
"You Got It"(1989)

Other important recordings: "Ooby Dooby," "Leah,"
"Blue Angel," "Candy Man," "I'm Hurtin',"
"Workin' For The Man," "Blue Bayou," "Falling,"
"Pretty Paper," "She's A Mystery To Me," "I Drove All Night,"
"Not Alone Any More" (Traveling Wilburys)

Wrote or co-wrote:
"Claudette," The Everly Brothers;
"Bad Boy," Sue Thompson
"Down The Line," Jerry Lee Lewis
"I'm In A Blue, Blue Mood," Conway Twitty
"See Ruby Fall," Johnny Cash

Appeared in the movies: "The Fastest Guitar Alive" (1967), "Roadie"
(1980), "Roy Orbison and Friends: Black & White Night" (1988),
"She's Having a Baby" (1988),
"Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" (1987)

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About Robert Benson

  • 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…