Born April 23, 1936, in vernon, Tex.; died of a massive heart attack, December 6, 1988, in Hendersonville, Tenn.; father was an oil field worker; mother's name, Nadine; married first wife, Claudette (died, 1966); married second wife, Barbara, 1969; children: (first marriage) Wesley, Roy Dwayne (died, 1968), Anthony (died, 1968); (second marriage) Roy Kelton, Alex. Education: Attended North Texas State University.

Roy Orbison's "was a voice like no other ever heard in rock--silky, soaring, tender, gritty, haunted with pain. And durable," eulogized Jim Jerome of People magazine. Orbison, the singer and songwriter responsible for rock and roll classics such as "Only the Lonely," "Crying," "In Dreams," and "Oh, Pretty Woman," began his career with Sun Records of Memphis, Tennessee, along with other rock greats Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. He had a string of hit singles that lasted from the late 1950s to the early 1960s before the combined effects of the British rock invasion and a series of personal tragedies brought about a decline in his career. Orbison kept performing on stage, however, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s his music began resurfacing in remakes by artists as varied as Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean, and Van Halen. In 1980 he had a country hit with duet partner Emmylou Harris, "That Loving You Feeling Again"; the performance won the pair a Grammy Award. In 1986, the use of Orbison's eerily passionate "In Dreams" in the film "Blue Velvet" refocused attention on his music. At the time of his death from a heart attack at the age of fifty-two, Orbison was again on the charts as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, and had an album of his own, Mystery Girl, ready for release.

Orbison was born April 23, 1936, in Vernon, Texas. His family soon moved to Wink, Texas, where he spent most of his youth. Like many of the South's rock pioneers, Orbison's earliest musical influences came from the sounds of country and gospel music; his intent was to become a country music performer. His father, who worked on oil rigs, taught him to play guitar when he was six years old. By the time Orbison was attending high school, he was the leader of the Wink Westerners, his own country group, and had his own show on a local radio station.

While attending North Texas State University, Orbison became acquainted with another fledgling singer, Pat Boone, who was also a student there. Boone encouraged him to continue with his musical efforts, and Orbison formed another band, with which he soon landed a television show in Midland, Texas. Through his television work and other musical activities, Orbison came into contact with country-rock artist Johnny Cash, who urged him to send a demonstration tape of his music to Sam Phillips, the head of Sun Records. Despite his primary interest in the mainstream country genre, Orbison sent Phillips the rock-oriented "Oooby Dooby," because he thought it meshed better with the kind of songs Sun was producing at the time. Phillips liked what he heard, and in 1956, "Oooby Dooby" became Orbison's first hit.

But Orbison did not stay with Sun for long. Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose, a music publishing company, hired him as a staff writer in 1957. In this capacity Orbison wrote a major hit for the Everly Brothers, "Claudette," which was inspired by his first wife, and a lesser success for Jerry Lee Lewis, "Down the Line." His own ambitions as a singer had not diminished, however, and Rose arranged a recording contract for Orbison at Monument Records. On the Monument label he scored hits with 1960's "Only the Lonely," 1961's "Running Scared," 1962's "Dream Baby," and many other songs. Orbison made concert tours throughout the United States and Europe; he was even more popular in England than he was in his own country. In 1963, he was the headliner for rock and roll shows that also featured a group whose members Orbison became friendly with, the Beatles, who were already a phenomenon in England but as yet unknown in America. It was for one of these shows that Orbison began wearing his trademark dark glasses while performing on stage. Suffering from poor eyesight, when the singer left his glasses on a plane, he had to wear his prescription sunglasses in order to see well. This new prop unfortunately led to a rumor among some of Orbison's fans that he was blind.

In 1965, after selling over seven million copies of his 1964 hit "Oh, Pretty Woman," Orbison switched recording companies. He chose MGM because it would give him motion picture exposure as well as musical, and soon after he joined the company he made the film, "Fastest Guitar Alive." Though his release of the single "Ride Away" was only a moderate success, there was nothing to indicate that Orbison would not continue to be a major part of the American popular music scene. In 1966, however, his wife Claudette was killed in a motorcycle accident while crossing an intersection moments after Orbison himself. To cope with his grief, Orbison buried himself in concert engagements, but did not do much in the way of writing or recording new material. He had no sooner begun to recover and to start new recording efforts when, in 1968, a house fire killed two of his sons while he was away on tour. By the time Orbison was ready to release records again, he had been so long away from the charts that his audience had dwindled.

Undaunted, Orbison continued to tour, especially in England and Europe, where his popularity had never waned. He remarried in 1969, to a German-born woman named Barbara who eventually became his manager. Orbison suffered another personal setback in 1978, however, when, after he collapsed from running up some stadium bleachers, it was discovered he needed coronary bypass surgery. He was determined to continue performing, though, and according to Jerome in another People article, told the woman who did the surgery, "Make sure it's a clean, pretty incision. I perform with my shirts open pretty far down."

Though the comeback album he made in 1979 following his operation was not particularly successful, Orbison did see success again in 1980, when his duet with Emmylou Harris won a Grammy Award. Recordings of his songs by other artists, and re-releases of his own recordings brought him back into demand as a concert performer in the United States--two nights before his death Orbison played to an appreciative audience in Akron, Ohio. Orbison had also achieved new success as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, a group that was filled out by ex-Beatle George Harrison, Tom Petty of the Heartbreakers, former Electric Light Orchestra member Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan. The Wilburys had a hit single, "Handle With Care," and the album it came from, Volume One, reached number eight on the U.S. record charts. Orbison was in Tennessee visiting his mother when he died.

by Elizabeth Thomas

Roy Orbison's Career

Worked on oil rigs as youth; had own radio show and was leader of the Wink Westerners (country group), in Wink, Texas, as teenager; recording artist and concert performer, 1956--; also recorded and performed (with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, and Tom Petty) with group The Traveling Wilburys, 1988; hosted local television show in Midland, Texas, 1955; actor in motion pictures, including The Fastest Guitar Alive, 1965.

Roy Orbison's Awards

Grammy Award (with Emmylou Harris) for best country vocal performance by a duo or group, 1980, for "That Loving You Feeling Again"; member of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; member of Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

A yahoo discussion group finally settled the question. Lead guitar on PRETTY WOMAN is Billy Sanford. The other contender was Grady Martin, that's Grady on El Paso and thousands of others. Grady died before the internet allowed the Q to be discussed. PW was cut in the Fred Foster Studios, Nashville. Grady recorded mostly at the Bradley Barn/CBS Studio. Multiple other players have also claimed credit. Sanford left session work, toured with Don Williams until retirement a couple years ago. When you hear PRETTY WOMAN, think Billy Sanford. One of the nice guys. Bob Moore was the #1 bass player in Nashville, he produced the Orbison sessions. Buddy Harmon was the #1 drummer, they worked four, five, six 3 hour sessions, often 7 days a week. Bob gave Buddy (and at least one other helper) the chance to do career-quality work on the Orbison tracks. Bob's wife told me Fred Foster at Monument was hacked when he discovered Bob had signed Roy Orbison. "He thought he was signing Gene Vincent."

about 16 years ago

PBS this month -- march 2008 -- aired music specials on historical concerts of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. Orbison shone above Presley for vocal quality and depth of musical quality in lyrics and libretto