Roy Kelton Orbison was born on April 23, 1936 at 3:30 pm, in Vernon, Texas. Nadine, his mother, was a nurse. Orbie Lee, his father, a worker. Roy was their second child. For his sixth birthday, Roy asked for a harmonica, but fortunately his daddy gave him a guitar. Orbie Lee is generally credited with teaching Roy to play guitar. However, he also learned from Charlie Orbison, Orbie Lee’s brother,
and Kenneth Schultz, brother of Nadine’s. Together with Clois Russell, Orbie Lee’s neighbor and workmate, they would often play and sing. The first song Roy ever played was the classic “You Are My Sunshine”. He learned very quickly, so that way he could stay up late with the grown-ups and sing.The Orbison family moved to Forth Worth sometime in 1942. In Forth Worth, they found employment in the munitions and aircraft factories that had been expanded due to America’s entry into World War II. But due to epidemic polio in 1944, Roy and his elder brother Grady were sent back to live with their maternal grandmother, a divorcee, in Vernon. Roy Orbison wrote his first song “A Vow of Love”, in front of his grandmother’s house the same year. In 1945 he entered and won a contest on KVWC in Vernon and this led to his own radio show singing the same songs every Saturday. In 1946 a medicine show came to town and Roy entered the talent contest singing “Mountain Dew” and “Jole Blon”, and tied for first place with a 15-year-old kid. The total prize was $15, so he got $7.50 and gave his buddy half of that for carrying his guitar.
When the War was over, the family re-united in Vernon and soon moved out west to Wink, Texas, in late 1946. He formed his first band when he was thirteen, in 1949. They called themselves The Wink Westerners.
In 1951 Roy had been appearing regularly on KERB radio in Kermit. By 1953 the band, got their own show on KERB sponsored by local businessmen one day a week before school. The Wink Westerner’s first appearance was at one of the school assemblies. They were also featured on the KERB Jamboree on Saturday afternoons with local Country & Western bands. The first songs they played were “Kaw-liga”, “Mexican Joe”, “Caribbean”, and “Under the Double Eagle”. But they were not only country, little by little they began playing and making string arrangements for Big-Band standards and instrumentals like “In The Mood” or “Little Brown Jug” as well as Pop standards. During the summer, Orbison would work for the County shoving tar, or work in the oil fields chopping steel or painting water towers. He used to be part of the marching band and singing octet, and at some point or another tried to play the baritone horn. He even had become the manager of Wink High school’s Kittens football team in 1952.
At one of the band’s gigs in McCamey’s Lions Club, somebody offered them to play a dance and pay them for it. The pay for that gig was as good as a hard working week’s pay, so they agreed to do it even though they only knew 4 or 5 songs. They learned some more tunes in a rush practicing at the Community Center, and started getting paid for what they liked doing. They were invited to tour West Texas with R. A. Lipscomb who was running for the office of district governor of the Lions Club in 1953. They attended the 36th International Lions Club Convention in Chicago from July 3rd to July 11th of that year… Together with Mr. Lipscomb, they all stayed at the Conrad Hilton Hotel and the Wink Westerners performed in the front lobby. Roy graduated from Wink High in June 1954 and signed up to attend the fall seminar at the North Texas State College in Denton, returned home for Christmas and played the New Year Dance on December 31st 1954 with the Wink Westerners.
Wade Lee Moore and Dick Penner where two college friends of Roy’s at Denton and they had written “The Ooby Dooby”. Dick Penner arranged for them to record his song at Jim Beck’s studio in the outskirts of Dallas, Texas, which is South-East of Denton. Beck had been instrumental in the discovery of Lefty Frizzell and Marty Robbins for Columbia Records, so the band headed for Dallas to record “Ooby Dooby” and “Hey, Miss Fannie” which appears to be a duet of Roy Orbison and James Morrow. The session took place at some point during the summer of 1955 before the boys returned to West Texas. Roy was convinced that they would be signed to Columbia Records, which never happened.
During the summer of ’55 the Wink Westerners regrouped back in West Texas. When not appearing at local clubs, they would play at the Saturday Night Jamboree in Jal, New Mexico. The band somehow managed to appear, along with other local Country and Western bands, on a Saturday afternoon television show on KMID-TV Channel 2, out of Midland. In addition to their regular repertoire, they began to play some Rock and Roll numbers including “That’s All Right Mama”, “Rock Around The Clock” and of course, “Ooby Dooby” . They were an instant success and as a result were given their own thirty-minute show on Friday nights on KMID.
Orbison enrolled at Odessa Junior College in the fall of 1955 wanting to major in Geology but then changed to History and English. Soon, the band moved in together to a duplex in Walnut Street in Odessa. With a couple of new members they renamed themselves “The Teen Kings” as they were playing more and more Rock and Roll. They got a second weekly local TV show on Saturdays from 4:30 to 5 PM on KOSA-TV, Odessa, Channel 7, which was part of the national CBS network. Johnny Cash and also Elvis Presley came in town to perform around this time and appeared on Roy’s TV show. Roy asked Johnny for advice on how to get a record released and Cash gave him Sam Phillips telephone number in Memphis. He called Mr. Phillips who hung up the phone saying, “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company”.
Orbison had been approached by local entrepreneur Weldon Rogers, who had an associate by the name of Chester C. C. Oliver. They were just starting up the Je-Wel label and wanted to record Roy and the band. Roy was anxious to take Rogers and Oliver up on their offer and Je-Wel’s first recording session was hastily arranged for March 4, 1956 at Norman Petty Studio in Clovis, New Mexico. This time, Roy and The Teen Kings, recorded The Clover’s “Trying to Get to You” and “Ooby Dooby”. The single was released two weeks later circa March 19, 1956. That same day, Roy took a copy to Cecil Hollifield in Odessa. He was a well-know record dealer in West Texas. “Poppa” Hollifield liked the record and played it on the phone to one of his connections in Memphis. The guy on the other side of the line asked him to send him a copy. His name was Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records. A few days later “Poppa” telephoned Roy to say that Phillips wanted the Teen Kings in Memphis in three days to record for Sun Records. Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings arrived in Memphis on Monday, March 26, 1956. The next day they re-recorded “Ooby Dooby”, “Trying to Get to You” and “Go Go Go (Down the Line)”. Bob Neal, owner of Starts Inc., signed the group to a booking and management contract. They kicked off with an experimental tour of Southern drive-in movies theaters, performing on the projection house roofs between film showings. Most of the time touring with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Warren Smith, Sonny Burgess, Faron Young, Johnny Horton and then Jerry Lee Lewis and other Country and Rockabilly stars.
“Ooby Dooby” peaked at number ..59 on the national charts in June 1956 but the next Sun singles did not chart and Roy started developing his songwriting talent. The Teen Kings split up in December 1956 and Roy used studio musicians for the upcoming Sun sessions. He stayed at Sun until 1958.
Bob Neal offered Roy a spot on an Everly Brothers show in Hammond, Indiana in March 1958. The Everlys needed a song for their new single and they asked Roy if he had anything. He sang his new composition “Claudette” and they asked him to write the words down. So he did, on the top of a shoebox. Later, Wesley Rose, from Acuff-Rose Music Publishing in Nashville, signed Roy Orbison with his Nashville publishing company. He also gave Roy a contract with RCA Victor where he briefly worked with Chet Atkins.
The Everly’s “Claudette” was released on late March 1958 as the B-side of “All I Have To Do Is Dream”. The A side went to number 1; “Claudette” peaked at Number 30. At this point, his songs were also recorded by Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rick Nelson.
Wesley Rose rapidly got Orbison another contract with the new independent Monument Records when his RCA deal ran out in Mid-1959.
Back in Texas, Roy had been writing with Joe Melson, and after a false start they came up with “Uptown” which was recorded and released in late 1959. “Uptown” sold better than any other Orbison record since “Ooby Dooby”, peaking half way up the Hot 100. The sound was something different. It had strings as opposed to fiddles, which were not very common in Nashville.
The third single for Fred Foster’s Monument label was “Only the Lonely”, which became the first song that truly probed the frightening potential of Roy Orbison’s voice, and established his uniqueness. The song peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Charts and became number 1 in the UK.
The challenge to consolidate “Only the Lonely” was a difficult one. The follow-ups, “Blue Angel” and “I’m Hurtin”, were cloned too closely from “Only the Lonely”, and it took another few tries for Orbison and Melson to come up with something special.
That next magical success was “Running Scared”, and it climbed all the way up to number 1 in the USA.
A few things contributed to Roy Orbison’s success. The songs, the production, and the performance were key factors. The songs were completely original in structure, sound and style. Totally innovative compositions, that didn’t exist until then. It became a style. Fred Foster really went for quality instead of quantity. He was willing to splash money on a session without any guarantee of payback. He was also willing to take a chance on a sound that did not conform to accepted market norms.
After that came “Crying”, “Candy Man”, “Dream Baby”, “Working for the Man”, “Leah”, “In Dreams”, “Pretty Paper”, “Blue Bayou”, “Mean Woman Blues “, “It’s Over”. This became an unbroken string of Top 40 hits that lasted for four years. Roy became the top selling American artist and one of the world’s biggest names .
In May 1963, and with the success of “In Dreams”, Wesley Rose eventually accepted an invitation for Roy to tour England on a bill with The Beatles, who meant nothing in the United States at that time. The tour was sold-out in one afternoon. On the first night, Roy did fourteen encores before The Beatles could get on stage.
Roy Orbison was one of the few hit-makers to hold his ground, and even to increase his popularity in the wake of the so-called British Invasion. He did it by maintaining a matchless quality of releases, with an original variety of content, structure, tempo and rhythm. He was also an extremely subtle song craftsman, making changes during the course of a session, or between sessions, adding the final commercial gloss to a song.
“Oh Pretty Woman” was recorded on August 1st, 1964. It was written by Roy together with his new writing partner Bill Dees and it became Roy’s biggest hit, and in fact the most popular song of all time. Released in August in the US and in September in the UK, it went to number one in every country of the World. By most estimates, the song sold about seven million copies that same year.
Orbison toured Australia with the Beach Boys in 1964 and with the Rolling Stones 1965. Roy also toured extensively in Europe.
Several major record companies showed interest in Orbison after his tenure with Monument. MGM made and offer of 1,000,000 dollars. The first single, “Ride Away”, was a modest success, but it would be the biggest single in the US that Roy would have for over twenty years. What seemed to be just a change of record labels became a huge turn in Roy’s career. MGM was very successful at that time, but also that was about to change. Monument was Roy’s label, but at MGM he was just one more act. Quantity was chosen over quality and he was required to release certain amount of singles and albums per year which took it’s toll.
A dark period ensued as Orbison’s private life began to unravel as well. In 1966, his wife Claudette, who he married in 1957, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Matters turned worse two years later when two of his three children died when his Hendersonville house burned down (Roy sold the lot to his best friend Johnny Cash. Cash’s home at the exact same location would also later burn to the ground.) Roy found himself unable to write songs for a while, but maintained a positive outlook and continued touring. In late 1966 Roy started filming “The Fastest Guitar Alive”, which was his only leading role. His last Top 100 entry in the US for the rest of 1960s and 1970s was “Cry Softly Lonely One” in July 1967.
Roy had met a German girl by the name of Barbara Anne Marie Wilhonnen Jacobs in August 1968, in Leeds, England. She moved to the USA in late 1968 and they were married in Nashville on May 25, 1969, and start building a brand new house just one block away from where Roy’s old house used to stand on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
As his MGM contract came to an end in 1973, Roy signed a one-year contract with Mercury Records in 1974 without major acclaim, but as he would say, he always had a record in the charts in some part of the World. For example “Penny Arcade” was number 1 in Australia for weeks on end and “Too Soon to Know” was number 3 in England. After that brief stay with Mercury Records, Roy re-signed with Monument in January 1976 in an attempt to recharge his career in the midst of heavy touring on the Far East, Australia, Asia and Europe. Roy paid the price of heavy smoking, heavy touring and life on the road when he underwent open-heart surgery at the St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville in January 18, 1978, but he was back on the road three weeks later just to prove he could do it.
But about this time things started to look a bit brighter in the US. Roy was always out of the shadow in Europe, mainly in England and everybody over there knew who he was, he was still popular and doing more shows overseas than at home, but when Linda Ronstadt had a huge hit with Roy’s “Blue Bayou” which sold about 7 or 8 million copies, Van Halen had an enormous success with “Oh Pretty Woman” and Don McClean did the same with “Crying”, a rejuvenation process started.
Key factors contributed to the rebirth of Roy’s career in the USA. A Grammy with Emmylou Harris in 1980 for “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again”, “Wild Hearts Run out of Time” being in the film Insignificance, the Class of ’55 LP with fellow Sun record mates, his move to Malibu, California in late 1985, he re-recorded his greatest hits for an upcoming LP for Silver Eagle from Canada, and the use of the song “In Dreams” in the film Blue Velvet, but for sure helped a big deal to put Roy’s music back in the map. Blue Velvet is considered a cult film and it helped Roy to become very contemporary again, as he always wanted to be.
It was announced that Roy would be inducted into the 2nd annual Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in New York in January 21, 1987. He was inducted by Bruce Springsteen who said, “In 1975, when I went into the studio to make Born to Run, I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector. But most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison.” Right after this, Roy signs with Virgin Records who immediately re-releases the greatest hits tapes on an LP called In Dreams-Greatest Hits. There are a few new songwriting collaborators, among them Jeff Lynne. New material is being recorded for the upcoming Virgin LP in Los Angeles and the expectations start to grow.
Roy wanted to do a TV Special for a long time. A couple of them were recorded, for instance Roy Orbison at the Los Angeles Country Club and Live in Birmingham, Alabama but nothing ever came close to the beautiful Roy Orbison and Friends – A Black and White Night Live. The event was taped at the legendary Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The band was filled up with familiar faces. Among them were Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, k.d. Lang, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, T-Bone Burnette, Jackson Browne, J. D. Souther, and they were backed up by Elvis Presley’s TCB band which included James Burton on guitar. This Special was going to air on Cinemax cable TV on January 1988, and subsequently released on video. This became a landmark in Roy career.
A duet of “Crying” with k.d. Lang was released as a single and on video. It also gave Roy another Grammy Award. His collaboration with Jeff Lynne was becoming very prolific. Jeff had just produced George Harrison’s Cloud Nine and was working on Roy’s and Tom Petty’s material at the same time. That led to the Traveling Wilburys project which became a huge success. The group features Roy, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. The record was released in October and entered the Top 10. This was also followed by a beautiful video for their first single “Handle with Care”.
Roy’s new solo LP was already finished and scheduled for release in January 1989. Roy landed in Europe in mid-November and appeared on the Diamond Awards Festival in Antwerp, Belgium on November 19th as the main attraction of the evening. The show was filmed and Roy sang to a playback of a brand new song, “You Got It”. It was obvious that Roy had a new band and he looked better than ever sporting a ponytail. Roy’s new look was outstanding and even a bit shocking. He was Roy Orbison again.
He came back to America played his last show in Highland Heights, Ohio, had big European and American tours planned out already for the next year. He headed down to Nashville on December 4 and on Tuesday, December 6, spent time shopping for model airplane parts and flying them, but during the afternoon he complained of chest pains. Roy collapsed at his mother’s house right before midnight. He was on top of the charts again, but he was dead at 52.
Posthumously released in 1989, Mystery Girl became the biggest selling album of his career. Two cuts from the album became hits: “You Got It” made it in the U.S. Top 10 and Bono’s “She’s A Mystery To Me” climbed to the Top 30 in the U.K. In 1992, Virgin released King of Hearts, a collection of previously unreleased songs, and The Very Best of Roy Orbison in 1996, which documented his career from its beginning through the last years of his life.
Roy’s legacy continues to grow as his wife; Barbara devotes her time to managing his estate and releasing Orbison products on her label, Orbison Records. In January 1998, she issued Combo Concert, which is a collection of previously unreleased live recordings from Holland and France made in 1965. A companion video of the same name features a black and white film of the original Dutch television broadcast. In 1998, nearly ten years after his death, Barbara accepted the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed upon Roy for his unparalleled contribution to the recording industry.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of his death, Orbison Records released the ultimate box set, which included the Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night CD, and video, the In Dreams CD, and a pair of Roy Orbison signature sunglasses.
In Authorized Bootleg Collection, Orbison Records brings together four complete Roy Orbison “live” concerts recorded between 1969 and 1980. Previously available only as ragged, passed-around tapes and inferior bootleg pressings, these remarkable outings have been digitally remastered to deliver the most faithful sound reproduction possible (within, of course, the technical limitations of each performance’s time).
The wildly successful and critically acclaimed Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night DVD was released in 2000. This groundbreaking DVD was mastered by respected engineer, Elliott Scheiner and includes never seen before versions of Blue Bayou and Claudette.
Orbison Records in collaboration with Image Entertainment released the Austin City Limits DVD in March 2003, included in the special features are a new documentary and exclusive photo gallery. Roy Orbison’s 1982 performance on Austin City Limits was a milestone in the series’ 25-year history. Traditionally featuring only Austin and Texas music, Orbison was the first legend to appear on their stage and the series soared to new heights in terms of national popularity. It was a major national television performance (one hour), and it served to spark renewed American interest in the rock star. Orbison sang his hits and some rarities and the entire set is infused with the sound of a cheering audience and successive standing ovations.
In the summer of 2003 Orbison Records aligned with Eagle Rock Entertainment to produce the worldwide release of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits DVD. Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (Live) brings together some of the best performances by arguably the most unique singer/songwriter in the history of popular music. From his earliest concert performances to the climatic resurgence shortly before his death, this DVD takes you on a journey of the early days of Rock & Roll to the ultimate pinnacle of success and legendary mystique of one of the most influential performers, artists and songwriters of our time. His greatest live performances are restored in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS Digital Surround. Also included are never before seen bonus materials that will take you behind the scenes of Roy’s career, including a unique acetate recording discovered in the Orbison vaults and restored especially for this package.
In 2004 Orbison Records released the entire MGM Series. Other exciting projects included three new DVD releases, including one never before seen live concert from Australia and the ultimate collector’s DVD. We are also working on a ground breaking Roy Orbison Duets Project and an extended Black & White Night SACD and DVD audio. Don’t forget the return of the greatest super-group of all-time : THE TRAVELING WILBURYS!
With the untimely passing of Barbara Orbison in December of 2011, Orbison Enterprises is now managed by her sons Alex and Roy Kelton Orbison, Jr. Stay tuned as there are lots of exciting Orbison times ahead as we push onward in carrying on the legacy of The Soul of Rock and Roll – Roy Orbison.