Although Roy Orbison’s musical roots were in country and rockabilly, he is remembered as perhaps the greatest rock ballad singer of all-time. During his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1987, Bruce Springsteen provided the following tribute: "When I went in to the studio to make Born to Run, I wanted to write words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector, but with singing like Roy Orbison. But nobody sings like Roy Orbison."
Born in Vernon, Texas, Orbison began learning how to play guitar from his father at age six. He headed his own country band, the Wink Westerners, and had a radio show on Vernon’s KVWC while still attending high school. While attending North Texas State College in Denton, he organized a new group and began performing on television and at local venues. One of the new rockabilly artists passing through the area, Johnny Cash, recommended that Orbison send a demo tape of his material to Sun Records owner, Sam Phillips. He included the song, "Oooby Dooby," realizing that it was similar to what Sun was releasing in the mid-1950s. The single (Sun 242; 1956) would reach number fifty-nine on the pop charts.
Although now typecast as a rock ‘n’ roll artist, Orbison still aspired to sing country-flavored ballads. As a result, he jumped at the opportunity to become a staff songwriter with Nashville-based music publisher, Acuff-Rose, in 1957. Among his earliest compositions with the company was "Claudette" (Cadence 1348; 1958; #30), recorded by the Everly Brothers. Firm co-owner, Wesley Rose, became his manager, securing a recording contract with Monument Records in 1959. One of earliest exponents of orchestrated country-pop—his success would have considerable impact on Chet Atkins’ Nashville Sound—Orbison placed twenty Monument singles on the charts during the early 1960s, including "Only the Lonely" (#412; 1960; #2), "Blue Angel" (#421; 1960; #9), "Running Scared’ (#438; 1961; #1), "Crying" (#447; 1961; #2), "Dream Baby" (#456; 1962; #4), "In Dreams" (#806; 1963; #7), "Mean Woman Blues" (#824; 1963; #5), "It’s Over" (#837; 1964; #9), and "Pretty Woman" (#851; 1964; #1).
In 1965, he signed with MGM Records in order to have greater access to film and television work. Although record sales declined noticeably, he got to act and sing in his first movie, Fastest Guitar Alive (1966). Before he could recover his hit-making touch, however, he suffered two personal tragedies—the death of his wife in a 1966 motorcycle accident, followed by the loss of two children when his Nashville home caught fire in 1967. Because his recording success had involved his input at all levels of the process—including songwriting, arranging, and recording—he retreated into the routine of live performing. Administrative turmoil within the MGM hierarchy further complicated efforts to resurrect his recording career.
Orbison’s popularity in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world led him to concentrate on international tours during the 1970s. While his records sold well abroad, stateside releases—including Mercury recordings in the mid-1970s after departing MGM—met with public indifference. Other artists, however, began enjoying success with new renditions of his classics by the end of the decade, most notably
Orbison’s own recording career also showed signs of revival by the late 1970s. Signing with Elektra in 1978, his debut album, Laminar Flow (Asylum 198; 1979), was widely praised by the rock press. A duet with Emmylou Harris, "That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again" (Warner Bros. 49262; 1980), which appeared on the soundtrack of the film Roadie, won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, his first such award.
Orbison’s career was provided an additional boost when director David Lynch included "In Dreams" in his film, Blue Velvet (1986). The following year his new label, Virgin, released In Dreams: The Greatest Hits (Virgin 90604), which consisted of new interpretations of his 1960s hits. Shortly thereafter, a September 1987 Coconut Grove tribute concert, A Black and White Night," featuring stars such as Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt in backup roles, was widely broadcast on PBS-TV. In 1988, a chance meeting with Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty led to the formation of laid-back supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys; the resulting LP, Traveling Wilburys, Volume One (Wilbury 25796; 1988), achieved double-platinum sales. In the meantime, he finished work on Mystery Girl (Virgin 91058; 1989; #5), which became his highest-charting album, due in part to the success of the single, "You Got It" (Virgin 99245; 1989; #9), his first Top Ten hit in twenty-five years. Although his artistic rebirth was disrupted by a fatal heart attack, the 1990s saw the release of most of his recorded legacy on compact disc, including hitherto unavailable live and studio material. King of Hearts (Virgin 86520), a compilation of unissued and posthumously completed tracks, charted in late 1992.
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