The voice of Roy Orbison is unmistakable. From a start in small-town West Texas as rock and roll was born, he worked with some of the biggest names in music and became national treasure himself.
Roy Kelton Orbison was born in Vernon in 1936. His mother was a nurse, and his father was a mechanic and oil field worker. The Great Depression, however, had hit the family hard. Unable to find work in the area, the family moved to Fort Worth.
Two events would steer his life toward music. As a youngster in Fort Worth, he saw country music legend Ernest Tubb give an outdoor concert from the back of a flatbed truck, beginning a love affair with music. For his sixth birthday, his father gave Orbison a guitar. Within months, he had become an expert guitarist and decided that music would be his career.
Shortly afterward, the family moved back to Vernon and then to the oil fields of the West Texas community of Wink. By 1944, Orbison was performing on a local radio program and soon began his own show. As a teenager, he formed the Wink Westerners, which became a popular local act. After briefly attending North Texas State College in Denton (the modern University of North Texas), he soon reunited the band and moved to Odessa. The popular band soon had a TV show in neighboring Midland.
In 1956, the group earned a contract with Sun Records, where they recorded their cover of “Ooby Dooby.” The single was a hit. Orbison soon took to songwriting in the day and performing at night. One of his popular early songs was “Claudette,” which he wrote for his future wife. In the late 1950s, he toured briefly with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
In 1960 and 1961, Orbison recorded four Top Ten hits, two of which would define his career, “Only the Lonely” and “Crying.” Orbison built a steady following while in Britain where his early albums sold well. He toured for a time with The Beatles before they became a hit in America.
Contrary to popular misconception, Orbison was not blind. Like several other members of his family, he had very poor eyesight for which he wore thick glasses. The darkened glasses that became almost synonymous with him were prescription sunglasses. In the early 1960s, he wore the sunglasses on stage for one performance and decided to keep wearing them.
The peak of his early success came in 1964. “Oh, Pretty Woman,” became his most popular hit ever, topping the charts for several weeks. Reportedly, he wrote the song in less than an hour after a humorous conversation with his wife.
In the late 1960s, he was devastated by a series of horrible tragedies. In 1966, his wife died. In 1968, while he was on tour in England, two of his three sons died in a fire. He later remarried, had two more sons, and tried to rebuild his life.
Orbison’s popularity faded in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. New musical styles in rock and country both crowded out the style that he had mastered in the early 1960s. Orbison’s albums sold very poorly during the 1970s, save for a 1975 greatest hits album that topped the charts in England. He was dogged by health problems and had bypass surgery in 1978.
His career started to recover in 1980 when he recorded “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again,” with Emmylou Harris. He won his first Grammy Award for the duet. As his popularity climbed again, he formed the Traveling Wilburys with old friends Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Tom Petty in 1987. Audiences began rediscovering Orbison’s music and a new generation of fans emerged.
In 1987, Orbison was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He cut an immensely successful album with the band called simply Traveling Wilburys Volume I. He completed one more solo album in late 1988, Mystery Girl. He had an active touring and recording schedule. The strain started to affect his health again.
After a concert on December 4, 1988, he paused to spend time with his family. He died of a heart attack two days later at the age of 52.
His fame only grew in the years after his death. In 1989, studios released “You Got It.” Recorded several months before his death, the upbeat tune mixed well with Orbison’s soulful voice and became a Top Ten hit. He won another Grammy in 1989 for his performances with the Traveling Wilburys. His most famous song, “Oh, Pretty Woman” won a new generation of fans with its appearance in the popular 1990 film Pretty Woman. For a time after his passing, he had two Top Five albums on the charts, a feat worthy of a legend.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org