Today: McKeldin CLOSED

About Roy Orbison

Roy Kelton Orbison was born April 23, 1936 in Vernon, Texas. After a stint in Fort Worth, his family moved to the western Texas border town of Wink, where they settled. It was here that Orbison's musical inclinations first surfaced, as he learned to play, perform and write songs with his first band, The Wink Westerners. It was during a Wink Westerners television performance that Orbison met Johnny Cash, who suggested he contact Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and arrange for an audition. Although the initial audition was a failure, Phillips changed his mind after hearing a new recording of the band and promptly signed them. Orbison had his first minor taste of success while at Sun, but it was fleeting.

While songs like "Ooby Dooby" and "Claudette" helped to spread his name, Orbison didn't truly find success until he left Sun for Monument Records in 1960. It was here, paired with producer/songwriter Fred Foster, that Orbison found some of his greatest success. His second single with Monument, "Only The Lonely," was a huge hit (#2 on the U.S. charts) and led to more success during his golden period of 1960-1964: other top 10 hits included "Blue Angel," "Running Scared" (his first #1), "Crying," "Dream Baby," "In Dreams," "Blue Bayou," "It's Over" and, his final #1 hit, "Oh, Pretty Woman."

Following this staggering run of hits would have been difficult for most performers and, indeed, Orbison soon found that the well was dry. He left Monument in 1965 for MGM Records, a label that also enabled him to branch out into movies, which he did in 1968 with his ill-fated star-turn in The Fastest Guitar Alive, a musical/western that failed at the box office. It was also during this period that Orbison's personal life was struck by a pair of tragedies: First, the death of his wife, Claudette, in a motorcycle accident in 1966; then, in 1968, two of his three sons perished in a house fire while Orbison was away on tour. In 1969, though, Orbison married his second wife, Barbara, who helped steer his personal and professional lives back on track.

Orbison's chart performances cooled to the point of frigidity as the 1970s wore on. In time, though, Orbison began taking small steps back up the ladder to prominence. "That Lovin' You Feeling Again," his duet with Emmylou Harris from the soundtrack to the film Roadie (1980) won a Grammy award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Soundtrack appearances (such as 1985's Insignificance and 1987's Less Than Zero) helped to re-establish Orbison as a modern artist in the 1980s and it was two soundtrack appearances in particular that firmly made Orbison a name to look for once again. The inclusion of "In Dreams" on the soundtrack to Blue Velvet and the re-recording of his old hit, "Crying," as a duet with kd Lang (from the Hiding Out soundtrack) were both notable, the latter bringing him another Grammy award, this time for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.

1987 saw Orbison take another major step forward in his comeback with the Black And White Night concert and TV special. An all-star cast joined Orbison for the concert, including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Lang and Jackson Browne, among others. This concert, and the resulting TV special and live album, helped to confirm that Orbison was not only considered a legend by his peers, but was also a relevant, modern performer. It was also in 1987 that Orbison was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, with an induction speech by Springsteen.

The notice from the induction and the success of the Black And White Night concert were soon followed by the major success of The Traveling Wilburys project. Assembled by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, two of Orbison's most famous admirers, The Traveling Wilburys was a supergroup that managed to combine critical and commercial success. The group, rounded out by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, saw its debut album, The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, rise to #3 on the charts and eventually be certified triple platinum. Orbison's vocals were critical to the sense of magic that the album contained and his contributions to the project garnered much notice and anticipation for his forthcoming solo album, Mystery Girl.

Mystery Girl, Orbison's first solo album in nine years, saw him aided by more famous associates (Bono & The Edge from U2, Costello, Petty, Lynne and others). However, on December 6, 1988, just prior to the album's release, Orbison – who had already undergone open-heart surgery before in 1977 – was killed by a heart attack while visiting at his mother's home in Hendersonville, TN. Reaction to Orbison's death was a mixture of shock, appreciation, sadness and longing for what might have been, as it was clear that Orbison was in the midst of a giant comeback. Still, Mystery Girl hit #5 on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart, went double platinum and spawned a #9 single in "You Got It."

Although it has been 20 years since Orbison's death, interest in the man and his music has barely waned. His influence is indisputable and his body of work stands up, particularly as an example for musicians who persist beyond the first bloom of fame. Aspects of his persona, from the dark glasses and monochromatic outfits to the outsider perspective of his lyrics, are essential to the image and soul of rock and roll and persist today.

— John Davis, co-curator, Researching Roy Orbison