Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988), also known by the nickname The Big O, was an American singer-songwriter, best known for his distinctive, powerful voice, complex compositions, and dark emotional ballads.
Orbison grew up in Texas and began singing in a rockabilly/country and western band in high school until he was signed by Sun Records in Memphis.
His greatest success came with Monument Records between 1960 and 1964, when 22 of his songs placed on the Billboard Top 40, including "Only the Lonely", "Crying", and "Oh, Pretty Woman".
His career stagnated through the 1970s, but several covers of his songs and the use of "In Dreams" in David Lynch's film Blue Velvet (1986) revived his career.
In 1988, he joined the supergroup Traveling Wilburys with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne and also released a new solo album.
He died of a heart attack in December that year, at the zenith of his resurgence.
His life was marred by tragedy, including the death of his first wife and his two eldest sons in separate accidents.
Orbison's vocal instrument bridged the gap between baritone and tenor, and music scholars have suggested that he had a three- or four-octave range.
The combination of Orbison's powerful, impassioned voice and complex musical arrangements led many critics to refer to his music as operatic, giving him the sobriquet "the Caruso of Rock".
Elvis Presley and Bono have stated his voice was, respectively, the greatest and most distinctive they had ever heard.
While most male performers in rock and roll in the 1950s and '60s projected a defiant masculinity, many of Orbison's songs instead conveyed a quiet, desperate vulnerability.
He was known for performing while standing still and solitary and for wearing black clothes and dark sunglasses, which lent an air of mystery to his persona.Orbison was initiated into the second class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 by longtime admirer Bruce Springsteen.
The same year he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame two years later.
Rolling Stone placed Orbison at number 37 on their list of The Greatest Artists of All Time, and number 13 on their list of The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
In 2002, Billboard magazine listed Orbison at number 74 in the Top 600 recording artists.1970s–'80s: Singles, BBC broadcasting, live at the BBC, touring Britain, albums, duet with Emmylou Harris, covers and returning to Monument RecordsOrbison recorded in the 1970s, but his albums performed so poorly that he began to doubt his talents.
Author Peter Lehman would later observe that his absence was a part of the mystery of his persona: "Since it was never clear where he had come from, no one seemed to pay much mind to where he had gone; he was just gone." His influence was apparent, however, as several artists released covers of his songs, which proved popular.
Orbison's version of "Love Hurts,"a song composed by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and first recorded by the Everly Brothers, was remade by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and again by heavy metal band Nazareth.
Sonny James sent "Only the Lonely" to number 1 on the country music charts.
Bruce Springsteen ended his concerts with Orbison songs and Glen Campbell had a minor hit with a remake of "Dream Baby".
A compilation LP of Orbison's greatest hits went to number 1 in the UK in 1977.
The same year he began to open concerts for the Eagles, who started as Linda Ronstadt's backup band.
Ronstadt herself covered "Blue Bayou" in 1977, her version reaching number 3 on the Billboard charts and remaining in the charts for 24 weeks.
Orbison credited this cover in particular for reviving his memory in the popular mind, if not his career.In late 1977 Orbison started feeling unwell and decided to take a holiday to Hawaii to rest, however whilst there he was admitted to hospital and tests revealed three of his coronary arteries were severely clogged.
On January 18, 1978 Orbison underwent a triple heart bypass.
He had suffered from duodenal ulcers as far back as 1960, and had been a heavy smoker since adolescence.
Although he felt revitalized following the triple bypass, he continued to smoke and his weight fluctuated for the rest of his life.
When Orbison felt strong enough to perform again, Scott Mathews took him into the recording studio and produced a version of "Oh, Pretty Woman" on a national radio and television advertising campaign for Tone Soap, a woman's beauty bar.
This proved to be a much needed financial windfall for Orbison as Mathews saw to it that the company paid top dollar to license the use of Orbison's original composition and another large fee for Orbison's services.In 1980, Don McLean covered "Crying" in a version which hit number 5 in the U.S.
and stayed on the charts for 15 weeks; it was number 1 in the UK for three weeks.
Although he was all but forgotten in the U.S., Orbison took a chance and embarked on a tour of Bulgaria.
He was astonished to find he was as popular there as he had been in 1964; he was forced to stay in his hotel room because he was mobbed on the streets of Sofia.
Later that year, he and Emmylou Harris won a Grammy for their duet "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again" (from the comedy film Roadie, in which Orbison also cameoed).
It was his first such award, and he felt more than ever that the time was ripe for his full return to popular music.
However, it would be several more years until this came to fruition.Van Halen released a hard-rock cover of "Oh, Pretty Woman" (titled "(Oh) Pretty Woman") on their 1982 album Diver Down, again exposing a younger generation to Orbison's legacy.1987–92: Singles, revival, a Black & White Night, the last concert, Mystery Girl, King of Hearts and duet with Kd LangOrbison's career was fully revived in 1987.
He released an album of his re-recorded hits titled In Dreams: The Greatest Hits.
A song he recorded named "Life Fades Away", written with friend Glenn Danzig, was featured in the film Less Than Zero.
He and k.d.
lang performed a duet of "Crying" and released it on the soundtrack to Hiding Out, winning a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.However, one film in which Orbison refused to allow his music was Blue Velvet.
Director David Lynch asked to use "In Dreams" and Orbison turned him down.
Lynch used it anyway.
The song served as one of several obsessions of a psychopathic character named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
It was lip-synched by an effeminate drug dealer played by Dean Stockwell, after which Booth demanded the song be played over and over, once beating the protagonist while the song played.
During filming, Lynch asked for the song to be played repeatedly to give the set a surreal atmosphere.
Orbison was initially shocked at its use: he saw the film in a theater in Malibu and later said, "I was mortified because they were talking about the 'candy colored clown' in relation to a dope deal ...
I thought, 'What in the world ...?' But later, when I was touring, we got the video out and I really got to appreciate what David gave to the song, and what the song gave to the movie—how it achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to 'In Dreams'."The same year, Orbison was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and initiated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bruce Springsteen, who concluded his speech with a reference to his own song "Thunder Road": "I wanted a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector—but, most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison.
Now everyone knows that no one sings like Roy Orbison." In response, Orbison asked Springsteen for a copy of the speech, and said of his induction that he felt "validated" by the honor.
A few months later, Orbison and Springsteen paired again to film a concert at the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom in Los Angeles.
They were joined by Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, James Burton and k.d.
Lang later recounted how humbled Orbison had been by the show of support from so many talented and busy musicians: "Roy looked at all of us and said, 'If there is anything I can ever do for you, please call on me.' He was very serious.
It was his way of thanking us.
It was very emotional." The concert was filmed in one take and aired on Cinemax under the title Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night; it was released on video by Virgin Records, selling 50,000 copies.1988: Traveling Wilburys and Mystery GirlIn 1987, Orbison had begun collaborating with Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne on a new album.
At the same time Lynne was completing production work on George Harrison's Cloud Nine, and all three had lunch one day when Orbison accepted an invitation to sing on Harrison's album.
They contacted Bob Dylan, who allowed them to use a recording studio in his home.
Along the way, Harrison had to stop by Tom Petty's house to pick up his guitar; Petty and his band had backed Dylan on his last tour.
By that evening, the group had written "Handle with Care", which led to the concept of recording an entire album.
They called themselves the Traveling Wilburys, representing themselves as half-brothers from the same father.
They gave themselves stage names; Orbison chose his from his musical hero, calling himself "Lefty Wilbury" after Lefty Frizzell.
Expanding on the concept of a traveling band of raucous musicians, Orbison offered a quote about the group's foundation in honor: "Some people say Daddy was a cad and a bounder.
I remember him as a Baptist minister."Lynne later spoke of the recording sessions: "Everybody just sat there going, 'Wow, it's Roy Orbison!'...
[E\]ven though he's become your pal and you're hanging out and having a laugh and going to dinner, as soon as he gets behind that mike and he's doing his business, suddenly it's shudder time." Orbison was given one solo track on the album titled "Not Alone Anymore".
His contributions were highly praised by the press.
Traveling Wilburys Vol.
1 spent 53 weeks on the U.S.
charts, peaking at number 3.
It hit number 1 in Australia and topped out at number 16 in the UK.
The LP won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group.
Rolling Stone included it in the top 100 albums of the decade.Orbison was in high demand for concerts and interviews once again, and was thrilled about it.
He began writing songs and collaborating with many musicians from his past and newer fans to develop a solo album titled Mystery Girl.
U2's lead singer Bono had become aware of Orbison when he saw Blue Velvet and, with The Edge wrote "She's a Mystery to Me" for him.
Bono witnessed the recording of the song and recalled:I stood beside him and sang with him.
He didn't seem to be singing.
So I thought, 'He'll sing it the next take.
He's just reading the words.' And then we went in to listen to the take, and there was this voice, which was the loudest whisper I've ever heard.
He had been singing it.
But he hardly moved his lips.
And the voice was louder than the band in its own way.
I don't know how he did that.
It was like sleight of hand.Mystery Girl was produced by Jeff Lynne, whom Orbison considered the best producer he had ever worked with, while Bono, Elvis Costello, Orbison's son Wesley and others offered their songs to him.
The biggest hit from the album was "You Got It", written by Lynne and Tom Petty.
It posthumously rose to number 9 in the U.S.
and number 3 in the UK.Although the video for the Wilburys' "Handle With Care" was filmed with Orbison, the video for "End of the Line" was filmed and released posthumously.
During Orbison's vocal parts in "End of the Line", the video shows a guitar in a rocking chair, next to Orbison's framed photo.DeathWhile Orbison determinedly pursued his second chance at stardom, he reacted to his success in constant surprise, confessing "It's very nice to be wanted again, but I still can't quite believe it." He lost some weight to fit his new image and the constant demand of touring, as well as the newer demands of making videos.
In November 1988, Mystery Girl was completed and Traveling Wilburys Vol.
1 was rising up the charts.
Around this time Orbison confided in Johnny Cash that he was having chest pains and said he'd have to have something done, but he never did.
Orbison went to Europe where he was presented with an award and played a show in Antwerp where footage for the video for "You Got It" was filmed.
He gave multiple interviews a day in a hectic schedule.
A few days later a manager at a club in Boston was concerned that he looked ill, but Orbison played the show to another standing ovation.
Roy played at The Front Row Theater in Highland Heights, Ohio on December 4, which would be his last performance.
Finally, exhausted, he returned to his home in Hendersonville to rest for a few days before flying again to London to film two more videos for the Traveling Wilburys.
On December 6, 1988, he spent the day flying model airplanes with his sons; then, after having dinner at his mother's home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, he died of a heart attack at the age of 52.The tabloid The National Enquirer suggested on its cover that Orbison had worked himself to death.
A memorial was held in Nashville, and another in Los Angeles; he was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
In January 1989, Orbison became the first musician since Elvis Presley to have two albums in the Top Five at the same time.Style and influenceAlthough Orbison is counted as a rock and roll pioneer, and has been cited by numerous critics as one of the genre's most influential musicians, his style was noted for how it departed from the norm.
Rock and roll in the 1950s was defined by a driving backbeat, heavy guitars, and lyrical themes that glorified youthful rebellion.
However, very little of what Orbison recorded met these characteristics.
The structure and themes of his songs defied convention, and his much-praised voice and performance style were unlike any other in rock and roll.
Many of his contemporaries compared his music with that of classically trained musicians, although Orbison never mentioned any classical music influences.
Author Peter Lehman summarized it, writing, "He achieved what he did not by copying classical music but by creating a unique form of popular music that drew upon a wide variety of music popular during his youth".Bassist Jerry Scheff, who backed Orbison in his A Black & White Night concert, wrote about him, "Roy Orbison was like an opera singer.
His voice melted out of his mouth into the stratosphere and back.
He never seemed like he was trying to sing, he just did it."Song structuresU2 frontman Bono holds Orbison as a standard in musical creativity, commenting in 1999, "The thing people don't talk about enough as far as I'm concerned is how innovative this music was, how radical in terms of its songwriting.
As I become more interested in songwriting, you hit a wall where Roy Orbison is standing." Bob Dylan highlighted Orbison's song structures in his book Chronicles: Volume One, specifically noting how they were "songs within songs".
Music critic Dave Marsh also wrote that these compositions "define a world unto themselves more completely than any other body of work in pop music".
Orbison's music, like the man himself, has been described as timeless, diverting from contemporary rock and roll and bordering on the eccentric, within a hair's breadth of being weird.
New York Times writer Peter Watrous declared in a concert review: "He has perfected an odd vision of popular music, one in which eccentricity and imagination beat back all the pressures toward conformity".In the 1960s, Orbison refused to splice edits of songs together, and insisted in recording them in single takes with all the instruments and singers together.
The only convention Orbison followed in his most popular songs is the time limit for radio fare in pop songs.
Otherwise, each seems to follow a separate structure.
Using the standard thirty-two-bar form for verses and choruses, normal pop songs followed the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus structure.
Where A represents the first verse and B represents the chorus, most pop songs can be represented by A-B-A-B-C-A-B, like "Ooby Dooby" and "Claudette".
Orbison's "In Dreams" was a song in seven movements that can be represented as Intro-A-B-C-D-E-F; no sections are repeated.
In "Running Scared", however, the entire song repeats to build suspense to a final climax, to be represented as A-A-A-A-B.
"Crying" is more complex, changing parts toward the end to be represented as A-B-C-D-E-F-A-B'-C'-D'-E'-F'.
Although Orbison recorded and wrote standard structure songs before "Only the Lonely", he claimed never to have learned how to write them:"I'm sure we had to study composition or something like that at school, and they'd say 'This is the way you do it,' and that's the way I would have done it, so being blessed again with not knowing what was wrong or what was right, I went on my own way....So the structure sometimes has the chorus at the end of the song, and sometimes there is no chorus, it just goes...But that's always after the fact—as I'm writing, it all sounds natural and in sequence to me."Elton John's songwriting partner Bernie Taupin wrote that Orbison's songs always made "radical left turns", and k.d.
lang declared that good songwriting comes from being constantly surprised, such as how the entirety of "Running Scared" eventually depends on the final note, one word.
Some of the musicians who worked with Orbison were confounded by what he asked them to do.
Nashville session guitarist Jerry Kennedy stated, "Roy went against the grain.
The first time you'd hear something, it wouldn't sound right.
But after a few playbacks, it would start to grow on you."Themes of songsCritic Dave Marsh categorizes Orbison's ballads into themes reflecting pain and loss, and dreaming.
A third category is his uptempo rockabilly songs such as "Go! Go! Go!" and "Mean Woman Blues" that are more thematically simple, addressing his feelings and intentions in a masculine braggadocio.
In concert, Orbison placed the uptempo songs between the ballads to keep from being too consistently dark or grim.In 1990, Colin Escott wrote an introduction to Orbison's biography published in a CD box set: "Orbison was the master of compression.
Working the singles era, he could relate a short story, or establish a mood in under three minutes.
If you think that's easy—try it.
His greatest recordings were quite simply perfect; not a word or note surplus to intention." After attending a show in 1988, Peter Watrous of The New York Times wrote that Orbison's songs are "dreamlike claustrophobically intimate set pieces".
Music critic Ken Emerson writes that the "apocalyptic romanticism" in Orbison's music was well-crafted for the films his songs appeared in the 1980s because the music was "so over-the-top that dreams become delusions, and self-pity paranoia", striking "a postmodern nerve".
Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant favored American R&B music as a youth, but beyond the black musicians, he named Elvis and Orbison especially as foreshadowing the emotions he would experience: "The poignancy of the combination of lyric and voice was stunning.
[Orbison\] used drama to great effect and he wrote dramatically."The loneliness in Orbison's songs that he became most famous for, he both explained and downplayed: "I don't think I've been any more lonely than anyone else...
Although if you grow up in West Texas, there are a lot of ways to be lonely." His music offered an alternative to the postured masculinity that was pervasive in music and culture.
Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees stated, "He made emotion fashionable, that it was all right to talk about and sing about very emotional things.
For men to sing about very emotional things...
Before that no one would do it." Orbison acknowledged this in looking back on the era in which he became popular: "When ["Crying"\] came out I don't think anyone had accepted the fact that a man should cry when he wants to cry." Peter Lehman, on the other hand, considered Orbison's theme of constant vulnerability an element of sexual masochism.Voice qualityOrbison admitted that he did not think his voice was put to appropriate use until "Only the Lonely" in 1960, when it was able, in his words, to allow its "flowering".
Carl Perkins, however, toured with Orbison while they were both signed with Sun Records and recalled a specific concert when Orbison covered the Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald standard "Indian Love Call", and had the audience completely silenced, in awe.
When compared to the Everly Brothers, who often used the same session musicians, Orbison is credited with "a passionate intensity" that, according to The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, made "his love, his life, and, indeed, the whole world [seem\] to be coming to an end—not with a whimper, but an agonized, beautiful bang".Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel both commented on the otherworldly quality of Orbison's voice.
Dwight Yoakam stated that Orbison's voice sounded like "the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window".
Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees went further to say that when he heard "Crying" for the first time, "That was it.
To me that was the voice of God." Elvis Presley and Bono have stated his voice was, respectively, the greatest and most distinctive they had ever heard.Bob Dylan marked Orbison as a specific influence, remarking that there was nothing like him on radio in the early 1960s:With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera.
He kept you on your toes.
With him, it was all about fat and blood.
He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop.
[After "Ooby Dooby"\] (h)e was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff.
He sang like a professional criminal ...
[H\]is voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, 'Man, I don't believe it'.Likewise, Tim Goodwin, who conducted the orchestra that backed Orbison in Bulgaria, had been told that Orbison's voice would be a singular experience to hear.
When Orbison started with "Crying" and hit the high notes, Goodwin stated, "The strings were playing and the band had built up, and sure enough, the hair on the back of my neck just all started standing up.
It was an incredible physical sensation."Orbison's severe stage fright was particularly noticeable in the 1970s and early 1980s.
During the first few songs in a concert, the vibrato in his voice was almost uncontrollable, but afterwards, it became stronger and more dependable.
This also happened with age.
Orbison noticed that he was unable to control the tremor in the late afternoon and evenings, and chose to record in the mornings when it was possible.PerformanceOrbison often excused his motionless performances by saying that his songs did not allow instrumental sections so he could move or dance on stage, although songs like "Mean Woman Blues" did offer that.
He was aware of his unique performance style even in the early 1960s when he commented, "I'm not a super personality—on stage or off.
I mean, you could put workers like Chubby Checker or Bobby Rydell in second-rate shows and they'd still shine through, but not me.
I'd have to be prepared.
People come to hear my music, my songs.
That's what I have to give them."Lang compared Orbison to a tree, with passive but solid beauty.
This image of Orbison as immovable was so associated with him it was parodied by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live, as Belushi dressed as Orbison falls over while singing "Oh, Pretty Woman", and continues to play as his bandmates set him upright again.
However, Lang quantified this style by saying, "It's so hard to explain what Roy's energy was like because he would fill a room with his energy and presence but not say a word.
Being that he was so grounded and so strong and so gentle and quiet.
He was just there."Orbison attributed his own passion during his performances to the period when he grew up in Fort Worth while the U.S.
was mobilizing for World War II.
His parents worked in a defense plant and his father would bring a guitar in the evenings and their friends and relatives who had just joined the military would gather, and drink and sing heartily.
Orbison later reflected, "I guess that level of intensity made a big impression on me, because it's still there.
That sense of 'do it for all it's worth and do it now and do it good.' Not to analyze it too much, but I think the verve and gusto that everybody felt and portrayed around me has stayed with me all this time."
Oh Pretty Woman
You Got It
Only The Lonely
Oh, Pretty Woman
She's A Mystery To Me
Only The Lonely