Roy Orbison is a rock and roll legend. I refuse to debate this. It is a fact. The Beatles and Elvis Presley (both legends in their own right) had stated on record that Roy was a major influence on their music. Roy’s music was different – it had it’s own style and a certain darkness to it. My first exposure to Roy Orbison was when I was about 4 or 5 years old.
I remember my dad had an album of Roy’s Greatest Hits. My favorite song as a kid was Dream Baby. I didn’t know that was the name of it. I know this because when I asked him to play it, I would ask for it by singing the opening bass line: “Daddy, play ‘boom boom boom, bum bum boom.'” I remember the first song on the album was Candy Man, which started with a harmonica. That is the instrument Roy asked for as a kid.
When asked hey wanted for his sixth birthday, Roy told his parents he wanted a harmonica. Luckily for the music industry, his father bought him a guitar instead. While some stories differ, most biographies claim that Roy learned how to play from his father Orbie Lee Orbison. Some sources say that he learned from his Uncle Charlie, Orbie’s brother.
He wrote his first song in 1944, and entered a talent show in 1946. He and another act tied for first place and the first prize of $15 was split between Roy and the other winner. How much of a class act was Roy? He gave half of his $7.50 to the friend of his who carried his guitar to the contest!
He formed a band while in Wink, Texas called the Wink Westerners and that band played some high school dances. While in college, two friends of his had written a song called “Ooby Dooby.” They began playing that in their shows and because of their success, they got their own radio show on station KMID. In 1955, the band got their own TV show and artists came to play and sing on it. Among them, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
Roy pulled Johnny aside and asked for advice. He wanted to know how to get a record released on the radio. Johnny suggested that he call Sam Phillips over at Sun Records in Memphis. Johnny gave Roy the number and sure enough Roy called. I am sure he was not expecting what happened. Sam Phillips answered the phone and after a brief conversation, Sam hung up on him, but not before telling Roy, “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company!”
Roy eventually found a place to record and recorded “Ooby Dooby” with his band, now called the Teen Kings. The song was released in 1956 and Roy took it to a well known record dealer named Cecil “Poppa” Hollifield. He heard the song and immediately called a “connection” he had in Memphis and played him the record over the phone. His connection asked for a copy of the record, and three days later he called Poppa up to tell him he wanted the Teen Kings in Memphis in three days to record in his studio. That connection was none other than Sam Phillips of Sun Records!
That deal got him out on tour with Johnny Cash, Faron Young, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Horton among others. In 1958, Roy was asked to tour with the Everly Brothers. During the tour, the Everly Brothers told Roy they needed a new single and asked if he had any songs. He picked up his guitar and sang the song Claudette. They liked it, and asked him to write down the words and chords. The song was the B-side of All I Have To Do Is Dream. Roy had some of his other songs recorded by artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and even Ricky Nelson.
In 1959, Roy was signed to an independent label called Monument. It was at this label that so many of Roy’s big hits came, starting with Uptown. That was followed by Only The Lonely (which reached #2), Blue Angel, and I’m Hurtin’. What followed was Roy’s first #1 song, Running Scared.
Roy had hoped to change up the “pop” sound and try something different. They recorded the song twice and he was disappointed with the two takes, so they cut it again. Instead of using a falsetto voice, Roy sang the high natural A and nailed it. The accompanying musicians were awestruck and had never heard anything like it. Producer Fred Foster said “Nobody had ever hear anything like it before!”
What followed was four solid years of top 40 hits. Those hits included Crying, Candy Man, Dream Baby, Working for the Man, In Dreams, Pretty Paper, Leah, Blue Bayou, Mean Woman Blues, and Its Over. His success got him a spot opening up for some concerts in England. He was the opening act for a few guys who were known as The Beatles (they had yet to become a big thing in the US). The tour sold out in minutes, and on the first night of the show, they say that Roy played 14 encores before the Beatles ever got on stage!
In 1964, Roy recorded what is probably his biggest hit, Oh Pretty Woman. It would be his last big hit while at Monument records. Touring hurt his personal life, and his wife Claudette began having an affair. One day while writing with songwriter Bill Dees, Claudette entered the room and said that she was going to Nashville. Roy asked her if she had any money, and Dee’s replied, “A pretty woman never needs any money.” With that phrase, and about 40 minutes, they wrote Oh, Pretty Woman, which went to number 1 in almost every country in the world.
In 1966, Claudette was killed when a pickup truck pulled out in front of her and she hit the door. She died instantly. Two years later, Roy was on a tour in England and he received a call that his home had burned down. As if that wasn’t enough bad news, he was also told that his two oldest sons were killed in the fire. He tried to cope by keeping himself busy with work. He starred in the film The Fastest Guitar Alive, which ended up being his only lead role.
Roy changed labels a few times after this and eventually re-signed with Monument. In 1987, Roy Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bruce Springsteen was there to do the honors. A TV special followed. Roy had always wanted to do one and this special included some powerful special guests: Elvis Costello, k.d.Lang, Tom Waits, Bonny Raitt, Jennifer Warrens, Jackson Brown, and Bruce Springsteen. The special was called Roy Orbison and Friends – A Black and White Night Live. It was aired on cable and released on video and became one of Roy’s great concerts.
Jeff Lynne of ELO was busy producing George Harrison’s Cloud Nine album, and was working on Tom Petty’s and Roy’s albums at the same time. This led to them all getting together with Bob Dylan for the Traveling Wilburys project which was a huge success! Handle With Care was a big hit from the album. A song that was supposed to be a group song on the album was You’re Not Alone Anymore. It was decided that there was really only one voice that could do the song justice, and that was Roy. It is an amazing vocal and an amazing song!
In late 1988, Roy put the finishing touches on the Mystery Girl album. It was set for release in 1989. There would be a world tour to support the project. The album would include the smash hit “You Got It”. On December 6, 1988, Roy was complaining of chest pains. Just before midnight, he had a heart attack and collapsed at his mother’s home. Roy Orbison died at the young age of 52.
I was still a senior in high school and I was going to WKSG to rip news and type up stories for the news director. I would stay till 6am and then head to school. I remember going to the AP wire and seeing the URGENT breaking news that Roy had died. We were an oldies station and this was big news. I remember when we broke the news. It is one of those moments I will never forget.
You Got It was released after Roy’s death and reached the top 10. One of the coolest tributes to Roy was when the Traveling Wilburys released the song End of the Line. In the video, the group is on a train singing. When Roy’s vocal comes on, the camera is on a rocking chair in which Roy’s guitar is sitting. Next to it, is a framed photo of Roy. Powerful!
Roy Orbison is a legend. His music was like no one else. His style was like no one else. His vocals were indescribably beautiful, haunting, and amazing. Heaven’s choir is blessed to have him in their baritone section. Happy Birthday, Roy!