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Orbison in the 1960s
|Birth name||Roy Kelton Orbison|
|Also known as||The Big O|
|Born||April 23, 1936|
Vernon, Texas, U.S.
|Died||December 6, 1988 (aged 52)|
Hendersonville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Genres||Rock and roll, rock, rockabilly, country, pop|
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, harmonica|
|Labels||Sun, Monument, MGM, London, Mercury/PolyGram, Asylum, Virgin|
|Associated acts||Traveling Wilburys, Teen Kings, The Wink Westerners, Class of '55|
Orbison in the 1960s
|Birth name||Roy Kelton Orbison|
|Also known as||The Big O|
|Born||April 23, 1936|
Vernon, Texas, U.S.
|Died||December 6, 1988 (aged 52)|
Hendersonville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Genres||Rock and roll, rock, rockabilly, country, pop|
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, harmonica|
|Labels||Sun, Monument, MGM, London, Mercury/PolyGram, Asylum, Virgin|
|Associated acts||Traveling Wilburys, Teen Kings, The Wink Westerners, Class of '55|
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 trademark sunglasses, 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".[note 1] Elvis Presley as well as Petty and Dylan, 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. In 2014, Orbison was elected to America's Pop Music Hall of Fame.
Roy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, the middle son of Orbie Lee Orbison (1913–1984), an oil well driller and car mechanic, and Nadine Shultz (1914–1992), a nurse. Both of Orbison's parents were unemployed during the Great Depression. Searching for work, the family moved to Fort Worth during his childhood. He attended Denver Avenue Elementary School, until a polio scare prompted them to return to Vernon. Later, the family moved to Wink, Texas. Orbison would later describe the major components of life in Wink as "football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand" and in later years expressed relief that he was able to leave the desolate town.[note 2] All the Orbison children were afflicted with poor eyesight; Roy used thick corrective lenses from an early age. Orbison was not particularly confident in his appearance; he began dyeing his nearly white hair black when he was young. He was quiet and self-effacing, remarkably polite and obliging—a product, biographer Alan Clayson wrote, of his Southern upbringing. However, Orbison was readily available to sing and often became the focus of attention when he did. He considered his voice memorable if not great.
On his sixth birthday, Orbison's father gave him a guitar. Orbison later recalled that, by the age of seven, "I was finished, you know, for anything else"; music would be his life. Orbison's major musical influences as a youth were in country music. He was particularly moved by the way Lefty Frizzell sang, slurring syllables. He also enjoyed Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. One of the first musicians he heard in person was Ernest Tubb playing on the back of a flatbed truck in Fort Worth. In west Texas, however, he was exposed to many forms of music: "sepia"—a euphemism for what became known as rhythm and blues (R&B); Tex-Mex; orchestral Mantovani, and zydeco. The zydeco favorite "Joli Blon" was one of the first songs Orbison sang in public. At eight, Orbison began appearing on a local radio show. By the late 1940s, he was the host.
In high school, Orbison and some friends formed The Wink Westerners, an informal band that played country standards and Glenn Miller songs at local honky-tonks, and had a weekly radio show on KERB in Kermit. When they were offered $400 to play at a dance, Orbison realized that he could make a living in music. After graduating from Wink High School, he enrolled at North Texas State College in Denton, planning to study geology so that he could secure work in the oil fields if music did not pay. He formed another band called The Teen Kings and sang at night while working in the oil fields or studying during the day. Orbison saw classmate Pat Boone get signed for a record deal, further strengthening his resolve to become a professional musician. His geology grades dropping, he switched to Odessa Junior College to consider becoming a teacher.
While living in Odessa, Orbison drove to Dallas to be shocked at the on-stage antics of Elvis Presley, who was only a year older and a rising star in the music scene. Johnny Cash toured the area in 1955, playing on the same local radio show as the Teen Kings and suggested that Orbison approach Sam Phillips at Sun Records, home of rockabilly stars including Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Cash. In their conversation, Phillips told Orbison curtly, "Johnny Cash doesn't run my record company!"[note 3] but he was persuaded to listen to a song composed by Dick Penner and Wade Moore in mere minutes atop a fraternity house at North Texas State named "Ooby Dooby" that the Teen Kings had recorded on the Odessa-based Je–Wel record label. Phillips was impressed and offered the Teen Kings a contract in 1956.
The Teen Kings went to Memphis and although Orbison had grown weary of "Ooby Dooby", Phillips wanted to cut the record again in a better studio. Orbison rankled quietly at Phillips's dictating what the band would play and how Orbison was to sing it. However, with Phillips' production, the record broke into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 59 and selling 200,000 copies. The Teen Kings toured with Sonny James, Johnny Horton, and Cash. Much influenced by Elvis Presley, Orbison performed frenetically, doing "everything we could to get applause because we had only one hit record". The Teen Kings also began writing more material such as "Go! Go! Go!" and "Rockhouse", generally in standard rockabilly style. The band ultimately split over disputed writing credits and royalties, but Orbison stayed in Memphis and asked his 16-year-old girlfriend, Claudette Frady, to join him.[note 4] They stayed in Phillips's home, where they slept in separate rooms; in the studio Orbison concentrated on the mechanics of recording. Sam Phillips remembered being much more impressed with Orbison's mastery of the guitar than his voice; a ballad Orbison wrote called "The Clown" was met with lukewarm appreciation at best. Sun Records producer Jack Clement told Orbison after hearing it that he would never make it as a ballad singer.
He found a modicum of success at Sun Records and found his way into Elvis Presley's social circle, once going to pick up a date for Presley in his purple Cadillac. Orbison sold "Claudette", a song he wrote about Frady, whom he married in 1957, to The Everly Brothers and it appeared on the B-side of their smash hit "All I Have to Do Is Dream". The first and perhaps only royalties Orbison earned from Sun Records enabled him to make a down-payment on his own Cadillac. However, frustrated at Sun, Orbison gradually stopped recording, toured music circuits around Texas to make a living, and for seven months in 1958 quit performing completely. His car repossessed and in dire financial straits, he often depended on family and friends for funds.
For a brief period in the late 1950s Orbison made his living at Acuff-Rose, a songwriting firm concentrating mainly on country music. After spending an entire day writing a song, he would make several demo tapes at a time and send them to Wesley Rose, who would try to find the musical acts to record them. Orbison attempted to sell to RCA Victor songs he recorded that were written by other writers as well, working with and being completely in awe of Chet Atkins, who had played guitar with Presley. Orbison tried one song penned by Boudleaux Bryant called "Seems to Me". Bryant's impression of Orbison was of "a timid, shy kid who seemed to be rather befuddled by the whole music scene. I remember the way he sang then—softly, prettily but almost bashfully, as if someone might be disturbed by his efforts and reprimand him."
Playing shows late into the night, and living with his wife and young child in his tiny apartment, Orbison often sought refuge by taking his guitar to his car and writing songs there. Songwriter Joe Melson, an acquaintance of Orbison's, tapped on his car window one day in Texas in 1958 and the two decided to try to write some songs together. During three recording sessions in 1958 and 1959, Orbison and Melson recorded seven songs at RCA Nashville, with Atkins producing, but only two songs were judged worthy of release by RCA; Wesley Rose maneuvered Orbison into the sights of producer Fred Foster at Monument Records.
Orbison became one of the first recording artists to popularize the Nashville Sound, a trend of country and pop crossover music that used session musicians dubbed the A-Team: guitarists Grady Martin, Harold Bradley, Ray Edenton and Bob Moore; pianists Floyd Cramer or Hargus "Pig" Robbins; drummer Buddy Harman; and backup vocals by the Jordanaires or the Anita Kerr Singers. The Nashville Sound was developed by producers Atkins, Owen Bradley—who worked closely with Patsy Cline—Sam Phillips, and Fred Foster. In his first session for Monument in Nashville, Orbison took on a song that RCA had refused, "Paper Boy", backed by "With The Bug" as the B-side, but neither charted.
According to musician and author Albin Zak, the combination of the studio—engineered by Bill Porter, who experimented with close miking the doo-wop backup singers—production by Foster, and accompanying musicians, gave Orbison's music a "polished, professional sound...finally allow(ing) Orbison's stylistic inclinations free rein". In addition to the Nashville Sound's core components, Orbison requested strings in the studio. With this combination, Orbison recorded three new songs, the most notable of which was "Uptown", penned by himself and Melson. Impressed with the results, Melson later recalled, "We stood in the studio, listening to the playbacks and thought it was the most beautiful sound in the world". The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll states that the music Orbison made in Nashville "brought a new splendor to rock", and compared the melodramatic effects of the orchestral accompaniment to the music production of Phil Spector.
"Uptown" earned a modest spot at number 72 on the Billboard Top 100 and Orbison set his goal on negotiating a contract with an upscale nightclub somewhere. Rock and roll itself, in its infancy in the late 1950s, was stalled. Elvis Presley was in the army. Eddie Cochran and fellow Texan Buddy Holly—both of whom Orbison had previously toured with—had died, to Orbison's deep astonishment. Little Richard had found religion and Chuck Berry was in jail. Orbison's former Sun Records colleague Jerry Lee Lewis was disgraced when his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin was reported widely in the press. In their wake, pop music filled the radio waves, dominated by teen idol crooners who sang cleansed formulas like those about the twist dance craze and "death discs" like "Teen Angel" and "Endless Sleep".
Influenced by contemporaneous hits such as "Come Back to Me (My Love)" and "Come Softly to Me", Orbison and Melson wrote a song in early 1960 which, using elements from "Uptown" employed strings and the Anita Kerr doo-wop backup singers. It also featured a note hit by Orbison in falsetto that showcased a powerful voice which, according to biographer Clayson, "came not from his throat but deeper within". The song was "Only the Lonely"; Orbison and Melson had earlier tried to pitch it to Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers but were turned down. They instead recorded the song at RCA's Nashville studio with Porter trying a completely new strategy: building the mix from the top down rather than from the bottom up, beginning with the close-miked background vocals in the foreground and ending with the rhythm section soft in the background. This combination became Orbison's trademark sound. The single shot to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit number 1 in the UK and Australia. According to Orbison, the subsequent songs he wrote with Melson during this period were constructed with his voice in mind, specifically to showcase its range and power. He told Rolling Stone in 1988: "I liked the sound of [my voice]. I liked making it sing, making the voice ring, and I just kept doing it. And I think that somewhere between the time of "Ooby Dooby" and "Only the Lonely", it kind of turned into a good voice."
Instantly Orbison was in high demand. He appeared on American Bandstand and toured the U.S. for three months non-stop with Patsy Cline. When Presley heard "Only the Lonely" for the first time, he bought a box of copies to pass to his friends. Melson and Orbison followed it with the more complex "Blue Angel" which peaked at U.S. number 9/UK number 11, a self-performed version of "Claudette", and "I'm Hurtin'", which rose to number 27 but failed to chart in the UK.
Sample of "Running Scared" as recorded by Orbison in 1961, featuring Orbison's natural voice hitting high A natural
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Orbison was now able to move his wife and son to Nashville full-time. Back in the studio, seeking a change from the doowop-styled pop sound of "Only the Lonely" and "I'm Hurtin'", Orbison worked on a new song, "Running Scared", based loosely on the rhythm of Ravel's Boléro; the song was about a man on lookout for his girlfriend's previous boyfriend, who he feared would try to take her away. Orbison encountered difficulty when he found himself unable to hit the song's highest note without his voice breaking. He was backed by an orchestra in the studio and Porter told him he would have to sing louder than his accompaniment because the orchestra was unable to be softer than his voice. Fred Foster then put Orbison in the corner of the studio and surrounded him with coat racks in an improvised isolation booth to emphasize his voice. Orbison was unhappy with the first two takes, but in the third, he abandoned the idea of using falsetto and sang the final high A naturally, so astonishing everyone present that the accompanying musicians stopped playing. On that third take, "Running Scared" was completed. Fred Foster later recalled, "He did it, and everybody looked around in amazement. Nobody had heard anything like it before."
Just weeks later "Running Scared" reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and number 9 in the UK. The composition of Orbison's following hits reflected "Running Scared": a story about an emotionally vulnerable man facing loss or grief, culminating with a surprise ending in a crescendo that employed Orbison's dynamic voice. "Crying" followed in July 1961 and reached number 2; it was coupled with an R&B up-tempo song titled "Candy Man" written by Fred Neil and Beverley Ross, which reached the Billboard Top 30, staying on the charts for two months. While touring Australia in 1962, an Australian DJ referred to him affectionately as "The Big O", partly based on the big finishes to his dramatic ballads and the moniker stuck with him thereafter. Orbison's second son was born in 1962, and Orbison hit number 4 in the U.S. and number 2 in the UK with "Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream?)", an upbeat song written by country songwriter Cindy Walker. Orbison's producer would later form The Candymen quintet which functioned 1965-1970 as Orbison's backing band, while releasing a few singles and two albums of the their own. The rest of the year he charted with "The Crowd", "Leah", and "Workin' For the Man", which he wrote about working one summer in the oil fields near Wink. His relationship with Joe Melson, however, was deteriorating over Melson's growing concerns that his own solo career would never get off the ground.
Lacking the photogenic looks of many of his rock and roll contemporaries, Orbison eventually developed a persona that did not reflect his personality. He had no publicist in the early 1960s, no presence in fan magazines, and his single sleeves did not feature his picture. Life magazine called him an "anonymous celebrity". After leaving his thick eyeglasses on an airplane in 1962 or 1963, Orbison was forced to wear his prescription Wayfarer sunglasses on stage and found that he preferred them. His biographers suggest that although he had a good sense of humor and was never morose, Orbison was very shy and suffered from severe stage fright; wearing sunglasses helped him hide somewhat from the attention. The ever-present sunglasses led some people to assume, then and now, that the stationary performer was blind. The black clothes and desperation in his songs led to an aura of mystery and introversion. Years later Orbison said, "I wasn't trying to be weird, you know? I didn't have a manager who told me to dress or how to present myself or anything. But the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really."
His dark and brooding persona, combined with his tremulous voice in lovelorn ballads marketed to teenagers, helped Orbison corner the pop market in the early 1960s. He had a string of hits in 1963 with "In Dreams" (U.S. number 7/UK number 6), "Falling" (U.S. number 22/UK number 9), "Mean Woman Blues" (U.S. number 5/UK number 3) coupled with "Blue Bayou" (U.S. number 29/UK number 3). He finished the year with a Christmas song written by Willie Nelson titled "Pretty Paper" (U.S. number 15 in 1963/UK number 6 in 1964).
As "In Dreams" was released in April 1963, Orbison was asked to replace guitarist Duane Eddy on a tour of the UK in top billing, with the Beatles, whose popularity was on the rise. When he arrived in Britain, however, he saw the amount of advertising devoted to the quartet and realized he was no longer the main draw. He had never heard of them and, annoyed, asked hypothetically, "What's a Beatle anyway?" to which John Lennon replied after tapping his shoulder, "I am." On opening night, Orbison opted to go onstage first although he was the more established act. Known for having raucous shows expressing an extraordinary amount of energy, Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr stood dumbfounded backstage as Orbison performed completely still and simply sang through fourteen encores. Finally, when the audience began chanting "We want Roy!" again, Lennon and McCartney prevented Orbison from going on again by physically holding him back. Starr later said, "In Glasgow, we were all backstage listening to the tremendous applause he was getting. He was just standing there, not moving or anything." Through the tour, however, the two acts quickly learned to get along, a process made easier by the fact that the Beatles admired his work. Orbison felt a kinship with Lennon, but it was Harrison with whom he would later form a strong friendship. The moniker of "The Big O" would eventually follow him back to the States, where it became an unofficial nickname for Orbison.
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Touring in 1963 took a toll on Orbison's personal life. His wife Claudette began having an affair with the contractor who built their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Their friends and relatives attributed it to her youth and that she was unable to withstand being alone and bored; when Orbison toured Britain again in the fall of 1963, she joined him. He was immensely popular wherever he went, finishing the tour in Ireland and Canada. Almost immediately he toured Australia and New Zealand with the Beach Boys and returned again to Britain and Ireland, where he was so besieged by teenage girls that the Irish police had to halt his performances to pull the girls off him. He continued to tour, however, and visited Australia again, this time with the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger later remarked of a snapshot he took of Orbison in New Zealand: "A fine figure of a man in the hot springs, he was."
Orbison also began collaborating with Bill Dees, whom he had known in Texas. With Dees, he wrote "It's Over", a number 1 in the UK, and a song that would be one of his signature pieces for the rest of his career. When Claudette walked in the room where Dees and Orbison were writing to say she was heading for Nashville, Orbison asked if she had any money. Dees said, "Pretty woman never needs any money". Forty minutes later, "Oh, Pretty Woman" was completed. A riff-laden masterpiece that employed a playful growl he got from a Bob Hope movie, the epithet Orbison uttered when he was unable to hit a note ("Mercy!"), and a merging of his vulnerable and masculine sides, it rose to number 1 in the fall of 1964 in the U.S. and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks; it hit number 1 in the UK as well, spending 18 weeks total on the charts. The single sold over seven million copies. Orbison's success was greater in Britain; as Billboard magazine noted, "In a 68-week period that began on August 8, 1963, Roy Orbison was the only American artist to have a number-one single in Britain. He did it twice, with 'It's Over' on June 25, 1964, and 'Oh, Pretty Woman' on October 8, 1964. The latter song also went to number one in America, making Orbison impervious to the current chart dominance of British artists on both sides of the Atlantic."
"Oh, Pretty Woman" proved the pinnacle of Orbison's career in the 1960s. Following its release, he endured some upheavals. He and Claudette divorced in November 1964 over her infidelities, though they remarried in August 1965. Wesley Rose, at this time acting as Orbison's agent, moved him from Monument Records to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM; though in the UK he remained with Decca's London Records) for a million dollars and the understanding that he would expand into television and films as Elvis Presley had done. Orbison was a film enthusiast, and when not touring, writing, or recording, would dedicate time to seeing up to three films a day. Rose also became Orbison's producer; Fred Foster later argued that Rose's takeover was responsible for the commercial failure of Orbison's work at MGM; engineer Bill Porter agreed that Orbison's best work could only be achieved with RCA Nashville's A Team. Orbison's first collection at MGM, an album titled There Is Only One Roy Orbison, sold fewer than 200,000 copies. The British Invasion also occurred at the same time, changing the direction of rock music significantly.
While on tour again in the UK in 1965, Orbison broke his foot falling off a motorcycle in front of thousands of screaming fans at a race track and performed his show that evening in a cast. His reconciliation with Claudette occurred when she went to visit him while he was recuperating from the accident. Orbison was fascinated with machines. He was famous for following a car that he liked on sight and making the driver an offer on the spot. He had a collection worthy of a museum by the late 1960s. He and Claudette shared a love for motorcycles; she had grown up around them, but Orbison claimed Elvis Presley had introduced him to motorcycles. However, tragedy struck on June 6, 1966, when Orbison and Claudette were riding home from Bristol, Tennessee. She was struck by a semi-trailer truck and died instantly.
A grieving Orbison threw himself into his work, collaborating with Bill Dees to write music for The Fastest Guitar Alive, a film that MGM had scheduled for him to star in as well. It was initially planned as a dramatic Western but was rewritten as a comedy. Orbison's character was a spy who stole and had to protect and deliver a cache of gold to the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War and was outfitted with a guitar that turned into a rifle. The prop allowed him to deliver the line "I could kill you with this and play your funeral march at the same time", with—according to biographer Colin Escott—"zero conviction". Orbison was pleased with the film, although it proved to be a critical and box office flop. While MGM had included five films in his contract, no more were made.
He recorded an album dedicated to the songs of Don Gibson and another of Hank Williams covers, but both sold poorly. As the psychedelic rock movement took hold in the late 1960s, Orbison felt lost, later saying "[I] didn't hear a lot I could relate to so I kind of stood there like a tree where the winds blow and the seasons change, and you're still there and you bloom again." He continued to tour, and had previously made some smart real estate investments, so money was never an issue for him again. During a tour of the Midlands in England on September 16, 1968, he received the news that his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, had burned down and his two eldest sons had died. The property was sold to Johnny Cash, who planted an orchard on it. On March 25, 1969, Orbison married German teenager Barbara Jakobs, whom he had met several days before his sons' deaths. His youngest son with Claudette (Wesley, born 1965) was raised by Orbison's parents; Orbison and Barbara had a son (Roy Kelton) in 1970 and another (Alexander) in 1974.
Orbison 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.
Orbison'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. 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.
In 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 a song of Harrison's. 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.
Mystery Girl was produced by Jeff Lynne, whom Orbison considered the best producer he had ever worked with, while 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.
While 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.
Although 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."
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."
Critic 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.
Orbison 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 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.
Orbison 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."
Video and televised feature performances: