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Guide Profile: Roy Orbison


Roy Orbison in the early Sixties

Roy Orbison in the early Sixties


Roy Kelton Orbison, April 23rd, 1936, Vernon, TX; died December 6, 1988 (Hendersonville, TN)


Pop, Rock and Roll, Pop-Rock, Country-Pop, Rockabilly, Country


Vocals, Guitar

Contributions to music:

  • One of Sun Records' legendary rockabilly artists
  • Created an entirely new songwriting structure for rock and roll
  • Brought an operatic sense of drama into rock, almost single-handedly
  • Helped introduce norteno and Tex-Mex elements into popular music
  • Created the image of the doomed ultra-romantic loner

Early life:

Roy was raised in the tiny town of Wink, TX, near the border of Mexico, and grew up hearing lots of country and "tex-mex" music. At six he was given a guitar; by the age of eight, he was performing. In 1952, he formed a band called The Wink Westerners and eventually befriended a fellow Texan, Pat Boone, who encouraged him to go pop; Roy formed a new group entitled the Teen Kings. After appearing on a local television show, fellow performer Johnny Cash suggested Roy visit Sun Records in Memphis.


Roy enjoyed some success as a solo performer at Sun Records, scoring a minor hit with "Ooby Dooby." But legendary producer Sun Records saw Orbison as a rockabilly act, and Roy always had more in mind than that; in 1960 he left Sun for Monument Records. It was here, working with house producers, that he crafted the sound he would become known for -- sweeping, operatic, apocalyptically lonely, not tied to conventional pop or rock structure. He could rock out, however, as with "Pretty Woman."

Later years:

The British Invasion shouldn't have affected Roy's sales the way it did his contemporaries, but it did, and his formula was beginning to grow tired, as well. Personal tragedies (including the death of his wife) didn't help, and Roy slowly slid into two decades of depression, isolation, and near oblivion. The appearance of his song "In Dreams" in the movie "Blue Velvet" helped engineer a comeback in the mid-Eighties, but a heart attack took him before he could fully enjoy the fruits of it.

Other Facts:

  • Was well-known and respected as a model RC flier
  • Lost his wife in a motorcyle accident in 1966
  • Lost two children when his family home burned down two years later
  • Was asked to manage the Beatles' first American tour
  • Tried his hand at acting in the late Sixties
  • Worked as a professional songwriter after Sun and before Monument
  • Was neither blind nor an albino, despite urban legend


  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987)
  • Songwriter's Hall of Fame (1989)
  • Grammy Awards (1980, 1988, 1989, 1990)

Important Songs:

#1 hits:
  • "Running Scared" (1961)
  • "Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964)
Top 10 hits:
  • "Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel)" (1960)
  • "Crying" (1961)
  • "Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)" (1962)
  • "In Dreams" (1963)
  • "Mean Woman Blues"(1963)
  • "It's Over" (1964)
  • "You Got It"(1989)
  • "Mean Woman Blues"(1963)
  • "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again"(1980)
  • "You Got It"(1989)
Top 10 albums:
  • Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988)
  • Mystery Girl (1989)
Other important recordings: "Ooby Dooby," "Leah," "Blue Angel," "Candy Man," "I'm Hurtin'," "Workin' For The Man," "Blue Bayou," "Falling," "Pretty Paper," "She's A Mystery To Me," "I Drove All Night," "Not Alone Any More" (Traveling Wilburys)
Wrote or co-wrote: "Claudette," The Everly Brothers; "Bad Boy," Sue Thompson; "Down The Line," Jerry Lee Lewis; "I'm In A Blue, Blue Mood," Conway Twitty; "See Ruby Fall," Johnny Cash
Covered by: Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean, Van Halen, Del Shannon, Chris Isaak, k.d. lang, The Hollies, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Expose, Buddy Holly, Slim Whitman
Appears in the movies: "The Fastest Guitar Alive" (1967), "Roadie" (1980), "Roy Orbison and Friends: Black & White Night" (1988), "She's Having a Baby" (1988), "Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" (1987)
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