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Summary Article: Orbison, Roy Kelton (1936–1988)
from Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture

An American singer, songwriter, and musician, Roy Kelton Orbison was a rock-and-roll pioneer, considered by many to be one of the genre's most influential musicians. Highly acclaimed for his distinctive voice and composition style, Orbison brought a complex, alternative masculine image to popular music of the 1960s and beyond, with emotional, often tragic, songs, delivered in a tremulous voice. His solitary, vulnerable stage presence stood in sharp contrast to the aggressive masculinity of other top male performers of his era, as well as to the increasing on-stage trend toward high-energy visual and auditory musical entertainment.

Born on April 23, 1936 in Vernon, Texas, and raised in that state, Orbison demonstrated an early affinity for music. During his childhood, he sang, wrote music, learned instruments, and successfully competed in local music contests. Throughout his adolescence, he performed on radio, and formed his first bands: the Wink Westerners (1949–1955) and their short-lived reformulation the Teen Kings (1955–1956). Before disbanding, Orbison and the Teen Kings recorded his first Top 100 hit, “Ooby Dooby,” for Sun Records in 1956. The single's success, along with his songwriting talent, drew Orbison into association with Acuff-Rose Music Publishing, RCA Victor, and Monument Records. By the 1960s, his music had been recorded by Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and several other top-selling performers.

Orbison's career peaked with Monument in the first half of the 1960s with the release of an unbroken string of Top 40s hits that continued over four years. Songs from this period would become iconic entries in the Orbison songbook: “Only the Lonely” (1960), “Crying” (1961), “Blue Bayou” (1963), and his chart-topping “Oh, Pretty Woman” (1964). With these hits and others, the singer-songwriter had developed an offbeat, innovative style and sound that earned him rapid success. He toured England on a bill with the Beatles in 1963, followed by successful tours of Europe, Australia, and Asia in the mid-1960s.

As a result of personal tragedy, health issues, and a changing industry, however, Orbison's career slumped until the late 1970s. At this time, Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean, and Van Halen all covered Orbison's songs with record-breaking success, which led, over the next decade, to a dramatic revival of his career. Awards, appearances, successful new albums and singles—both on record and in film—filled Orbison's career in the 1980s. Highlights of the decade included two major projects: the Cinemax documentary Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, which boasted a top-selling soundtrack; and the 1988 formation of the Grammy-winning Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne.

This period also netted Orbison five Grammy Awards—in the categories of country (1980, 1988), pop (1990), rock and roll (1989), and spoken word (1986)—making him one of the very few artists to have been honored across popular music genres. In 1987, his achievements were further honored when he was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Orbison died of a heart attack on December 6, 1988, at age 52, in Hendersonville Tennessee. His contributions, however, have continued to be recognized long after his death. In 1988, he was posthumously awarded a final Grammy for Lifetime Achievement; the following year, he was named to the National Academy of Popular Music's Songwriters' Hall of Fame; and in 2010 he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 1750 Vine St., in front of Capitol Records.

  • Amburn, Ellis. Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story. Knightsbridge New York, 1992.
  • Lehman, Peter. Roy Orbison: Invention of an Alternative Rock Masculinity. Temple University Press Philadelphia, 2003.
  • Miller, Cynthia J.
    Copyright 2012 by James S. Baugess and Abbe Allen DeBolt

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