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Summary Article: Roy Orbison
from The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music

With a near-operatic vocal range and a sound once described as 'the slow fall of teardrops', Orbison was one of the most distinctive singers of the sixties. Unusually, he was also able to re-create the full power of his recordings in live performance. Though by the mid-seventies his career seemed to be over, except as an influence ('the radio plays Roy Orbison singing for the lonely' runs a line from Bruce Springsteen's 'Thunder Road', 1975), he had brief renewed success in the eighties as part of the Traveling Wilburys. Of all his interpreters Chris Isaak caught his style the best, giving added dimension to the brooding quality of much of Orbison's best work.

The son of an oil driller, Orbison grew up in West Texas and formed the Wink Westerners at the age of thirteen. At college he played with a rockabilly group, the Teen Kings, who included guitarist Johnny 'Peanuts' Wilson and later recorded 'Cast Iron Arm'. The group cut Orbison's 'Ooby Dooby' at Norman Petty's New Mexico studio in 1955 and the single was released on Petty's Jewel label. The following year Orbison re-recorded the song for Sam Phillips' Sun label and it became a minor hit. Later Sun rockabilly releases were unsuccessful and Orbison concentrated on songwriting. After the Everly Brothers recorded his 'Claudette' (1958), he was signed to Acuff-Rose music publishers and recorded briefly for RCA.

His career only took flight after he joined Fred Foster's newly formed Monument Records. The third release, with Foster producing, was the bestselling lachrymose ballad 'Only the Lonely'* (1960) with its instantly recognizable a cappella opening, and its desolate, almost hysterical, climax. Over the next five years, Orbison had eight further Top Twenty hits in America and even more in Britain. They ranged from the agonized 'Cryin''* (1961) and 'It's Over'* (1964) to the yearning 'In Dreams' (which was given an unexpected threatening edge when used by David Lynch in his 1986 film Blue Velvet), and the up-tempo 'Mean Woman Blues'* (1964). The most dramatic, however, were the contrasting American No. 1s - 'Oh, Pretty Woman'* (1964) and 'Running Scared'* (1961). The first was an intense romantic song, while the second, like most of Orbison's hits co-written with Joe Melson, built with controlled tension to a cliff-hanging climax in which Orbison's girlfriend chooses him over his rival.

Other memorable recordings of the period were 'Love Hurts' (1962), an early version of the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant standard; 'Dream Baby'*, (1962) written by Cindy Walker, author of several songs for Bob Wills and Bing Crosby; and the exotic 'Leah' (1962). A mark of Orbison's enduring influence was the number and variety of later artists who recorded his songs. They included Linda Ronstadt ('Blue Bayou'*, 1977), Don McLean ('Crying', 1981) and Van Halen ('Oh Pretty Woman', 1982).

Although Orbison was one of the few American solo artists to withstand the British beat-group invasion of 1963-4, his career went into decline in the mid-sixties. In 1965 he left Monument for the larger MGM label where his material (usually written with Bill Dees, co-author of 'Oh, Pretty Woman') seemed to give less scope for the vocal effects that had been crucial to his earlier success. Only Don Gibson's 'Too Soon to Know' (1966), his last British Top Ten hit, had the melodramatic power of the best Monument sides.

An attempt to launch Orbison on a film career with the singing Western The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967) was also unsuccessful and contractual problems with MGM meant that he issued only one new album during the first half of the seventies, although he continued to tour Europe regularly. He recorded I'm Still in Love with You for Mercury in 1976 before returning to Monument for Regeneration (1977). In 1979 he released Laminar Flow (Elektra) and in the following year had his first country hit in a duet with Emmylou Harris, 'That Lovin' You Feeling Again', from the film Roadie.

During the eighties Orbison's career received a fillip from an unexpected quarter when his voice was featured in 1985 on the soundtrack of Nicholas Roeg's Insignificance (singing 'Wild Heart', issued by Trevor Horn's ZTT label), and then Blue Velvet. This led to Orbison making an album of re-recordings of his hits with producer T-Bone Burnett (In Dreams, Virgin, 1986). Even more successful was the formation of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne (of ELO) and Tom Petty; their eponymous album, which included a sequel to 'Only the Lonely', 'Lonely No More', was an unexpected hit just prior to Orbison's death in 1988. Mystery Girl (1989) and Roy Orbison and Friends: a Black and White Night, a live recording made in 1987, were released posthumously. The hit single 'She's a Mystery to Me' was written by members of U2.

Orbison's posthumous success continued into the nineties. After its use in the film of the same name, 'Oh, Pretty Woman' was a Top Ten hit in 1990 and the song was the subject of a court case when its publishers sued rap group 2 Live Crew, who had issued a parody version. In 1992 another posthumously released track, a version of the Cyndi Lauper hit 'I Drove All Night', reached the British Top Five and a reissue of Orbison's 1987 duet with k.d. lang, 'Crying', made the Top Twenty. A further posthumously-compiled album of new material, King of Hearts, was a Top Thirty hit the same year.

*This title sold at least a million copies

The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, © Phil Hardy 2001

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