Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 23 April 1936, Vernon TX; d 6 December 1988, Madison TN) Country-pop singer, songwriter. Formed band the Wink Westerners (in Wink, Texas) with James Morrow while still at school (they'd been playing their guitars together since they were twelve); they played a popular dance-band style but with the rise of rockabilly '54-6, changed repertoire and their name to the Teen Kings. They made their first records at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, then recut 'Ooby Dooby' for Sun in Memphis (the Clovis records had only limited release), had surprise no. 59 hit '56, credited to Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings, but the band split due to lack of follow-up success on Sun. (CD Are You Ready? on Rollercoaster collected 16 informal recordings by the young Teen Kings, covering Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino etc, plus chat with Morrow, Billy Pat Ellis and Jack Kennelly remembering the early days.) Orbison bought back his Sun contract; his song 'Claudette' was a top 30 hit for the Everly Bros. '57 leading to a contract as house writer at Acuff-Rose in Nashville '58.

He made a flop single for RCA, signed with Monument, two rockabilly singles flopped; then his ballad 'Only The Lonely' married R&B and country in what became his classic style, set off by a keening but strong high-register vocal, reached no. 2 USA/1 UK. His co-writers were Joe Melson and Bill Dees (b 24 January 1939, Borger TX; d 24 October 2012, Mountain Home AR: also wrote for Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn). The songs and his emotional vocals (never over the top, but somehow despairing), often with Jordanaire-style backing, made pure gold ballads: 'Blue Angel', 'Running Scared', 'Crying', 'Dream Baby', 'In Dreams' '60-3 were almost all top ten both USA/UK; 'It's Over' no. 1 UK, ballad with a beat 'Oh, Pretty Woman' '64 no. 1 in both countries. By the end of '65 he'd made the UK top 40 17 times, USA top 40 20 times; he was the only U.S. vocalist except for Elvis Presley to ride out the British Invasion (the Beatles were big fans; their early slow-tempo version of 'Please Please Me' was a tribute to him).

A switch to MGM '65 marked the end of the big hits, though 'Ride Away' that year was no. 25 USA. He made an acting debut in film The Fastest Guitar Alive. His wife Claudette was killed in a motorcycle accident '66; sympathy buying took cover of Don Gibson's 'It's Too Soon To Know' to no. 4 UK. He made an album of Gibson songs '66, regarding him as a mentor.

He had reached a low point in his career, reduced to touring clubs, when two sons were killed in a fire at home '68. He turned to country music '70, recorded for various labels, remained a big draw and was soon recognized as a major influence: others covered his songs, 'Crying' a UK no. 1 '80 by Don McLean, 'Blue Bayou' a USA no. 3 '77 by Linda Ronstadt; he came back to USA Hot 100 '80 with 'That Lovin' You Feelin' Again', a duet with Emmylou Harris from film Roadie; signed with infamous UK ZTT label for 'When Hearts Run Out Of Time' (from film Insignificance). He joined the supergroup Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan (Lucky), Jeff Lynne (Otis), Tom Petty (Charles T. Jr), George Harrison (Nelson) for their first album, produced by Otis; they worked with analogue tape and no showboating; after The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was made he died of a heart attack, and the others came out with Vol. 3 '90, leaving an empty space. Orbison's honest tearjerkers are still classics; there were over 20 reissues and compilation CDs on several labels. Albums included Big O Country '83 on Decca UK (covers of Hank Williams, Gibson), Class Of '55 on Smash was a reunion, Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis recording at Sun again; In Dreams: The Greatest Hits '87 on Virgin was new recordings, faithful to the originals; For The Lonely on Rhino had greatest hits '56-65; Mystery Girl on Virgin was a no. 5 album after he died; A Black And White Night Live was a Coconut Grove concert with guests including Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen etc; King Of Hearts '92 was barrel-scrapings; The Sun Years on Rhino had rare tracks including demos.