Originally a Sun Records rockabilly artist, Roy Orbison went on to become one of the most distinctive singers in popular music. In his first peak period (1961-64), Orbison vacillated between snarling blues rock and his mainstay, the romantic/paranoiac ballad with crescendo-ing falsetto and strings. With his twanging guitar and quavering bel canto tenor, Orbison scored a number of hits: "Only the Lonely" (Number Two, 1960), "Running Scared" (Number One, 1961), "Crying" (Number Two, 1961), "Dream Baby" (Number Four, 1962), and "Oh, Pretty Woman" (Number One, 1964). His brooding loner persona was later given resonance by the personal tragedies that befell him — his wife Claudette was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and two of his three children died in a fire in his Nashville home in 1968.
Orbison's songwriting and his near-operatic singing have been a prominent influence on Bruce Springsteen, Chris Isaak, and k.d. lang, among others. His ostensibly placid, introverted demeanor was offset by his trademark "look": sunglasses (contrary to popular belief, he was not blind), black leather, and a slicked-back black pompadour. Despite limited success through the late Sixties and Seventies, Orbison never quit, and he was in the midst of a major commercial and critical comeback when he died suddenly in 1988.
Like many other early rockers, Orbison — born on April 23, 1936, in Vernon, Texas — came to rock from country music. His father played Jimmie Rodgers songs on guitar, and an uncle played the blues. By eight, Orbison was performing on local radio shows, and while attending high school in Wink, Texas, he formed the Wink Westerners, whose repertoire consisted mainly of country and pop standards.
In contrast to many early rock stars, Orbison found rock & roll relatively late in his youth, and then almost by accident. His college buddy at North Texas State College was the newly famous Pat Boone, who urged Orbison to experiment with more pop-oriented songwriting. Orbison then formed the Teen Kings. Though Orbison would later profess a greater liking at that time for slower country material than frenetic rock & roll, the Teen Kings' rocking "Ooby Dooby" — the first song he sent to Sun Records' Sam Phillips — impressed the record mogul and in 1956 became Orbison's first hit (Number 59). The Teen Kings soon disbanded, and Orbison remained under contract to Sun as a solo artist. But future hits eluded Orbison, who was never entirely comfortable with rockabilly and was unhappy with Phillips' direction.
Orbison then moved to Nashville, where he wrote songs for Acuff-Rose Publishing. One of his first successes was "Claudette," named for his wife, which became a hit for the Everly Brothers. Working with producer Chet Atkins, Orbison resumed his solo career, and by 1960 had signed with Monument Records. Then came the hits, starting with "Only the Lonely," a song originally written for the Everly Brothers.
Subsequent hits included "Blue Angel" (Number Nine, 1960), "I'm Hurtin'" (Number 27, 1961), "Candy Man" (Number 25, 1961), "The Crowd" (Number 26, 1962), "Leah" (Number 25, 1962), "In Dreams" (Number Seven, 1963), "Falling" (Number 22, 1963), "Mean Woman Blues" (Number Five, 1963), "Blue Bayou" (Number 29, 1963, later covered by Linda Ronstadt), Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper" (Number 15, 1963), "It's Over" (Number Nine, 1964), "Goodnight" (Number 21, 1965), and "Ride Away" (Number 25, 1965). He cowrote virtually all of his hits and often produced them as well. Successful in the U.S., Orbison was also a smash in Britain, where in 1963 he toured with the Beatles. Orbison's bands during the Sixties included guitarist Bobby Goldsboro and drummer Dewey Martin (later of Buffalo Springfield).
Following his wife's death in 1966, Orbison's career went on hold. He remarried in March 1969 and later had another son. When he returned to the U.K. in 1969, the adulation was overwhelming. Even in the late Sixties, when his popularity in the U.S. was waning, he had a monthlong run at London's Talk of the Town club. In 1975 he released a chart-topping greatest-hits compilation.
After steady but uneventful work through the Seventies, Orbison closed the decade with an opening slot on the Eagles' 1980 tour and a Grammy-winning duet with Emmylou Harris (1980's "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again") on the Roadie soundtrack. A 1981 comeback show in New York was a great commercial and critical success. In 1982 "Oh, Pretty Woman" was a hit for Van Halen; it would be revived again as the title theme song of the 1990 hit film Pretty Woman. Orbison's comeback began in earnest, however, when director David Lynch used the sumptuously romantic "In Dreams" in a startling scene in his film Blue Velvet.
The next year, Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bruce Springsteen. The year 1987 also saw the release of In Dreams: The Greatest Hits, which presented newly recorded versions of Orbison's classic hits, and the taping of an all-star tribute show called A Black and White Night. Taped in L.A.'s Coconut Grove nightclub, the tribute starred Orbison with all-star backing from Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang, Jackson Browne, Jennifer Warnes, Tom Waits, and J.D. Souther.
In 1987 Orbison's duet remake of "Crying" with k.d. lang hit Number 42 on the country chart. A chance meeting with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne resulted in the formation of the extremely successful Traveling Wilburys. At the same time, Orbison was completing work on his next solo album, Mystery Girl, which included the hit Orbison-Lynne-Petty composition "You Got It" (Number Nine, 1989), destined to become the singer's first Top 20 hit in 25 years. While Lynne produced that track, several other artists, including T Bone Burnett (who had produced In Dreams), Bono, Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, and Orbison lent production assistance on various cuts. In addition, Bono and the Edge composed "She's a Mystery to Me."
Orbison was on the brink of a major comeback when he died suddenly of a heart attack on December 6, 1988. The posthumously released Mystery Girl (Number Five, 1989) became the highest-charting album of his career and was eventually certified platinum. In the wake of Orbison's death, a collection of previously unreleased tracks (King of Hearts) was released. Orbison's widow, Barbara, formed the Orbison label and has released several collections of live material and other previously unreleased works. Several compilations of his songs have been released since his death, most notably the 2008 box set The Soul of Rock and Roll.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.