Orbison, Roy Kelton (1936–1988)

By: George B. Ward

Type: Biography

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: October 28, 2015

Roy Orbison, rock-and-roll singer and songwriter, was born in Vernon, Texas, on April, 23, 1936. He was the son of Orbie Lee and Nadine Orbison. He grew up in Wink, a small West Texas oil town, where his father taught him to play the guitar at age six. Orbison dedicated himself to music as a young man, performing at school and on the radio. While attending Wink High School he formed a country music group called the Wink Westerners, which featured Orbison as lead singer and guitar player.

Only later, while attending North Texas State College—where he met fellow student and musician Pat Boone—did Orbison transform the Wink Westerners into his first rock-and-roll band, the Teen Kings. After two years of college he dropped out. The group played throughout West Texas and on a number of television shows and recorded "Ooby Dooby," which brought him to the attention of Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis. Reportedly, Midland/Odessa record shop owner Cecil “Pop” Holifield played “Ooby Dooby” to Sam Phillips over the phone. Orbison rerecorded the song for Sun, and in 1956 it became his first chart hit. It was made in the pioneering rock-and-roll style known as rockabilly—a frantic mixture of country music and rhythm and blues developed by Elvis Presley and Phillips. Unlike Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, up-and-coming music stars who were also recording rockabilly on the Sun label, Orbison had little chart success. The Teen Kings dissolved, and Orbison left Sun.

Most of his early success was as a songwriter. "Claudette," a song written by Orbison and named after his first wife, Claudette Frady, was a hit in 1958 for the country and rockabilly duo the Everly Brothers. In 1959 Orbison joined the small Monument label in Nashville, which resulted in a string of international hit records from 1960 to 1966, including such classic rock-and-roll melodramas as "Only the Lonely" (1960), "Blue Angel" (1960), "Running Scared" (1961), "Blue Bayou" (1963), "It's Over" (1964), and "Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964). Elvis Presley once referred to Orbison as "the greatest singer in the world." Roy's hits in this period featured his trademark three-octave voice with its soaring, emotional splendor; his lush songwriting with its beautiful melodies; sophisticated studio production; and dark, brooding themes of love, loss, and longing. Wearing his trademark black clothes, slicked back hair, and dark glasses, the short, pale, shy performer with the overpowering voice played his hits around the world. In England in 1963 he headlined a tour that included the Beatles, then on the verge of international popularity.

Orbison's time at the top was brief. Claudette Orbison was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966, and in 1968 two of his three sons were killed in a fire at his Nashville home. He married his second wife, Barbara Ann Marie Wellonen Jakobs, in 1969, and they had two more sons. Orbison underwent open-heart surgery in 1979. Although he continued to tour, this period of personal difficulty also saw his hit recordings dwindle.

He experienced a revival of popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s, when such artists as Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean, and Van Halen recorded some of his songs and he released new recordings of his classic hits. His 1980 recording of "That Loving You Feeling Again" with Emmylou Harris won a Grammy Award, and in 1987 his recording "In Dreams" was featured in the soundtrack of Blue Velvet, a popular movie. That same year Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a poignant introduction from Bruce Springsteen, whose monumental hit album of 1975, Born To Run, paid lyrical and stylistic homage to Orbison.

In 1988, the year of his death, Orbison's renewed popularity was confirmed in a critically-acclaimed television special featuring his music performed by him and his musical heirs. He also released an album in 1988, The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One, featuring Orbison and his friends Bob Dylan, George Harrison of the Beatles, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra. The record was in the Top 10 when he died of a heart attack, the night of December 6, 1988, at his mother's home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. His new album, Mystery Girl, released in 1989, soared to the Top 5 in the charts and contained the hit single "You Got It," which reached Number 9 on Billboard.

The music industry has continued to give accolades to Orbison. He was inducted posthumously into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1989 and was awarded a 1991 Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. In 1998 he was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His songs "Only the Lonely" and "Oh, Pretty Woman" received Grammy Hall of Fame Awards in 1999, and "Crying" received this award in 2002. Orbison is also an inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and West Texas Music Hall of Fame. In 2008 Sony released The Soul of Rock and Roll, a comprehensive box set containing many rare and unreleased recordings in addition to his hits. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010 and was inducted into the newly-established America's Pop Hall of Fame in 2014. The Roy Orbison Museum in Wink, Texas, Orbison's boyhood home, contains musical memorabilia of the famed singer, and the Roy Orbison Festival takes place in Wink each June.

Ellis Amburn, Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story (New York: Carol, 1990). Alan Clayson, Only the Lonely: Roy Orbison's Life and Legacy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989). Jim Miller, ed., The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, rev. and updated ed. (New York: Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1980). New York Times, December 8, 1988. Roy Orbison (http://www.royorbison.com), accessed August 16, 2015.


  • Music
  • Genres (Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Rockabilly)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

George B. Ward, “Orbison, Roy Kelton,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 19, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/orbison-roy-kelton.

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October 1, 1995
October 28, 2015

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