- ROY ORBISON -
Rockabilly Legends Exclusive
A brief look at the amazing life and talent of Roy Orbison by legendary musicians Jerry Naylor and Kris Kristofferson.
ROY ORBISON - Born in Vernon, Texas, on April 23, 1936. His parents, Orbie Lee and Nadine, gave him a guitar for his sixth birthday and taught him the chords to "You Are My Sunshine". Orbie was an auto mechanic in Vernon, but during the war he moved the family to Fort Worth so he could find work in the defense plants.
An outbreak of polio in Fort Worth during the war caused his parents to send Roy back to Vernon. After V-J Day they moved back to Vernon as well, soon moving on to the West Texas town of Wink, an oil-boom town close to the Mexican border where Roy grew up in a shotgun shack. His father worked for Olson Drilling, across the state line in Jal, New Mexico.
When he was thirteen Roy Orbison formed his first band, the Wink Westeners, and later renamed as the Teen Kings. His talent had never been in doubt: he had his own radio shows from the age of eight, and when he was ten years old he had played his first paying gig - a medicine show, where he sang the Cajun novelty "Jole Blon". After the Wink Westeners won a talent contest organized by the Pioneer Furniture company in Midland, Pioneer sponsored a weekly television show for them on KMID-TV.
"My first music was country", he recalled to David Booth. "I grew up with country music in Texas. When I was about six, I used to sing Bob Wills "Dusty Skies". Ernest Tubb used to advertise milk back in those days, singing off the back of a truck in Fort Worth when I was there". Hardly surprising that when Roy became a rock and roll singer and sought out the attire to accompany his new image, he drew his inspiration from the Hispanics rather than the blacks. Otherwise though, the music and culture of the Hispanics and even the poorwhites of West Texas barely influenced Orbison's style. There was conspicuously little southern-ness in his music.
The character of the Westeners' music can be judged by their name and the Roy Rogers bandanas they tied jauntily around their necks. "We played whatever was hot", recalls madolin player James Morrow. "Lefty Frizzell, Slim Whitman, Webb Pierce, we did all of their numbers. We also played a lot of Glenn Miller, style songs like "Stardust" and "Moonlight Serenade", which we adapted for string instruments".
Immediately in 1954 after graduation, Orbison worked in the oil fields, playing music at night; then he went to college at North Texas State, transferring to Odessa Junior College for his second year. Ever conscious of security, Roy Orbison studied geology, preparing to follow his father into the oil fields if all else failed.
While at North Texas State, Orbison visited the Big D Jamboree in Dallas. It was there that he saw Elvis Presley for the first time. "First thing", he recalled to Nick Kent, "he came out and spat out a piece of gum onto the stage. He was a punk kid. A weird-looking dude. I can't over-emphasize how shocking he looked and sounded to me that night. He did "Maybellene", and the kids started shouting. There was pandemonium 'cause the girls took a shine to him and the guys were getting jealous. Plus he told some real bad crude jokes. Dumb off-color humor. His diction was real coarse, like a truck driver's. But his energy was incredible and his instinct was just amazing".
One of Roy Orbison's contemporaries at North Texas State was Pat Boone, who had been raised in Nashville but had eloped to Texas with Red Foley's daughter, the one wild-ass move of his life. After a false start on Republic Records, Pat Boone resumed his recording career for Dot Records shortly after he arrived in Denton, and achieved immediate success with his insipid versions of the rhythm and blues hits of the day.
"All these people were doing what I wanted to do", recalled Orbison, "but it seemed as though I was in the wrong place at the right time. I wanted to get a diploma in case I didn't make it in the music business. In the end, though, I decided I didn't want to do anything halfway so I jumped into the music business".
It was Elvis Presley's sound that finally inspired Roy Orbison to contact Sun Records. In 1956 Orbison and his band the Teen Kings, recorded "Ooby Dooby" at their own expense at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico. It was the first record ever cut at the now famous recording studio. The release, On Je-Wel Records (JEW-EL 1001) was not successful. But on the insistence of Johnny Cash, Orbison sent Sam Phillips a copy of "Ooby Dooby". Sam Phillips liked the record and had Orbison re-record a slightly different version on his Sun label (SUN 242), with Carl Perkins on lead guitar. The flip-side of "Ooby Dooby" on the Je-Well label was "Trying To Get To You", which Elvis Presley recorded in 1955.
In 1958 the Everly Brothers recorded an Orbison composition titled "Claudette" named after Orbison's wife. (On June 7, 1965, his wife Claudette was killed in a motorcycle accident during a lakeside ride and was crushed by a truck. Then, in September of 1968, while Roy Orbison was touring in England, his two sons died in a fire at his home in Henderson, after playing with gasoline). Like Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison went to RCA Victor after leaving Sun Records, but he stayed with RCA for only one year (1958). Orbison departed Sun Records because Sam Phillips wouldn't let him record any ballads. He came into national prominence in 1960 with his first million-seller, "Only The Lonely", on Monument Records (Monument 421). That song and most of his hits were written with Joe Melson. Orbison was Elvis' chief rival from 1960 to 1964, charting a number of hits. Singer Bobby Goldsboro was once a member of Orbison's backup band, the Candymen. (Several members of the Candymen became the Atlanta Rhythm Section in the 1970s, while others joined B.J. Thomas' band Beverteeth).
In May and June 1963, Roy Orbison toured in England with an up-coming British group called the Beatles, making Orbison the only artist to have toured with both Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Elvis Presley greatly admired Orbison's singing. During one of his Las Vegas concerts, Elvis Presley introduced Roy Orbison in the audience and then sang a segment of Orbison's 1964 hit song "Its Over" (Monument 837) Roy Orbison was ignored by the Grammy Awards. He had to wait until 1981 before he received his first Grammy and that was for a duet with Emmylou Harris, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again". Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne recorded and toured as the Traveling Wilbury's in 1988. Roy Orbison composed and recorded several songs for the 1980 Elvis-related movie "The Living Legend".
When Roy Orbison lost his final about with heart disease, on December 6, 1988, Roy Orbison died of a heart attack in Henderson, Tennessee at the age of 42, an important slice of pop music history died with him. The fact that his fans included Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and other apostles of the new age exemplifies the fact that his music had a truly ageless quality. He was the lonely boy out on the weekend without a date. His little pop operas, rife with subdued angst and heartbreak, bore remarkably little evidence of his grounding in southern music. They were indeed timeless and place-less in their appeal. However, unlike many of the true stylists who emerged with their sound fully formed, Roy Orbison was malleable and took almost a decade to find himself.
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