Roy Orbison was a rare solo hitmaker in the group-dominated Sixties, using the experience gained following in the footsteps of Elvis at Sun Records to register UK and US chart-toppers.
The year of 1962 is recalled in pop history as the year the Beatles released their first world-changing single. That was in October. Earlier in the year, when they made their radio debut on the BBC’s Teenager’s Turn, the song they chose to cover was Roy Orbison’s ‘Dream Baby’. The original had made US Number 4 and would reach UK Number 2 behind the Shadows’ ‘Wonderful Land’.
Orbison’s path would cross the Beatles’ again the following year when he toured the UK for the first time at the top of a bill that also included Gerry and the Pacemakers. It was when flying to Britain that he left his regular glasses in the aircraft seat pocket and had to wear the dark-tinted shades that instantly became his trademark. It’s also relevant that Roy was one of the few solo stars to survive the British Invasion, which saw groups hold sway, and would top this off with a second coming in the late Eighties as a member of the Traveling Wilburys – whose ranks included Beatle George Harrison!
Roy Kelton Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, on 23 February 1936. His career began in the early Fifties as teenage vocalist with a country band, the Wink Westerners. They took their name from the oil town of Wink, where the Orbison family had moved for his father to find work. By 1955, Roy was part of another local group known as the Teen Kings who recorded in a New Mexico studio whose owner, Norman Petty, would soon discover Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
It was while studying at North Texas State College that Roy first heard ‘Ooby Dooby’, a song penned by fellow students Dick Penner and Wade Moore. It would become his first single. ‘Go Go Go’ was another song from this period, written by Roy after he heard Elvis’s ‘That’s All Right’. Jerry Lee Lewis and Ricky Nelson would separately cover it under the title ‘Down The Line’.
Sun Records’ release of ‘Ooby Dooby’ on the label in May 1956 was a dream come true. It made Number 59 in Billboard’s chart and Orbison put a deposit on his dream car, a Cadillac, with his first royalty cheque. Not content with singing his own material, Roy decided that the best way to make his name as a songwriter was to pen a hit for the hottest act around, the Everly Brothers. He borrowed the cash to get to Indiana and, once backstage, played them ‘Claudette’, written for and named after his teenage sweetheart. The Everlys released it as the other side of their hit ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’.
Orbison then left both Sun Records and the stage to become a songwriter with Nashville publishers Acuff-Rose. But he was soon back in the spotlight as an artist when ‘Only The Lonely’, a song turned down by the Everlys and Elvis Presley, sold a million in the US and reached Number 2, also topping the UK hit parade. It was a source of pride to Roy that he penned the hit himself with Joe Melson, former lead singer of Midland band the Cavaliers.
It is included here alongside US Number 1 (UK 9) ‘Running Scared’ plus ‘Crying’ and ‘Blue Angel’, two more transatlantic hits from 1961. The Orbison-Melson-penned ‘Crying’ would top the UK chart in 1980 when covered by Don McLean, while ‘Candy Man’, the B-side of Roy’s US Number 2 original, made Number 25 in its own right.
From 1962, we feature ‘Dream Baby’, Roy’s fourth million-seller and the hit that so inspired the Beatles, plus ‘The Crowd’ (US 26/UK 40) and the double A-sided ‘Leah’/’Working For The Man’ that was a Top 40 US hit twice over. He would remain a Billboard chart high-flyer until the end of 1966, later hits including ‘In Dreams’, ‘It’s Over’ and his second US chart-topper, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’.
But there was heartbreak as well as success to contend with. Claudette died in a motorcycle accident, while two of Roy’s three sons perished in a house fire two years later. Luckily he found happiness with Barbara Wellhonen, a German girl who became his second wife. And Barbara it was who picked up the pieces when Roy Orbison died of a heart attack in December 1988 at the age of only 52.
Roy Orbison’s music will surely be enjoyed for many years to come, and this fantastic collection, covering the story from Sun to his Sixties heyday, gives you many good reasons why why.