Known especially for operatic ballads including Crying, Only the Lonely and Blue Bayou, Roy Orbison was also capable of delivering a strong rhythm song. In fact, some of his earliest recordings were for Sun Records - rockabilly central -- after being recommended to owner Sam Phillips by Johnny Cash.
Born in Vernon, Texas, Roy attended North Texas State University, where he was a classmate of Pat Boone. He appeared on local radio and television shows, and recorded for the local Je-Wel label. Moving to Sun, he recorded Ooby Dooby, recorded by fellow North Texas students Wade Moore and Dick Penner. An Orbison original, Go, Go, Go, was recorded (as Down the Line) by Sun label-mate Jerry Lee Lewis, where it attracted both attention and royalties as the B side of Breathless. With little success as an artist on Sun, he was signed to RCA Victor, where he also caused no waves - though he did record Sweet and Innocent for the label; the song was a top-10 hit for Donny Osmond in 1971.
Orbison signed to the Nashville independent Monument in 1960. After a respectable start with Uptown, Orbison broke into Billboard's top 5 with Only the Lonely , a song that would serve as a blueprint for the bulk of his hits to come. Co-written by the singer, the blue ballad rose to a powerful vocal climax. Orbison had re-invented his image by then: dyeing his brown hair jet black as Elvis Presley had done a few years earlier, and wearing dark glasses to reinforce the drama of his appearance. Subsequent ballad hits included Running Scared, Crying, and In Dreams; he also scored with the up-tempo Dream Baby, Candy Man, Mean Woman Blues, and Oh, Pretty Woman. In 1965, lured by both money and an offer to appear in films for the company, Orbison signed with MGM Records. He had some hits for the label - Ride Away, Crawling Back and Breakin' Up is Breaking My Heart among them -and appeared in the low-budget 1968 Civil War drama The Fastest Guitar Alive. But overall his career suffered a major setback - except in England, where remained a major star (John Lennon had said that Please, Please Me was originally written as an Orbison-styled ballad).
The Eagles, who had been performing Dream Baby in their live set, invited Orbison to join them on their Hotel California tour; and Orbison and Emmylou Harris shared a Grammy for their 1980 duet performance of That Lovin' You Feeling. His songwriting royalties picked up with Van Halen's 1983 recording of Oh, Pretty Woman (Orbison's version of the song was strongly featured in the hit 1990 film, Pretty Woman). A not entirely spontaneous but hugely successful revival of interest in Orbison took place in 1987. Director David Lynch used Orbison's vintage recording In Dreams to great effect in the film Blue Velvet. Which led to the singer's re-recording many of his older hits as a package for TV sales; the TV special A Black and White Night, featuring side people including Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen; a hit duet of Crying with kd lang; and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The next year, Orbison was invited to join The Traveling Wilburys, where he played, sang and wrote among a younger generation consisting of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. On his own, he recorded an all-new album, Mystery Girl.
As one of the greatest resurgences in the history of rock and roll was taking place, long-time Malibu resident Orbison succumbed to a heart attack on December 6, 1988, while visiting Nashville. The posthumous single, You Got It (written with Petty and Lynne) became his highest-charting hit in over 20 years. The album, Mystery Girl, was his highest-charting and best-selling ever. You Got It can still be heard as the signature song for Target's national TV ads.
While Orbison can truly be said to be a wholly distinctive and original singer, his legacy continues with disciples including Chris Issak and the Mavericks' Raul Malo.