Roy Orbison
Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison

About Roy Orbison

Between his panoramic vocal delivery and operatic build-ups—not to mention those signature dark glasses—Roy Orbison still cuts a singular figure in the rock ‘n’ roll landscape. Born in Vernon, Texas in 1936, he devoted himself to playing and singing country music from a young age, forming rockabilly bands as a teen before ending up at Sun Records. From there, he migrated to Nashville, eventually finding his long-sought niche with 1960’s “Only the Lonely,” an aching reverie elevated by melodramatic strings, backing vocals, and Orbison’s haunting licks of falsetto. “Running Scared” and “Crying” followed suit, offering a darker, more adult alternative to the quaint teen-idol ballads of the day. Quivering with feeling, his voice made delicate leaps close to the microphone while escalating to resounding emotional payoffs. That romantic intensity earned Orbison his biggest hit with 1964’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which balances its instantly familiar hook and snappy drumbeat with more idiosyncratic touches like his coy aside of “mercy” and the parting swath of ominous vocal echo. The previous year’s “In Dreams” revelled in similarly unusual choices, eschewing pop’s favored verse/chorus structure entirely. Orbison’s commercial appeal slipped in the late ’60s and ’70s, before covers of his songs (or songs he popularized) by Nazareth, Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean, and even Van Halen recast him as eternally cool, while his outsized passion made him a pop-culture touchstone in Blue Velvet and continues to inspire persona-driven retro fetishists like Lana Del Rey and Orville Peck. By the late ’80s he was collaborating with Glenn Danzig and k.d. lang, and founding the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. Sadly, he died in late 1988 of a heart attack at age 52, though his posthumous album Mystery Girl—and its ubiquitous anthem “You Got It”—gave him the proper comeback he’d been chasing for decades.

  • HOMETOWN
    Vernon, TX
  • BORN
    April 23, 1936

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