It's hard to believe that he died 25 years ago, on Dec. 6, 1988, at the age of 52. You know what else is hard to believe? He actually was a natural blonde -- and if you look at the real old pictures, you can tell. But he suffered from poor eyesight from an early age and wore thick glasses, and as a result he was self-conscious about his appearance. So in an attempt to look strong and cool and more mature, he dyed his hair jet black.
Nevertheless, as a boy he was shy and self-effacing, and despite his hardtack roots, he was brought up to be polite and obliging. For his sixth birthday he asked for a harmonica. Instead, his father gave him a guitar. The young boy learned how to play from his dad and his uncles, and he stayed up at night to sing and play with them. He later recalled that by age seven, "I was finished, you know, for anything else."
Living in Texas, he heard a lot of country music. He went to high school in Wink, Texas, and formed a band with some friends called The Wink Westerners. They played country songs and Glenn Miller covers, and appeared on a local radio station. They got paid for playing at dances and other functions, and he began to think he could make a living playing music.
Nevertheless, he enrolled in North Texas State College where he planned to study geology -- so he could get work in the oil fields if the music career didn't work out. His band reformulated themselves as The Teen Kings, and he played and sang with them nights and weekends, while working in the oil fields and studying during the day.
And then one of his fellow schoolmates at North Texas State, a young man by the name of Pat Boone, secured a record contract. This hardened his determination to make his mark in music. He later met Johnny Cash at a radio station, who told him he recorded at Sun Records and suggested the younger singer contact Sam Phillips, head of the studio. Phillips at first brushed him off, but he eventually listened to a recording of a song called Ooby Dooby, and in 1956 Phillips signed The Teen Kings to a contract.
The band traveled to Memphis where Sun re-recorded Ooby Dooby, which became a modest hit in 1957. The band went on tour with Johnny Cash, then, back in Memphis, wrote and recorded more music. They met with little success, however, and ultimately the band broke up.
Nevertheless, the singer ended up staying in Sam Phillips's home for a while, doing some writing and recording, and spending some time hanging out with Elvis Presley. But he became frustrated, and went back to Texas to marry his girlfriend and play in various venues around the Lone Star State.
Eventually he caught the ear of a producer at Monument Records and moved to Nashville where he helped popularize the Nashville Sound, a more polished country sound using string instruments instead of fiddles. His breakthrough record came in 1960, a song written by him and songwriter friend Joe Melman. They pitched the tune to Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers, and when they turned it down the singer/songwriter, Roy Orbison, recorded the number himself. Only the Lonely shot to number 2 on the Billboard list, and number 1 in the U.K.
Roy Orbison, who was sometimes known as The Big O (at a time before the Big O became shorthand for something else), became an instant celebrity, appearing on American Bandstand and touring with Patsy Cline. Johnny Cash and others. Since he didn't feel he had the natural good looks of Elvis -- much less his old college mate Pat Boone -- he developed his dark and brooding persona, dressed in black and hiding behind his prescription sunglasses.
The Big O reached the climax of his career in the early 1960s, with Running Scared, Crying, Dream Baby, Oh Pretty Woman, and a Christmas song, written by Willie Nelson, that came out at end of 1963 called Pretty Paper.
In 1963, Orbison toured in the U.K. with The Beatles. But ironically, his career stalled when the British sound invaded America. At the same time, he suffered some personal tragedies. He found out his wife was having an affair, and he divorced her in 1964. Then while touring England again in 1965 he fell off a motorcycle and broke his foot. His ex-wife came to help him out. They reconciled and ended up remarrying. A year later, they were riding motorcycles in Tennessee. She was hit by a truck and died instantly. Then in 1968 his Tennessee home burned down, with two of his three sons inside. The two sons were killed in the fire.
Orbison remarried in 1969 and had two more sons. He continued to record into the 1970s, but his albums sold poorly. His health deteriorated as well. In 1978 he underwent triple heart bypass surgery. By then he was largely forgotten by the mass audience in America, though he still had a following in Europe, and also among his fellow rock musicians.
Don McClean recorded a version of Crying, as did k. d. lang. Linda Ronstadt had a hit with her take on his song Blue Bayou. And Van Halen produced a rock version of Oh Pretty Woman. Bruce Springsteen was also a fan, and he was the one who in 1987 inducted Roy Orbison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Orbison paired up with Springsteen and others to film a concert at the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom in Los Angeles, released on video and later on DVD as Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night. Soon after, he collaborated with George Harrison, Tom Petty and others to produce his album Traveling Wilburys, which won several awards.
Unfortunately, just as he was making a comeback, Roy Orbison's life was cut short. He was in Tennessee, scheduled to fly out to do a tour in Europe, when he suffered a heart attack and died.
Though Orbison was acknowledged as a pioneer of rock and roll, and was especially influential among his fellow musicians, he defied the histrionics of the typical rock and roll band. He went his own way, followed his own muse. As Bruce Springsteen said, "No one sings like Roy Orbison."