At age 13 he organized his first band, "The Wink Westerners," and when not singing with the band he spent his time playing guitar and writing songs. Recognizing that a career in music was a long shot, after graduating high school the group disbanded and Roy Orbison went to North Texas State College. In 1955 Orbison left college, determined to give music a serious try. With a new band named, "The Teen Kings" he headed for Memphis, Tennessee and to Sun Records. There, Roy Orbison (along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley) recorded for Sam Phillips.
Many of the earliest songs he recorded were produced by Sam Phillips. But the rockabilly and blues sounds of Sun's artists did not bring Orbison much success and his career seemed over until he signed with Monument Records in Nashville, Tennessee. There, Fred Foster, the record company's head, encouraged him to break from his established style. Under Foster's guidance, Orbison began writing his own songs alone or in collaboration with Joe Melson, developing his operatic voice, and creating a sound unheard of in Rock and Roll at the time. With the release of "Only The Lonely", and its immediate rise to the top of the charts, Roy Orbison would go on to become an international rock and roll star. Throughout Orbison's stay at Monument Records, his backup band was a group of all-star studio musicians led by Bob Moore. The play of Orbison's voice against the dynamic yet uncluttered sound of the band gave Orbison's records a unique, identifiable sound.
Orbison is most remembered for his ballads of lost love, and within the music community, he is revered for his song writing abilities. Master record producer and Orbison fan Don Was, commenting on Orbison's writing skills, said: "he defied the rules of modern composition." Songwriter Bernie Taupin (composer of all lyrics for Elton John) and others, referred to Orbison as far ahead of the times, creating lyrics and music in a manner that broke with all traditions. Roy Orbison's vocal range was impressive (he had a three octave range) and his songs were melodically and rhythmically advanced and lyrically sophisticated. Three songs written and recorded by Orbison, "Only The Lonely,", "Oh, Pretty Woman", and "Crying", are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1989, Roy Orbison was inducted posthumously into the National Academy of Popular Music/Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Elvis Presley called Roy Orbison "the greatest singer in the world". Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees referred to Orbison as the "Voice of God". Multiple Academy Award winning songwriter Will Jennings ("My Heart Will Go On", from the Titanic soundtrack), called him a "poet, a songwriter, a vision" after working and together writing Roy's song "Wild Hearts" for the 1985 motion picture, Insignificance.
A powerful influence on his contemporaries such as The Rolling Stones, in 1963 Roy Orbison headlined a European tour with The Beatles, becoming lifelong friends with the band, in particular with John Lennon and George Harrison (Orbison would later record with them both). During their tour of Europe, an impressed Roy Orbison encouraged The Beatles to come to the United States. When they finally decided to try America, they asked Orbison to manage their first tour but his own schedule forced him to turn down what was to become an astounding success.
Even as the British Invasion swept America in 1964, Orbison's single "Oh, Pretty Woman" broke the Beatles' stranglehold on the Top 10, soaring to number 1 on the Billboard charts. The smash hit record sold more copies in its first ten days of release than any 45rpm up to that time and would go on to sell more than seven million copies.
In 1966 Orbison signed a contract with MGM Records and starred in MGM Studios' western-musical motion picture The Fastest Guitar Alive in which he would perform several songs from an album of the same name.
Roy Orbison wrote and recorded numerous songs specifically for motion pictures and many of his hit songs became part of motion picture soundtracks, the most famous of which is the blockbuster film Pretty Woman. Named for his song, the music was integral to the movie that brought fame to actress Julia Roberts. As well, his hit song "In Dreams" was used extensively in the David Lynch film Blue Velvet (Lynch also featured a Spanish version of "Crying" in his film, Mulholland Drive.)
Roy Orbison first toured Australia with the Rolling Stones in 1963 and would build a devout following there. A few songs that had only reasonable success in North America, such as "Penny Arcade", would go to #1 on the Australian charts. Similarly, he was enormously popular in England and was several times voted top male vocalist of the year. His popularity extended to Germany and he recorded his hit song "Mama" in that language. In France he was viewed as the master of the ballad of lost love in the vein of that country's most popular singer Edith Piaf and a cover version of Orbison's "Blue Bayou" sung in French by Mireille Mathieu went to the top of France's record charts. Adoring fans in the Netherlands founded his largest world-wide fan club. Much loved in Belgium, at an awards ceremony in Antwerp, a few days before his passing, Roy Orbison gave his only public rendition of the hit "You Got It" to the thundering applause of a huge crowd. Adopted by intensely loyal fans in Ireland, where he continued to perform despite the constant terrorist activities, his powerful rendition of the ancient Irish folk ballad "Danny Boy" on the 1972 Memphis album is considered one of the best recordings ever made of this much-recorded song.
In 1980 he teamed up with Emmylou Harris to win the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for their song, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again." He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the induction speech made by his devout follower Bruce Springsteen. Described as a cinematographic masterpiece, that year's black and white Cinemax television special titled Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night, brought Orbison a whole new generation of fans. Put together by musical director, T-Bone Burnett, Orbison was accompanied by a who's who supporting cast, all fans, and all volunteers who lobbied to participate. On piano, Glen Hardin, who had played piano for Buddy Holly as well as for years for Elvis Presley, plus male background vocals with some on guitar, were: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J. D. Souther, Steven Soles, with k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, and Bonnie Raitt singing the female background vocals.
Shortly after this critically acclaimed performance, whilst working with Jeff Lynne on tracks for a new album, Orbison joined Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty to form the Traveling Wilburys, achieving substantial commercial and critical success. He subsequently released a new solo album, Mystery Girl, produced by Orbison & Mike Campbell (of the Heartbreakers), Jeff Lynne and one track by U2's Bono (who copies Orbison's trademark dark glasses).
Roy Orbison's life was filled with personal tragedies. His first wife, Claudette (Frady), died in a 1966 motorcycle accident. (The Everly Brothers hit "Claudette" had been written about her, by Roy.) Two years later, the family home at Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee burned to the ground while Roy was touring in England, and two of his three young sons, Anthony and Roy Jr., died in the fire. The youngest boy, Wesley, at the time only three, was saved by Roy's parents. These events affected him profoundly but after a few years he would continue to play to loyal audiences all across the globe. Tragedy would strike again, when, in 1973, Orbison's elder brother Grady Lee Orbison, died in a motor vehicle accident in Henderson, Tennessee when on his way to visit Roy for Thanksgiving.
At age 52, Roy Orbison died of a heart attack while visiting at his Mother's home in Hendersonville a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee on December 6, 1988 before his last album Mystery Girl could be released. Both the album and the single from it, "You Got It", were hits, and are generally regarded as Orbison's best work since his success of the 1950s and 1960s. He was the posthumous winner of the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and in 1992, the popular "I Drove All Night" and "Heartbreak Radio" appeared on the posthumous album, King Of Hearts, produced by Jeff Lynne.
Roy Orbison is only one of two singers to ever simultaneously have two Top 5 albums on the Billboard Charts (the other is Elvis Presley). And, even Elvis called Roy "The Greatest Singer in the World" (from onstage in Las Vegas, no less, in 1976)
He was also well known in the much smaller world of radio-controlled model aircraft as a champion modeler and flier.
Roy Orbison is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. His two sons and their mother Claudette who predeceased him, were laid to rest in the Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.