JENNINGS: Looking back on the legacy of Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison wrote the beautiful tune ‘California Blue’ with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne and recorded it in 1988.Courtesy of Roy Orbison Facebook page

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and music legend Roy Orbison. The singer-songwriter died of a heart attack at his home in 1988 at his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, just as his career was having a renaissance. Less than a year after he died, Orbison had two albums in the U.S Billboard top 5, a solo album entitled “Mystery Girl,” and the Travelling Wilburys debut album.

Orbison’s voice was unlike any other artist before or since, as was his songwriting and stage presence. He rose to prominence in 1956 as a member of Sun Records recording artists, The Teen Kings, who scored a hit with the song “Ooby Dooby.”

Orbison’s first hit as a solo artist was “Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel),” which topped the charts in 1960. Orbison wrote the song with Joe Melson. “Only the Lonely” featured a string section, background singers, and groundbreaking studio techniques captured the sound that would define Orbison’s style, especially his unique, falsetto singing style that covered four octaves.

From 1960-1966, Orbison cranked out 22 hits including “Blue Bayou,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “It’s Over,” and “Crying.” Orbison is considered a pioneer of rock music, but his style was unlike any other and included hints of flamenco, country and classical music.

Personal tragedies and changing styles derailed Orbison’s chart success by the end of the 1960s. Orbison’s first wife and two of his children died during that period.

Orbison became known for his cool persona. When he was performing, he wore sunglasses, black clothing and remained stationary for most of the evening. With his jet-black hair and guitar in hand, Orbison won over a huge fan base in the United Kingdom, where he was far more popular in his lifetime than the Texas born performer was in his native country.

Many of Orbison’s 1960’s era hits became hits for other artists in the 1970s. Don McClean, best known for “American Pie,” had his second best-selling song with a cover version of Orbison’s “Crying,” Van Halen had a hit with “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and Linda Ronstadt scored a hit with “Blue Bayou.”

After years off the charts, Orbison’s song “In Dreams” appeared in the David Lynch film “Blue Velvet” in 1986. A year later, Orbison recorded a duet of “Crying” with k.d lang that went on to win a Grammy, he released a successful album of newly recorded versions of his back catalogue and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

1988 would prove to be a banner year for Orbison. He released a cable television special, “A Black and White Night,” which featured Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne. Orbison also began working with Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan on what would become the massively successful Traveling Wilburys album. Sadly, by year’s end he died of a heart attack, he was only 52 years old.

Orbison’s last performance in the area was an abbreviated show at Kleinhans Music Hall on Feb. 24, 1988. Orbison was ill that evening but managed to perform 13 songs.

Earlier this year he embarked on a hologram tour backed by a symphony orchestra, proving that an artist can not only continue to release records posthumously, and an image of theirs can go on tour.

Like many artists, Orbison was not appreciated nearly as much as he should have been while he was still alive. His songs still stand test of time, and no one before or since has voice quite like Roy’s.


Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.