Today is the birthday of Roy Orbison (1936), born in Vernon, Texas, to Orbie Lee, a mechanic, and Nadine, a nurse. His father gave him a guitar on his sixth birthday, and by the time he was seven, he knew that music was his calling. He later said, “I was finished, you know, for anything else.” He studied geology in college, planning to work in the oil fields if he couldn’t make a living playing his guitar, but when his classmate Pat Boone signed a big record deal, it only strengthened his resolve to make a go of music. He moved to Memphis with his band, the Teen Kings, in 1956, and they had a contract and a modest hit with Sun Records. Eventually, the band split up, and Orbison worked for a while as a songwriter.
His career ignited in 1960 with a song that had been turned down by Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. “Only the Lonely” was the antithesis of the typical rock and roll song of the period, with no driving beat or teenage defiance; it was mournful and plaintive, with a string section backing up Orbison’s operatic voice. He had severe stage fright, and performed dressed all in black, hiding behind a pair of thick prescription Wayfarer sunglasses. He said: “I wasn’t trying to be weird, you know? … But the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black, somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really.”
One day, during a songwriting session with his partner Bill Dees, Orbison asked his wife, Claudette Frady Orbison, if she needed any money for her upcoming trip to Nashville. Dees remarked, “Pretty woman never needs any money.” Forty minutes later, Orbison’s most famous hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” had been written.
His fame declined after “Oh, Pretty Woman” until he formed the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty in 1988. Orbison died of a heart attack in December of that year, about six weeks after the band’s first album was released.