Roy Orbison possessed one of the great rock and roll voices: a forceful, operatic bel canto tenor capable of dynamic crescendos. He sang heartbroken ballads and bluesy rockers alike, running up a formidable hit streak in the early Sixties. From the release of “Only the Lonely” in 1960 to “Oh! Pretty Woman,” a span of four years, Orbison cracked the Top Ten nine times. His most memorable performances were lovelorn melodramas, such as “Crying” and “It’s Over,” in which he emoted in a brooding, tremulous voice.
“I’ve always been in love with my voice,” Orbison admitted to Rolling Stone’s Steve Pond in 1988. “I liked the sound of it. I liked making it sing, making the voice ring, and I just kept doing it. And I think that somewhere between the time of ‘Ooby Dooby’ and ‘Only the Lonely,’ it kind of turned into a good voice.”
The melancholic intensity in his voice resonated with listeners of all ages, but especially heartsick teenagers who knew how unrequited love and loneliness felt. However, while they were aimed at the teen market, there was nothing simple or obvious about Orbison’s songs on a musical level. Eschewing typical song construction, Orbison wrote melodramas that unfolded in unconventional ways. “It’s Over,” for instance, sounded more like a classical bolero than a pop tune. Orbison has been likened to Verdi and Puccini, but the most apt comparison is with Phil Spector’s dynamic, orchestral “Wall of Sound.”
A native Texan, Orbison grew up in the towns of Vernon, Fort Worth and Wink, laboring as an adolescent in the oil fields in the last of these. (The grueling work later inspired him to write “Workin’ for the Man.”) He was given his first guitar at six and began singing on local radio shows at eight. He grew up listening to pop, country, rhythm & blues and Mexican music, and elements of those styles found their way into his music. Hearing Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” on a jukebox turned his ear toward rockabilly, and he led a high-school combo - the Teen Kings (formerly the Wink Westerners) - which played the local circuit. They cut a song called “Ooby Dooby,” written by classmates at North Texas State University (where he studied geology!), and it came to the attention of Sam Phillips of Sun Records.
Orbison re-recorded “Ooby Dooby,” along with some other rockabilly sides, at Sun Studio, and it became a minor hit. His tenure at Sun was brief, and it yielded the highly collectable album Roy Orbison at the Rockhouse. Moving to the Nashville-based Monument label in 1960, Orbison developed a fruitful relationship with producer Fred Foster, engineer Bill Porter and orchestrator Bob Moore.