Roy Kelton Orbison
(April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988), nicknamed the Big O, was an American singer-songwriter and musician, known for his distinctive, powerful voice, complex compositions, and dark emotional ballads. Between 1960 and 1964, 22 of his songs placed on the Billboard Top 40, including: “Only the Lonely”, “Crying”, and “Oh, Pretty Woman”.
The combination of Orbison’s powerful, impassioned voice and complex musical arrangements led many critics to refer to his music as operatic, giving him the sobriquet “the Caruso of Rock”.[note 1] His voice ranged from baritone to tenor, and music scholars have suggested that he had a three- or four-octave range. While most male performers in rock and roll in the 1950s and 1960s projected a defiant masculinity, many of Orbison’s songs instead conveyed a quiet, desperate vulnerability. He was known for performing while standing still and solitary and for wearing black clothes and dark sunglasses, which lent an air of mystery.
Orbison grew up in Texas and began singing in a rockabilly and country and western band in high school. He was signed by Sun Records in 1956, but his greatest success came with Monument Records in the early 1960s. His career stagnated in the 1970s, but was revived by several cover versions of his songs and the use of “In Dreams” in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet (1986). In 1988, he was a member of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup, along with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. He also recorded his final solo album, Mystery Girl. He died of a heart attack shortly thereafter, at the peak of his renewed popularity.
Orbison was initiated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in the same year, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1989. Rolling Stone placed him at number 37 on their list of the “Greatest Artists of All Time” and number 13 on their list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time’. In 2002, Billboard magazine listed Orbison at number 74 in the Top 600 recording artists. In 2014, Orbison was elected to America’s Pop Music Hall of Fame.