Artist of the Week: Roy Orbinson


Cecilia Joseph, Staff Writer

On April 23, 1936,  the day of Roy Kelton’s birth, Nadine and Orbie Lee Orbison, like most parents of the extraordinary, were likely not aware of the success their son would gain in adulthood: not on his sixth birthday in Vernon, Texas- when Kelton received his first guitar and learned to play “You Are My Sunshine” with the help of his uncles Charlie and Kenneth, not roughly four years later, when he wrote his first song “A Vow of Love”, while separated from his parents and living with his grandmother.

Even during the acme of his first band’s, The Wink Westerners’, statewide success, it would have taken a prophet to foresee Elvis Presley, King of Rock and Roll himself, call Roy the “greatest singer in the world” and his voice “the most perfect.”

Before his fame, Kelton was a black-haired, weak-eyed boy who didn’t quite have a hometown. After living in Vernon only long enough to learn his first instrument, Roy’s family moved to Fort Worth in search of a new job for his father.

Then, for fear of his contracting polio, Roy was given to the care of his divorced grandmother, again in Vernon. Here, he won a songwriting contest and hosted a radio show each Saturday. In 1946, Roy and his brother Grady moved to Wink, Texas — the Orbison family was intact again.

Three years later, The Wink Westerners formed and encountered its small beginnings. The pace of the band’s success accelerated as the members went from radio shows to school assemblies to paid gigs, and finally to a tour of West Texas. By 1955, the band had recorded two albums and members were housed in duplex in Odessa, where Roy was at college as an English major.

Taking on the name “Teen Kings,” the boys continued to scale the industry’s ladder. The band gained a couple new players, Johnny Cash and Elvis volunteered as guests on their CBS show, and they were signed to a label. The band had undergone a metamorphosis from rockabilly to pop, underground to acclaimed. Perhaps this year was the one in which the Orbisons realized the potential of their second child.

A year after marrying his wife Claudette in 1956, Orbison broke from his label in resistance of its direction, and began to write independently. The success of Roy’s 1955 song “Claudette” was indicative that his choice to work alone was a good one. Inspired by its popularity, he collaborated to produce Uptown, which far surpassed the best of his previous albums in the charts, ranking among Billboard’s Top 100. Three of his next releases sat at the top five.

This period of skyrocketing prosperity met a crash just as astronomical when Claudette was killed in a motorcycle accident, only months after they had remarried. Shortly after returning to tour two years later in 1968, Roy got news that two of his three sons had died in a house fire in Nashville.

Roy remarried the next year and diffused his image from the immediate touring rock and roll scene, but he continued to write and produce music throughout the decade. In 1980, Orbison fully reinitiated himself by touring with the Eagles. By 1987, Roy was touring with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne as the Traveling Wilburys, and composing the album Mystery Girl.

Just as his career was approaching a national return to the spotlight, a sudden heart attack left Roy Orbison dead on December 6, 1988 at fifty-two years old. The album, then in the works, was released after Roy’s death, and exceeded all his others in statistical success.