Memphis was the summit of success for many singers, and a jumping-off point for others. Roy Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, and grew up in Wink. He went to North Texas State to study geology, but after seeing Elvis in concert in Dallas, it was another type of rock altogether that had his attention. He left behind the country and western swing direction of his first band, the Wink Westerners, and started another called the Teen Kings. Johnny Cash shared a bill with that band, and suggested Roy contact Sam Phillips at Sun Records. His entrée to the label was a song the Teen Kings had already released called “Ooby Dooby,” first recorded at Norman Petty‘s Studio in Clovis, New Mexico, and released on Jewel records. Phillips re-cut the tune, and the Sun release sold 200,000 copies, and earned Roy Orbison a spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
The other Orbison efforts on Sun stalled, and he felt lost in the shadow of Jerry Lee Lewis. Roy had written a song which the Everly Brothers recorded, so after spending some time back home in Texas, he decided to try his hand at songwriting in Nashville. Roy spent time as a staff writer for the Acuff-Rose publishing firm. Wesley Rose took an interest in his career as a solo performer, steering him first to RCA, then to Monument records.
Producer Fred Foster and disk jockey Buddy Deane founded The Monument label in Washington D.C., hence the Washington Monument’s obelisk prominently displayed on their records. Their first big hit was Billy Grammer’s almost-million-seller “Gotta Travel On,” an apt title as the label relocated to Hendersonville, Tennessee, when Deane took his share of the profits and bought a radio station. Monument’s next big record would be one Roy Orbison wrote with Joe Melson while he was back in Texas.
At that point, Roy was still more interested in writing than recording. He saw potential in this song, and took a detour on his way to Nashville to offer it to Elvis. Uncle Vester Presley was manning the Graceland gates, and got Elvis on the phone, but the King of Rock was too pooped to listen to pop. Similarly, the Everlys passed on it, so Roy Orbison recorded “Only The Lonely” himself, as his third Monument single. Roy was on the cutting edge of the new Nashville sound, with engineer Bill Porter employing an intimate close-miked vocal delivery, fronting an arrangement featuring strings and the Anita Kerr singers, and de-emphasizing the rhythm section.
This song would take Roy to the number two spot in the summer of 1960, edged out by Elvis and “It’s Now Or Never” at the top. That fall, “Only The Lonely” made it to number one in the UK.
1961 would see Roy record a number one single, “Running Scared,” and another number two smash, “Crying.” The sad ballad stylings, combined with his black clothes and dark sunglasses cast Orbison with an air of mystery. Now, the mystery of the sunglasses is solvable, however. Roy misplaced his real glasses before a show, and had to resort to his prescription Ray Bans. He liked the look, and to this day it’s hard to picture Roy sans Ray Bans.
Bruce Springsteen honored Roy with the initiation speech when Orbison was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988. Springsteen said “I wanted a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector, but most of all I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison.” Bruce paid homage to Roy years before in the lyrics of his breakthrough anthem “Thunder Road.”
Orbison’s Nashville engineer, Bill Porter, recorded almost 600 charted hits, including 11 number ones. One week in 1960, 15 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 were Bill Porter mixes. Porter was behind the board for most of Elvis Presley’s post-army number one hits, and mixed live concert sound for the King of Rock and Roll during Presley’s tours in the 70’s.