Artists - Roy Orbison

Artist Biography

Raised in Texas during the Great Depression, Roy was given a guitar an age six, and as he put it, “I was finished, you know, for anything else.” In his youth, he was heavily influenced by artists like Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. It was Cash, who suggested that Roy and his band the Teen Kings approach Sun Records executive Sam Phillips. And after he heard their song “Ooby Dooby”, Phillips signed them.

After some success on the label with the Teen Kings, Roy Orbison decided to pursue a career as a solo act and songwriter. He spent a few years struggling to get by, writing and performing. In 1960, he finally broke into the Top Ten in the US with the song “Only the Lonely”. Roy followed that hit with a number of internationally successful songs including “Blue Angel,” “Running Scared” and “Mean Woman Blues.” During this time, he also toured with the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys. However, it was in 1964 that Roy Orbison recorded his signature song.

One day in 1964, Orbison’s wife, Claudette, came by the studio where Roy and songwriter Bill Dees were recording. She was headed into town, and Roy asked her if she needed any money. Dees responded, “Pretty woman never needs any money,” and about forty minutes later, “Oh, Pretty Woman” was recorded. The song, with Roy’s distinctive growl, and the plea for “Mercy”, went on to become a Number One hit in both the US and Britain.

Roy Orbison, who lacked the photogenic looks of many of the rock and roll contemporaries of his time, became known for his mysterious onstage persona. He was famous for remaining stoic, dressing in dark outfits and often standing in place for whole shows. In the early 1960s, Orbison, who had suffered from poor eyesight from a young age, left his thick eyeglasses on an airplane. That evening on stage, he was forced to wear prescription Ray Ban sunglasses. He found that he liked wearing the glasses to escape the crowd’s attention, and they became a signature part of his wardrobe. Orbison’s dress and unique performance style were on full display when he made his first and only appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on October 11, 1964.

Sullivan introduced “the fella’ out of Odessa, Texas” and Orbison took the stage to the signature riff of “Oh, Pretty Woman.” With his black shades, slicked back hair and dark suit, a cool Orbison employed playful growls and his distinctive and powerful voice. As usual for Orbison, he stood in place, barely moving throughout the song.

Instead of wowing the audience with onstage antics like Elvis Presley or Jackie Wilson did on The Ed Sullivan Show, Orbison let the music and his voice own the stage that evening. Orbison once said, “I’m not a super personality, on stage or off…People come to hear my music, my songs. That’s what I have to give them.” On October 11, 1964 when Roy Orbison performed on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first and only time, that is exactly what he gave the audience – his music.

Roy Orbison actually returned as an audience member to The Ed Sullivan Show on May 2, 1965 when The Rolling Stones performed. As usual with famous audience members, Ed Sullivan called Orbison out for the customary bow. The crowd, which had been going wild all night long for Stones, still had some energy left to scream for Roy. Sullivan did his best to quiet down the “little chickadees” and wrap up the show.

“Oh, Pretty Woman” marked the pinnacle of Roy Orbison’s career in the 1960’s. After enduring some personal tragedies, Orbison returned to the music spotlight in the late 1980’s when he collaborated with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan as The Traveling Wilburys. While the group had some success, Roy Orbison will always be best remembered for his distinctive, powerful voice, unique style, and the emotional ballads of his earlier work.

Products Featuring this artist

The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show Vol. 2: The Greatest Entertainers

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Rock ‘N’ Roll Forever: Ed Sullivan’s Greatest Hits

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