Eugene Dunphy charts the rise to fame of the Big O, and explores his links with Ireland
“My father asked me when I was about seven, what I would like to be when I grow up; would I like to be a policeman, or a fireman, or what … and I said, ‘No, I’ll be a singer’.”
Little surprise then that when he was aged eight, he was appearing on local radio shows, singing songs popularised by his hero, Lefty Frizzell. The aspiring singer in question was of course Roy Orbison, otherwise known as ‘the Big O’.
Born on the 23rd of April 1936, in Vernon, Texas, the son of oil-driller Orbie Orbison and Nadine Shults, a nurse, from an early age Roy Orbison was afflicted with sight problems, a condition which would pale into mere insignificance when compared to his immense talent for singing and songwriting.
When a teenager he dropped out of school to join The Teen Kings, who soon had a hit with Ooby Dooby, the song bringing Roy and group to the attention of Elvis Presley. Roy soon befriended Elvis, and was to frequently visit the King of Rock n’ Roll at his Graceland mansion.
When just twenty years of age, Roy signed to Sun Records, a label run by Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee, to which was also signed Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.
Leaving the Sun label behind, he teamed up with Monument, a Nashville record company run by Fred Foster, who would often hire Anita Kerr to score those masterful arrangements of cascading strings and background vocals, so prevalent in the Big O sound.
1960 saw the release on Monument of Only the Lonely, an almost operatic collaboration penned by Orbison and Texas songwriter, Joe Melson; interestingly, Roy had offered the song to Elvis and to the Everly Brothers, but they politely declined.
Finally deciding to record the song himself, Monument released Roy’s version of Only the Lonely, the song reaching the number two slot in the American Billboard and number one in the UK.
All the while perfecting his knowledge of chord progressions and guitar and drum rhythms, he teamed up again with Joe Melson to craft what were to become two more classic records; Running Scared, based on the rhythm of Ravel’s Bolero, and Crying were both released to great acclaim in 1961.
The Big O’s exceptional, three-octave vocal range is particularly evident in his self-penned song In Dreams, which became a massive hit in the UK in May 1963.
Such was his success on the international stage, at the end of May Roy opened for the Beatles at the Manchester Odeon, a wide-eyed Paul McCartney standing in the wings and whispering in the ear of a Daily Mirror reporter, “He’s great, isn’t he?”
Having performed all of his hits, he received an incredible fourteen encores at the Odeon, John Lennon later grabbing Roy by the arm and jesting, “Hey, go home Yank!”
It’s interesting to note that this was the first time the Big O had worn his trademark dark glasses on stage, the reason being that he had left his prescription spectacles on the plane!
Seeing his photograph splashed over the covers of numerous newspapers the following day, he decided to wear sunglasses on stage from now on.