Cultural Percussionist

Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988) was an American singer-songwriter known for his distinctive, impassioned voice, complex song structures, and dark emotional ballads. The combination led many critics to describe his music as operatic, nicknaming him “the Caruso of Rock and “the Big O”. While most male rock-and-roll performers in the 1950s and 1960s projected a defiant masculinity, many of Orbison’s songs instead conveyed vulnerability. His voice ranged from baritone to tenor, and music scholars have suggested that he had a three- or four-octave range. During performances, he was known for standing still and solitary, and for wearing black clothes, to match his dyed jet black hair and dark sunglasses, which lent an air of mystery to his persona.

Roy Kelton Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas, the middle son of Orbie Lee Orbison (1913–1984), an oil well driller and car mechanic, and Nadine Vesta Shults (July 25, 1913 – May 28, 1992), a nurse. Both of his parents were unemployed during the Great Depression and, searching for work, moved the family to Fort Worth in 1942. He attended Denver Avenue Elementary School until a polio scare prompted the family to return to Vernon. Later, in 1946, they moved to Wink, Texas. Orbison later described life in Wink as “football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand” and expressed relief that he was able to leave the desolate town. All the Orbison children were afflicted with poor eyesight; Roy used thick corrective lenses from an early age. He was not confident about his appearance and began dyeing his nearly-white hair black when he was still young. He was quiet, self-effacing, and remarkably polite and obliging—a product, biographer Alan Clayson wrote, of his Southern upbringing. He was readily available to sing, however, and often became the focus of attention when he did. He considered his voice memorable, if not great.

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