There are a few sacred locations around the world where rock n’ roll came to life. Legendary places, where visionaries and musicians came together to create music that would not just spread out through the entire world, but last the tests of time as well. These places include The Apollo Theatre, The Cavern Club, CBGB’s, The Capitol Records Building, The Whisky a Go Go and, most sacred of them all, Sun Records in Memphis Tennessee. Founded and operated by legendary music producer Sam Phillips, if America was the birthplace of rock n’ roll, then Sun Records was the holy manger. A small studio still located at 705 Union Ave, Sam Phillips discovered and mentored some of the biggest artists of the late 1950’s including Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Rich and, most importantly Elvis Presley. At Sun Records country music was colliding with rhythm and blues, creating what would come to be known as rockabilly, which would become the basis for the way we hear rock n’ roll today. Big things were happening at Sun Records, and Sam Phillips had an eye, and an ear, for talent.
But there was one artist at Sun Records that Sam Phillips didn’t seem to fully understand and, as a result, allowed him to slip through his fingers. Although the history of the label includes him as part of the roster, Sun Records seemed to have a difficult relationship with one of the great singer-songwriters in music history, Roy Orbison. Misused, misunderstood and under promoted, Roy came to Memphis specifically looking to work at Sun, but was so different than the stars that Sam Phillips was having success with that the world nearly never heard of Roy Orbison. Although Sun would be the first major label to record Roy Orbison’s music, by the time he hit the charts with “Only the Lonely” in 1961, it was too late for Sun Records and Sam Phillips had lost a million-dollar artist.
Playing guitar since he was eight years old, Roy Orbison began his career as a teenager playing country and western music in and around his hometown of Wink, Texas. Forming his first band, The Wink Westerners while in high school, Roy showed early innovations as a musician willing to go out of the confines of country music and venturing into big band and swing sounds before eventually leaning more and more towards rock n’ roll as the fever began to hit the country in the middle of the 1950’s. While studding geology at North Texas State College, two pals of Roy’s, Wade Moore and Dick Penner, wrote a rockabilly number called “Ooby Dooby,” which the Wink Westerners added to their repertoire. Changing their name to The Teen Kings, they went into a small studio in Odessa and laid down “Ooby Dooby.” Becoming a popular hit on local radio, The Teen Kings got hired as a featured band on a Saturday afternoon music show at a local CBS affiliate.
Later that year up-and-coming superstar Johnny Cash made an appearance on the show promoting his upcoming concert in Midland. During his appearance, Roy asked Cash for career advice, and Cash handed Roy Sam Phillips’ phone number and told him that the place to be was Sun Records. Excited, Roy called up Sam Phillips and introduced himself and told him that Johnny Cash had given him his number. To his dismay, Sam Phillips gruffly replied “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my company. I do” and promptly hung up on Roy.
However, this would not be the last time that Sam Phillips heard of Roy Orbison. Weeks later Odessa based record store owner Poppa Hollifield played a copy of “Ooby Dooby” over the phone for Phillips, and now it was Phillips calling Roy Orbison. inviting him and the Teen Kings to come to Memphis and recut the single at Sun.
According to the Sun Records website, The Teen Kings arrived in Memphis on March 26, 1956, and the next day recorded a trio of songs – “Ooby Dooby,” “Trying to Get to You” and, an original written by Roy, “Go Go Go (Down the Line).” They immediately signed a contract with Sun and were sent out as a touring band which would support Sun’s hitmakers including Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Faron Young, Johnny Horton and Jerry Lee Lewis. The groups would often get booked into drive-in cinemas where the artists would perform on top of the projection house prior to the movies. Meanwhile, Sun released “Ooby Dooby,” which did fairly well as a first single, rising to #59 on the Billboard Charts and selling nearly twenty thousand copies.
However, in comparison to the runaway success that Phillips had had with his previous artists, he was personally underwhelmed by the success of “Ooby Dooby.” He had further doubts about the future of The Teen Kings when a follow up single, “Rockhouse,” written by Roy Orbison with new pal Conway Twitty, failed to chart. Matters got worse when The Teen Kings broke up shortly thereafter over a dispute about money and writing credits. But Phillips must have liked Roy, because he kept him at Sun as his bandmates went back to Texas. He even allowed Roy and his girlfriend, Claudette Fredy, to move into his house (in separate bedrooms though because Claudette was only 16). But while he still wanted to work with Roy, Phillips had seemed to have lost interest in promoting him as an artist.
So, what was it about Roy Orbison that Sam Phillips didn’t like? Although nobody clearly says it, there are hints in different biographies and articles about Roy’s career. One possibility is that Roy Orbison wasn’t thought to be as “pretty” or charismatic as the artists that Sam Phillips had been promoting on the label. Today we think of Roy Orbison as certifiably cool, all dressed in black, with his jet-black hair and hiding behind the dark sunglasses. It is a unique style that is not only recognizable but extremely cool. However, Roy would not adopt that look until the early 1960’s, and under those glasses he had kind of weird eyes. Roy wasn’t a heart throb or the type of rock idol that would ever find his way into a teen magazine. Meanwhile, Roy was said to be soft spoken, polite, introverted and shy. He didn’t have the boisterous stage presence of Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis. While Sam Phillips most likely liked Roy as a person, it’s probable that he just didn’t see him as being a marketable performer nor a successful solo artist.
Furthermore, Roy was developing his own style of music that was going in a radical different direction than what the rockabilly acts from Sun Records were having hits with. Never comfortable as a rockabilly singer, Roy believed he’d be a better ballad singer, and he could do this haunting falsetto that, quite frankly, the Sun producers didn’t know what to do with. It was Sun producer Jack Clements who famously told Roy that he’d never make it as a ballad singer. In a few years he’d be eating his words when Roy’s falsetto would become a part of his trademark sound, capturing the attention of music fans worldwide.
Meanwhile, Roy wanted to take the music that he was making in Memphis and move it forward beyond what was being done thus far at Sun. One thing that Roy envisioned was a string section behind his music and found himself bumping heads with producers who felt that there was no room for the strings behind a rock song. Of course, not long afterwards Phil Spector would prove otherwise, but Roy was an early champion for strings in rock music.
So, if Roy was not being used as a solo artist at Sun, why did Sam Phillips keep him around? Well, for starters, Phillips thought he was a great guitarist and started to use Roy regularly as a session musician. Under the leadership of Chet Atkins, Roy became part of the Nashville A-Team, which was sort of like Capitol Records’ fabled Wrecking Crew but working in the country music industry. As part of the A Team, Roy helped develop what was known as “the Nashville Sound” which helped remove the honky tonk sound found in early country music and developing it into a more modern and smoother sound which would transition into the way that country music was listened to for the next forty years.
Furthermore, Roy was proving himself to be a popular songwriter, and the songs he was writing were becoming marketable hits for other artists. Warren Smith had a Billboard hit with Roy’s “So Long I’m Gone,” and Jerry Lee Lewis hit with a cover of “Go Go Go (Down the Line).” But it was in 1957 that Roy got back on the radar when a song he wrote for his girlfriend, aptly titled “Claudette” was recorded as the B side to the Everly Brothers monster hit “All I Have to Do is Dream.” “Claudette” went to the number 30 spot, and the producers at Sun decided it was time to give Roy another shot. However, what he was given was a ridiculous novelty tune called “Chicken Hearted” which didn’t chart. Not at all what he was developing on his own, “Chicken Heated” made Orbison look like a farce and was the kind of track that seemed to set him up for failure.
Frustrated with the state of his career, and feeling misused at Sun, in 1958 Roy took Claudette and returned to Texas to rethink his life as a musician. For eight months Roy didn’t write, record or tour. It was during this time that Roy had a chance encounter with song writer Joe Melson, who recognizing Roy sitting in a car, tapped on his window and asked him if he wanted to write together. Intrigued, Orbison decided to give it a shot and the pair wrote a number of songs, which Roy recorded at RCA Studios. The best of these songs was “Uptown,” which allowed Roy to finally introduce a string section in one of his songs. RCA released two tracks out of the seven recorded, but unimpressed with the sale returns, they had no interest in continuing with Roy.
Now seeking employment as a night club singer, Roy began to feel he was all washed up, but he continued to work with Melson. Taking all of the things that he was developing in Nashville – the strings, the falsetto, the ballads – Roy and Melson wrote the song that would change it all – “Only the Lonely.” Feeling his career as a solo artist was done, Roy contacted Elvis and The Everly’s people to try to sell it to them, but both turned it down. But while listening to the way that Roy sang it, with that distinctive falsetto paired with the morose emotion only a frustrated artist could create, Melson felt that the only artist that could deliver the song was Roy himself.
Melson talked Roy int0 traveling back to Memphis and, contacting recording engineer Bill Porter, Roy cut “Only the Lonely,” and that was that. Selling the recording to the newly formed Monumental Records, “Only the Lonely” shot to Billboards number two spot on July 25, 1960, with his follow up singles, “Blue Angel” and “I’m Hurtin’” hitting big in the months to come.
In January 1961, after six years of frustration, rejection and misuse, Roy Orbison’s first full length lp, “Lonely and Blue” was released by Monumental Records and a legendary career was born. But how did Sam Phillips and Sun Records react? They had obviously realized that they had lost a huge talent and, in an “Oh shit” move, scrambled together the few Roy Orbison recordings that they owned in their archives and quickly released their own full-length Roy Orbison lp titled “At the Rock House,: dropped nearly a year after “Lonely and Blue, “At the Rock House” is considered to be Roy Orbison’s second album, but it contains material recorded more than two years prior to “Lonely and Blue.” Collecting his rockabilly stuff during a time when the rockabilly industry was already dying, the album barely reflected the music that Roy was having hits with now and although fans bought it, nothing on it charted. Now in control of his own sound, Roy Orbison was evolving as a musician, songwriter and music visionary and was leaving Sun Records in his dust.
In the years to come Roy Orbison would reflect fondly on his days at Sun Records as an important part of his musical education, and he was proud of being a part of that exciting time in music history. Sam Phillips would go on record many times stating that he regretted not promoting Roy Orbison more than he had, and recognizing his brilliance as a performer, musician and songwriter. However, despite being misused during his time there, Sun Records always lists Roy Orbison as one of their legacy artists as if they are trying to rewrite history claiming Roy Orbison as their own.