THE EXACT NATURE of his music remains a question—pop? country? rock?—but the beauty of his voice has always been undeniable. Roy Orbison first sang his way onto the charts in 1956, a year before fellow Texan Buddy Holly also hit it big. Orbison had a three-octave range and an operatic grandeur that belied his origins: He grew up in tiny, windswept Wink, where an annual music festival in April pays homage to its most famous former resident. Orbison became known for his trademark look (black clothes, dark glasses) as well as lushly orchestrated songs that he penned himself—mournful anthems like “Only the Lonely,” Mexican-flavored ballads like “Crying,” and a certified rock classic, “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

Roy Kelton Orbison was born on April 23, 1936, in Vernon. He learned to play guitar at age six.

As a teenager he formed his first band, the Wink Westerners. He later headed up the Teen-Kings, for whom two friends penned “Ooby Dooby.” Released in 1956, the song led to a brief contract with Memphis’ Sun Records, the label that also launched Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.

After the Everly Brothers declined to record “Only the Lonely,” Orbison cut it himself. The song became his first million-seller. Elvis Presley later called him “the greatest singer in the world.”

In 1963 Orbison headlined a British tour that also featured the Beatles.

A teetotaler, he compulsively swigged Coca-Cola.

Heartbreak, a common theme in Orbison’s music, shadowed his life as well. In 1966 he was riding motorcycles with his wife, Claudette—whose name was the title of a tune he wrote in 1955 and the Everly Brothers recorded in 1958—when a truck driver pulled out in front of her. She died an hour later. In 1968 Roy was on tour in England when he learned of a second tragedy: Two of their three sons had died in a fire at their Nashville home. He later remarried and had two more sons.

Orbison’s songs have been covered by hundreds of performers, including the Lettermen, Del Shannon, Waylon Jennings, Tom Jones, Linda Ronstadt, Wayne Newton, Van Halen, and the Count Basie Orchestra. His works have been recorded in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Czech, and Dutch.

He and four other music veterans—Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne—joined forces for the 1988 album The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One. Orbison died later that year of a heart attack. He was 52.