Roy Orbison (Photo by David Redfern / Redferns / Getty Images)
Just weeks before his death 25 years ago today on Dec. 6, 1988, Roy Orbison told Rolling Stone magazine that he couldn’t sum up his life in a paragraph, but might be able to do it through his songs. "Parts of Crying, parts of Pretty Woman, too, and Running Scared. . . . Pieces of my songs would tell the story."
Orbison died of a heart attack at his mother’s home in Henderson, Tenn., 10 years after recovering from open heart surgery. He was just 52 when he died and making a major comeback as part of the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. He had given a concert in Ohio just days before his death; days after he died, the Traveling Wilburys album reached No. 8 on the Billboard album chart.
Jon Pareles wrote in Orbison’s New York Times obituary, "One of rock's most gifted singers, Mr. Orbison possessed a clear tenor that soared into an angelic falsetto. In a string of hits from the late 1950's through the mid–1960s, he moved between two styles –– up-tempo rockabilly songs . . . and dramatic ballads of isolation and longing."
Videos from some of Orbison’s early performances show a shy, staid, almost motionless performer, with Orbison’s mouth barely seeming to move as he sang his songs’ poignant and often painful lyrics. The audience was just as still. In those days, his swept back pompadour (his almost white hair was always dyed black) was more elaborate than the ponytail or bangs he had later, but he was already in his trademark black and thick-lensed dark glasses. Towards the end of his career, he was much looser on stage and so were his enthusiastic listeners.
During the 1960s Orbison had had 22 Top 40 hits in less than five years, including:
Only the Lonely (1960)
Running Scared (1961)
In Dreams (1963)
Blue Bayou (1963)
Oh, Pretty Woman (1964)
It's Over (1964)
Roy Kelton Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas to an oil well driller/car mechanic and a nurse, the second of three sons. He grew up in a series of small Texas towns playing the guitar his parents gave him when he was 6. He was on the radio at age 8 and in high school had a band called first the Wink Westerners and later the Teen Kings when they recorded a rockabilly song called Ooby Dooby for Sun Records. As a student at North Texas State College, his classmate Pat Boone encouraged Orbison to try the recording studio.
Orbison told Rolling Stone, "I've always been in love with my voice. It was fascinating, I liked the sound of it, I liked making it sing, making a voice ring, and I just kept doing it. And I think somewhere between the time of Ooby Dooby and Only the Lonely it kinda turned into a good voice."
Elvis Presley called him the best singer in the world and Orbison won tributes from other rock stars including Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen.
When Orbison’s first wife, Claudette (subject of the hit Everly Brothers song Claudette), was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966, he stopped writing songs for years following the tragedy. Two years later, two of their three children died in a house fire. He met his second wife, Barbara, while on tour in England; they married in 1969 and he began writing songs again. In addition to his surviving son, he and Barbara had two more boys.
In 1977 Linda Ronstadt covered Blue Bayou, and not long after Don McLean had a hit with his 1980 cover of Crying. In 1982 hard rocker Van Halen recorded Pretty Woman, which showed up again in the 1990 Richard Gere/Julia Roberts movie of the same name. In Dreams was used in the soundtrack for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in 1986, sparking renewed interest in Orbison. In 1987 he released In Dreams: The Greatest Hits, and in 1988 A Black and White Night, a TV tribute show, showcased Orbison backed by an incredible line-up: Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang (with whom he had recorded a remake of Crying), Jackson Browne, Jennifer Warnes, Tom Waits and J.D. Souther.
Then came the Traveling Wilburys and Orbison’s final, posthumously released album, Mystery Girl, which became a global hit. According to Wikipedia, Orbison, Elvis Presley, Jim Croce and Michael Jackson are the only singers to have two Top 5 albums on the Billboard chart after their deaths.
Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (by Springsteen), the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is 13th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and in 2002, Billboard magazine listed Orbison No. 74 in the Top 600 recording artists.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.