His was a voice like no other ever heard in rock—silky, soaring, tender, gritty, haunted with pain. And durable. Roy Orbison was present at the creation, a skinny Texas kid who sang rockabilly at Sun Records with close buddies Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis in the mid-’50s. Through the next three decades his brilliant lyrics and melodies—he wrote such bedrock classics as “Only the Lonely,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Crying,” “Mean Woman Blues,” “Candy Man,” “Dream Baby” and “Blue Bayou”—were given new life by performers as diverse as the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt and Van Halen. His own career may have suffered years of eclipse; his music, never.
Recently, and suddenly, however, Roy Orbison himself had emerged to take full possession of the legend he long since had become. As one of the whimsically named Traveling Wilburys, alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, Roy had surged back on to the charts, at the rock-ripe age of 52, with the group’s single, “Handle with Care,” a video and the Traveling Wilburys’ Volume One LP. With his own album, Mystery Girl, ready for release in February, Orbison, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and subject of a superstar-studded cable TV tribute that aired earlier this year, was deservedly flying high. He was working out and had shed 30 lbs. He was remodeling his Malibu home. And he was enjoying his reborn popularity immensely.
Last week he played small club gigs in Boston and Cleveland to rapturous, awestruck fans aged 15 to 50. Then he traveled to Hendersonville, Tenn., to visit his mother, Nadine, and his eldest son, Wesley, 23, who was trying to launch a music career of his own. Barbara, 36, Roy’s German-born second wife, who also worked as his manager, was in Frankfurt arranging a promotional tour for Roy; their two children, Roy Kelton, 18, and Alex, 12, were home in California. After Tennessee, Orbison was planning to fly to London to shoot the Wilburys’ next two videos, one of them for a tune called “End of the Line.”
Then, on the night of Dec. 6, having spent the day shopping for parts for model airplanes, his hobby, he was rushed to Hendersonville Hospital after collapsing at his mother’s house. A gentle, abstemious man who drank nothing stronger than Coke, he was also a heavy smoker despite having undergone triple-bypass surgery a decade ago. At 11:54 P.M. Orbison was pronounced dead of a massive heart attack.
Tributes flowed in from stunned, reverent rockers whose vocal and lyrical styles were, in no small part, defined by Orbison’s unique gift. Johnny Cash, a Hendersonville neighbor until Roy and Barbara moved to Malibu three years ago, said, “For 30 years we were heart to heart. It hurts too much to say a lot about Roy. I’m just happy the world has come to recognize his great talent. I will miss him so much.” Said Sun Records founder Sam Phillips: “He was probably the tamest man I’ve known in rock. He was very sensitive to people, to tragedy, to hurt. He wouldn’t hurt a pissant if it was biting him. Wesley had spoken to his dad just a few hours before he died and said he hadn’t sounded that happy in a long time. What a wonderful, sweet man.”
But no rocker rhapsodized as poignantly as Bruce Springsteen when he introduced Roy at the Hall of Fame ceremony in New York last year. Recalling that in 1970 he had traveled 15 hours in the back of a U-Haul truck to open for Roy in Nashville, the Boss said: “His arrangements were complex and operatic, they had rhythm and movement, and they addressed the underside of pop romance. They were scary. His voice was unearthly. Roy had the ability, like all great rock and rollers, to sound like he had dropped in from another planet…. In 1975, when I went in to make Born to Run… I wanted most of all to sing like Roy Orbison. Now everybody knows that nobody sings like Roy Orbison.”
That was clear from the beginning. The son of an oil field worker, Roy grew up in Wink, Texas, and went to North Texas State with Pat Boone before heading to Memphis to play his tapes for Sam Phillips. The founder of Sun Records recalls an insecure, ill-at-ease kid with an “unusual” voice and great rhythm guitar licks. ” ‘Do you think my looks’ll hurt me onstage?’ ” Phillips remembers Roy asking. “He couldn’t see real well, and he was most self-conscious about having small eyes.”
Orbison’s magnificent string of hits from 1960 to 1964 made him an international rock hero who received top billing over the Beatles during a 1963 U.K. tour. The sunglasses that became his trademark got their start on the same tour. Orbison had lost his regular glasses, forcing him to rely on his shades. He stuck with the look.
The era that tour presaged brought a sharp downward turn in his career. Seemingly overnight, his shiveringly emotive voice was drowned out by the British invasion and acid rock; successive tides of pop-rock, disco and synth-pop gave him little chance to regain his footing.
And as bad as things were going professionally, his personal life in those years was scarred by the darkest tragedies. In 1966 his wife, Claudette—the namesake inspiration for the Orbison song that the Everly Brothers made a hit in 1958—was killed in a motorcycle accident in Nashville as Roy rode on another bike just ahead. Two years later two of their children, Roy Dwayne, 10, and Anthony, 6, perished in a fire that destroyed Roy’s Hendersonville home while he was on tour. Only Wesley survived. Characteristically, he talked little about his sufferings, except to say that “work helped—that and time and a lot of good friends and friends’ advice.”
Orbison began rebuilding his life in 1969, when he married Barbara, a former medical student, whom he met in London. Though he was set back by bypass surgery in 1978—he had collapsed while running up steps at a football stadium—his legend continued to grow. Linda Ronstadt made his “Blue Bayou” a hit again in 1977, and in 1981 he recorded a Grammy-winning duet of “That Loving You Feeling Again” with Emmylou Harris.
His music was used for movies (notably in 1986’s Blue Velvet), and he continued to play small gigs. But it was his performance on Sun Records’ priceless Class of ’55 LP in 1986 that seemed to signal Roy’s resurgence. Last spring he was dining in L.A. with producer-musician Jeff Lynne, ex-Beatle Harrison and Heartbreaker Petty when the Wilburys project took shape. Dylan joined soon after. Rolling Stone, citing Roy’s work on the cut “Not Alone Anymore,” said Orbison “hurts as good as he ever has. It proves [he] has lost none of his tremendous vocal prowess.”
For his lyrics, Orbison drew on both his life and his dreams. In one of his last interviews he told reporter Bruce Dorminey how, 25 years ago, he dreamed that he had heard a new Elvis song on the radio. “The song was something about gold,” Roy recalled in his lilting, soothing drawl. “It was just beautiful, and I said, ‘Well, ol’ Elvis has another smash.’ Then I woke up and realized Elvis couldn’t have sung it; I was dreaming. One night, days later, the lyrics came back to me: ‘The candy-colored clown they call the sandman/ Tiptoes to my room every night/ Just to sprinkle Stardust and to whisper/ Go to sleep, everything’s all right.’ ”
The song became “In Dreams,” a standard. Its last line suggests a longing for an elusive peace that Orbison surely deserved: “It’s too bad all these things could only happen in my dreams.”