Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988), who was born and raised in Texas, began singing in a rockabilly & country & western band in high school.
While most male rock and roll performers in the 1950s and 1960s showed a defiant masculinity, many of his songs instead conveyed a quiet, almost desperate, vulnerability. During performances, he stood still and solitary, and wore black clothes, to match his black hair, and hid behind thick, dark sunglasses, which lent an air of mystery to his persona and gave the impression that he was always longing and sometimes miserable. In reality he was a pleasant young man with a sense of humour, but he suffered from acute stage fright.
Between 1960 and 1964, 22 of his songs became great hits, including “Only the Lonely” (1960), “Crying” (1961), “In Dreams” (1963), and “Oh, Pretty Woman” (1964). which was to be used in the 1990 movie of the same name.
This hit was composed during a calm spot in an otherwise turbulent relationship with his wife Claudette, when they had just reconciled after some tough times and a few months before their divorce. In 1966, they remarried, but two months later while Roy and Claudette were riding their motorcycles, she was hit by a truck. She died in his arms an hour later, at the age of 25.
But that was not all! Orbison had to face tragedy again: in September 1968, while he was on tour in England, he was informed that his family home in Tennessee had burned to the ground: his two eldest sons died in the fire, while his youngest son was saved by Orbison’s parents.
Roy’s close friend and neighbour Johnny Cash bought the lot from him, but ten years later, that house burned down as well.
Over the next years, Roy had his ups and downs. He remarried a German teenager he had met while on tour a couple of days before the fire, and they had two sons together.
After “Oh, Pretty Woman”, Orbison continued to record and chart intermittently in the UK but it was in 1987 that he found worldwide popularity again, when his original recording of “In Dreams” was used in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet. The following year, he co-founded the Traveling Wilburys supergroup with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne, and he began touring again.
His last solo album, Mystery Girl, was released posthumously in February 1989: he had died of massive heart failure on December 6, 1988. That day he was enjoying a break between tours and had spent his time flying model airplanes with his sons. It was during dinner at his mother’s home in Tennessee, that he keeled over and died. He was 52.