Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988) was an American singer, songwriter, and musician known for his impassioned singing style, complex song structures, and dark, emotional ballads. His music was described by critics as operatic, earning him the nicknames “the Caruso of Rock” and “the Big O”. Many of Orbison’s songs conveyed vulnerability at a time when most male rock-and-roll performers chose to project defiant masculinity. He was known for his shyness and stage fright, which he countered by wearing dark sunglasses.
Orbison began singing in a rockabilly and country-and-western band at high school. He was signed by Sam Phillips of Sun Records in 1956, but enjoyed his greatest success with Monument Records. From 1960 to 1966, 22 of Orbison’s singles reached the Billboard Top 40. He wrote or co-wrote almost all of his own Top 10 hits, including “Only the Lonely” (1960), “Running Scared” (1961), “Crying” (1961), “In Dreams” (1963), and “Oh, Pretty Woman” (1964). Beginning in the mid-1960s, Orbison suffered a number of personal tragedies and his career faltered.
Orbison experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s following the success of several cover versions of his songs. In 1988, he co-founded the Traveling Wilburys (a rock supergroup) with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. Orbison died of a heart attack in December 1988 at age 52. One month later, his song “You Got It” (1989) was released as a solo single, becoming his first hit to reach the U.S. Top 10 in nearly 25 years.
Orbison’s honors include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1989, and the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in 2014. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and five other Grammy Awards. Rolling Stone placed him at number 37 on its list of the “Greatest Artists of All Time” and number 13 on its list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time”. In 2002, Billboard magazine listed him at number 74 on its list of the Top 600 recording artists.
Orbison performed at the Front Row Theater in Highland Heights, Ohio on December 4, 1988. Exhausted, he returned to his home in Hendersonville to rest for several days before flying again to London to film two more videos for the Traveling Wilburys. On December 6, 1988, he spent the day flying model airplanes with his sons and ate dinner at his mother’s home in Hendersonville. Later that day, he died of a heart attack at the age of 52.
A memorial for Orbison was held in Nashville, and another was held in Los Angeles. He was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in an unmarked grave.