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He sang songs steeped in melancholy with a voice that could hit the sweetest heights. As a member of the first generation of rock-and-rollers, he was a loner, a shy teetotaller who, despite his tough-looking, dark attire and ever-present sunglasses, preferred wrenching ballads to the rugged side of rock. And when he died last week from a heart attack at 52, Roy Orbison touched off a new wave of emotion from a diverse range of musicians and fans. At the peak of his career in the 1960s, Orbison had 27 consecutive records on the charts, including “Only the Lonely” and “Oh Pretty Woman.” Recently, he returned to the charts by collaborating with Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Tom Petty in the group the Travelling Wilburys. Through it all, Orbison remained immensely modest. Said Canada’s k. d. lang, who sang with him on last year’s remake of his classic “Cryin’”: “The most amazing thing was that Roy retained such humility and graciousness throughout his legendary career.”
Bom into a hard-drinking Texas family, Orbison learned guitar from his oil worker father and was performing on radio by the time he was 8. He soon moved into a circle of rock pioneers that included Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. But it was in heartfelt ballads, beginning with 1960s “Only the Lonely,” that he made his mark. In the midst of success, tragedy pursued him: his first wife died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, and two of their three sons died in a fire two years later. In 1979, he had to undergo open-heart surgery.
Musically, Orbison was a bold eclectic who included everything from Latin rhythms to lavish string accompaniment in his songs. But his signature was his soaring, almost operatic three-octave tenor. Last year, when he was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen, a longtime fan, said, “I’ll always remember laying in bed and right at the end of ‘It’s Over,’ when he hits that note where it sounds like the world’s going to end.” This year, Springsteen and such diverse artists as Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes and lang paid tribute to Orbison in a documentary concert movie titled A Black and White Night. And with a new collection of his songs planned for release in the new year, fans will have another chance to hear the man in all his romantic grandeur.
Originally published in Maclean’s magazine 19 December 1988