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Singer-songwriter Roy Orbison wrote romantic 1960s pop ballads like "Oh, Pretty Woman." In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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As distinctive as his three-octave voice and unorthodox songwriting technique was Orbison's unglamorous style, which some have described as "geek chic." Stricken with both jaundice and bad eyesight as a child, Orbison had sallow skin and thick corrective eyewear, not to mention a shy demeanor. On a fateful day during his 1963 tour with the Beatles, Orbison left his glasses on the plane before a show,
which forced him to wear his unsightly prescription sunglasses for that night's show. Although he considered the incident "embarrassing," the look became an instant trademark.
Orbison's unhip underdog look suited his music well, as his lyrics were marked by incredible vulnerability. At a time when rock music went hand-in-hand with confidence and machismo, Orbison dared to sing about insecurity, heartache and fear. His stage persona, which has been described as borderline masochistic, went a long way toward challenging the traditional ideal of aggressive masculinity in rock 'n' roll.
Although the first half of the 1960s saw the rise of Orbison's star, the second half of the decade brought harder times. Tragedy struck when Orbison's wife, Claudette, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966, and again when his two oldest sons died in a house fire in 1968. Following those incidents, a devastated Orbison failed to generate many hits—and with the rise of the psychedelic movement in rock 'n' roll, the market for rockabilly had all but dried up anyway.
Peter Lehman, director of the Department of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Arizona State University, said about that period, "I was living in New York between 1968 and 1971, and even in Manhattan I could not find a record store that bothered to stock one copy of a newly released Orbison album; I had to special order them." By the mid-1970s, Orbison stopped recording music altogether.
Orbison's returned to his musical career in 1980, however, when the Eagles invited him to join them on their "Hotel California" tour. That same year, he rekindled his relationship with country music fans by performing a memorable duet with Emmylou Harris on "That Lovin' You Feeling Again," which went on to win a Grammy Award. When Van Halen covered "Oh, Pretty Woman" in 1982, rock fans were reminded that gratitude for the song was owed to Orbison. By the late 1980s, Orbison had staged a successful comeback, joined the all-star supergroup The Traveling Wilburys (alongside Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and George Harrison) and been admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Orbison died of a heart attack on December 6, 1988. His posthumously released comeback album, Mystery Girl, reached No. 5 on the charts, becoming the highest-charting solo album of his career. Although he was only 52 when he died, Orbison lived to see his rightful place in music legendry restored.
Despite his sales, charts and accolades, Orbison is most remembered today as an improbable rock star who put his heart on his sleeve and moved people with his music. "When you were trying to make a girl fall in love with you," Tom Waits once recalled, "it took roses, the Ferris wheel and Roy Orbison."
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