The singer's career was just picking up with the Traveling Wilburys and a new solo album when he died ten years ago

By Tom Sinclair
December 04, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

His comeback was right around the corner. It had been more than 20 years since Roy Orbison had released a successful new album, and here he was, one fifth of the unlikely supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, heading back on the charts with their hit album, Volume One — and an ambitious solo disc of his own on the way. But not even a month after the Wilburys’ album was released and just before his solo project would ship, the 52-year-old Orbison’s heart, the subject of so many of his songs, gave out on Dec. 6, 1988.

Born in Vernon, Tex., Orbison started out as a rambunctious rockabilly singer in the mid-’50s. But his career really took off when he began using his ethereal tenor on such aching ballads as 1961’s ”Crying.” Singer Billy Joel would call it ”the voice of an angel,” and, between 1960 and 1964, that voice helped Orbison call in nine top 10 hits, including ”Only the Lonely” and ”Dream Baby” (many cowritten by Orbison).

As a result of shifting musical tides, Orbison’s hot streak ended soon after 1964’s ”Oh, Pretty Woman.” If the British Invasion hit him hard, a string of personal tragedies nearly put him down for the count: In ’66, the singer’s wife died in a motorcycle accident; two years later, two of their sons perished in a fire. At a particularly low professional point, Orbison reportedly found himself playing at an auto expo in Cincinnati. His life had become the stuff his aching songs were made of.

Fortunately, those singular tunes had made a lasting impact on some influential folks. Director David Lynch made ”In Dreams” a leitmotiv in Blue Velvet (1986), sparking renewed interest in Orbison’s works. The following year, the singer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and then honored in a tribute featuring Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello on Cinemax in 1988. The icing on his comeback cake was receiving the imprimatur of his fellow Wilburys: George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty.

Alas, Orbison didn’t live to savor his greatest success — the posthumously released Mystery Girl, coproduced by Lynne and released in 1989, which became the best-selling album of Orbison’s career. In the end it’s that goose-bump-inducing voice that endures. Does anyone who’s heard it need to ask why Elvis Presley once called Orbison the greatest singer in the world?


Time Capsule
Dec. 6, 1988

At the movies, Leslie Nielsen bares his comic chops in The Naked Gun for a $9.3 million opening in the top spot. Nielsen would come up far shorter in 1998’s Wrongfully Accused, which grossed a total of $9.6 million.

On TV, Ted Danson charms enough Cheers viewers for a No. 3 ranking. Ten years later, his new sitcom, Becker, would charm few critics.

At bookstores, George Burns’ touching memoir about his late wife, Gracie: A Love Story, is No. 1 on the Publishers Weekly nonfiction list. Burns would die in 1996 at the age of 100.

And in the news, televangelist Jim Bakker is indicted for bilking his flock and syphoning millions in donations. The scandal follows his confession to an affair with Jessica Hahn. After five years in prison, the divorced and still repentant Bakker would remarry in 1998.

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