Roy Kelton Orbison (April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988), also known by the nickname the Big O, was an American singer-songwriter, best known for his trademark sunglasses, distinctive, powerful voice, complex compositions, and dark emotional ballads. Orbison grew up in Texas and began singing in a rockabilly/country and western band in high school until he was signed by Sun Records in Memphis. His greatest success came with Monument Records between 1960 and 1964, when 22 of his songs placed on the Billboard Top 40, including "Only the Lonely," "Crying," and "Oh, Pretty Woman." His career stagnated through the 1970s, but several covers of his songs and the use of "In Dreams" in David Lynch's film BLUE VELVET (1986) revived his career.
In 1988, he joined the supergroup Traveling Wilburys with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne and also released a new solo album. He died of a heart attack in December that year, at the zenith of his resurgence. His life was marred by tragedy, including the death of his first wife and his two eldest sons in separate accidents. Orbison's vocal instrument bridged the gap between baritone and tenor, and music scholars have suggested that he had a three- or four-octave range. The combination of Orbison's powerful, impassioned voice and complex musical arrangements led many critics to refer to his music as operatic, giving him the sobriquet "the Caruso of Rock." Elvis Presley as well as Petty and Dylan, have stated his voice was, respectively, the greatest and most distinctive they had ever heard. While most male performers in rock and roll in the 1950s and '60s projected a defiant masculinity, many of Orbison's songs instead conveyed a quiet, desperate vulnerability. He was known for performing while standing still and solitary and for wearing black clothes and dark sunglasses, which lent an air of mystery to his persona.
Orbison was initiated into the second class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 by longtime admirer Bruce Springsteen. The same year he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame two years later. Rolling Stone placed Orbison at number 37 on their list of The Greatest Artists of All Time, and number 13 on their list of The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2002, Billboard magazine listed Orbison at number 74 in the Top 600 recording artists. In 2014, Orbison was elected to America's Pop Music Hall of Fame.
While Orbison determinedly pursued his second chance at stardom, he reacted to his success in constant surprise, confessing "It's very nice to be wanted again, but I still can't quite believe it." He lost some weight to fit his new image and the constant demand of touring, as well as the newer demands of making videos. In November 1988, Mystery Girl was completed and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was rising up the charts. Around this time Orbison confided in Johnny Cash that he was having chest pains and said he'd have to have something done, but he never did. Orbison went to Europe where he was presented with an award and played a show in Antwerp where footage for the video for "You Got It" was filmed. He gave multiple interviews a day in a hectic schedule. A few days later a manager at a club in Boston was concerned that he looked ill, but Orbison played the show to another standing ovation. Roy played at The Front Row Theater in Highland Heights, Ohio on December 4, which would be his last performance. Finally, exhausted, he returned to his home in Hendersonville to rest for a few 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; then, after having dinner at his mother's home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, he died of a heart attack at the age of 52.
The tabloid The National Enquirer suggested on its cover that Orbison had worked himself to death. A memorial was held in Nashville, and another in Los Angeles; he was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. In January 1989, Orbison became the first musician since Elvis Presley to have two albums in the Top Five at the same time.