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25 Years Ago: Roy Orbison Dies During His Big Comeback

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Roy Orbison died on Dec. 6, 1988, at age 52, during the middle of an inspiring third-act comeback with the all-star Traveling Wilburys, which also included pals and disciples Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Orbison (typically seen in sunglasses and pompadour) rocketed to fame with a series of yearning rock ‘n’ roll hits that included rockabilly-inspired numbers like ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ — which was later covered by Van Halen — as well as big dramatic ballads like ‘Only the Lonely.’

That legacy alone earned Orbison a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, just a year before his death. Bruce Springsteen, who inducted Orbison, said at the time, “Some rock ‘n’ roll reinforces friendship and community, but for me, Roy’s ballads were always best when you were alone and in the dark.”

The sadness in Orbison’s music came from a very real place: His first wife, Claudette (the subject of one of his early songs), died in a 1966 motorcycle accident. And two of their three children passed away after a 1968 fire at Orbison’s Nashville home.

But unlike so many of his contemporaries, Orbison was continuing to pad his overstuffed list of achievements in 1988, when he passed away following a heart attack. He was a key part of ‘Handle With Care,’ the Traveling Wilburys song that was moving up the charts at the time. The group’s debut album, ‘Vol. 1,’ soon reached the Top 10. Orbison was also working on a new studio record, produced by Lynne, scheduled for release in February 1989.

Later, the Wilburys released a haunting video for ‘Vol. 1”s second single, ‘End of the Line,’ featuring a guitar sitting in a rocking chair, taking the place of the departed Orbison. ‘You Got It,’ the lead track from Orbison’s posthumous final album, ‘Mystery Girl,’ became the Texas native’s last Top 10 hit, and his first since 1964.

In another bitter twist, Orbison’s widow Barbara died after a bout with pancreatic cancer on the 23rd anniversary of her husband’s death. In 2008, she co-produced ‘The Soul of Rock and Roll,’ a career-spanning box set of Orbison’s music.

Next: Top 10 Albums of 1988

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