Impressive and confounding in equal measure, Roy Orbison’s music burst into life while he remained unmoved, quite literally. In fact, George Harrison even said, “He never even twitched. He was like marble.” And yet his songs soared, and his voice bristled with such bravura that Elvis Presley celebrated him as “the greatest singer in the world.” However, behind this burning artistic force was a tragic tale that pushed the star further into the solace of creativity.
Crippled by stage fright, Orbison’s start as a performer was not an easy one, however, it was this same shyness that became a defining element of his act. For instance, his darkened spectacles were worn to help him overcome his fear and his stock-still stance was rooted in nerves. Orbison then poured this vulnerability into his songwriting and crafted songs that defied the era’s view on macho masculinity.
Thus, despite unlikely beginnings, his star rose to rarefied heights shortly after he was signed to Monument in 1960. Thereafter, Orbison became an unlikely sex symbol, an inspiration to songwriters and the sort of beloved performer that prompted Elvis Costello to call him “the greatest.” However, his rapid ascension would soon be chequered by personal tragedies beginning in late 1964.
In 1957, Orbison married his sweetheart, Claudette Frady. She was 17 at the time and he was 21. As the young couple’s whirlwind romance was soon thrust into tempestuous territory given Orbison’s rapid rise to fame, cracks began to appear. In November 1964, Orbison divorced Claudette over her alleged infidelities. However, within ten months, the pair had reconciled their differences and were once more in a loving relationship.
This reunion coincided with Orbison catching another windfall as he left Monument Records and joined MGM for a $1 million deal that would see him make headway into the film industry he adored, tour less and spend more time at home. With more time on their hands, the pair pursued their passion for motorbikes and often rode on racetracks and tours around the world.
Tragedy struck on June 6th, 1966, when Claudette and Orbison were out on their motorbikes and on their way home Claudette struck the door of a pickup truck and was instantly killed. Thereafter, Orbison sought comfort in creativity and threw himself into his work. He poured all of his hours into writing and touring but the times were changing around him as well as his circumstances. “[I] didn’t hear a lot I could relate to, so I kind of stood there like a tree where the winds blow and the seasons change, and you’re still there and you bloom again,” he would later remark.
During this time of endless working hours to little avail, Orbison saw less of his sons and more of the studio and long roads of world tours. It was in Birmingham, England in September 1968 when catastrophe struck once more. News reached Orbison that a fire had broken out at his home in Tennessee and that his two eldest sons had tragically passed away.
This loss threw Orbison into a period of emotional turmoil. Some semblance of comfort would come in 1969 when he married Barbara Jakobs with whom he would later have two children. However, the grief he suffered severely hampered his ability to work, and while he recovered his life, his musical star had fallen.
He would enjoy a revival in the 1980s with the Travelling Wilburys and the reappraisal of his work as the 1960s were reflected upon in pop culture, however, the harrowing personal losses he suffered forever underpinned the latter half of his career. It is a mark of his personal fortitude that he was able to use his talents to bring comfort to others through his art once more.