December 1988: Roy Orbison Takes His Last Bow

Roy Orbison in one of his final performances in 1988.
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Rob Verhorst/Redferns

After an incredible comeback in the latter half of the decade, Roy Orbison's career came to an end on Dec. 6, 1988 when the rock legend succumbed to a heart attack at 52 years old. Only two days before, he performed a masterful final concert that summarized his incredible skill as a live entertainer.

Orbison was a rare talent in the early days of rock and roll: the Texas-born singer was signed to Sun Records in the '50s, the same label that introduced the world to icons like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. But Orbison's music sounded nothing like Cash's deep-throated country-rock or Elvis' sensuous pop-blues: his voice was operatic and quavering, and his stage appearance shy and mysterious, his face hidden under dark sunglasses.

Roy put nearly two dozen singles in the Top 40 during the '60s, including chart-toppers "Running Scared" and "Oh, Pretty Woman" plus Top 10s like "Crying," "Only the Lonely" and "In Dreams." But the changing tides of the British Invasion and a heartbreaking string of tragedies - including the accidental deaths of his wife Claudette and their two eldest sons in the late '60s - threatened to end his career forever.

But by the early '80s, it was clear that Orbison's music was still loved by many. Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean and Van Halen covered his songs to considerable success through the decade. Then in 1986, "In Dreams" was used in a pivotal scene in David Lynch's cult classic Blue Velvet. A year later, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "I wanted a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector—but, most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison," Bruce Springsteen said in his induction speech, describing Orbison's influence on his breakthrough Born to Run a decade earlier. "Now, everyone knows that no one sings like Roy Orbison."

Read More: June 1984: Bruce Springsteen Releases 'Born in the U.S.A.'

It was 1988 that was Orbison's biggest year yet. In January, Cinemax aired A Black and White Night, a live concert recorded at Los Angeles' Cocoanut Grove that saw Roy perform his greatest hits with an all-star ensemble that included Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, k.d. lang and members of Elvis Presley's TCB Band. Later that year, while working on a new album with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, Orbison accepted an invitation to sing with George Harrison, with whom Lynne was also collaborating. By chance, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan also visited the studio, and a supergroup named The Traveling Wilburys was born. Critics and fans adored their debut album, which reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200.

Read More: April 1989: Tom Petty Goes Solo with 'Full Moon Fever'

Some time before he took the stage for the last time at the Front Row Theatre in Highland Heights, Ohio, Orbison marveled at his reversal of fortune to an interviewer. "It's nice to be wanted again," he said, "but I still can't quite believe it." While Orbison sadly wouldn't live to see adoration for his work continue, the best was yet to come. Mystery Girl, his final completed album, was released a month after his death to critical and commercial acclaim; lead single "You Got It," written by Petty and Lynne, was a worldwide Top 10 hit.

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