Going Disco Is No Sweat After Roy Orbison's Earlier Survival Test: Heart Surgery
The only problem was that Orbison had an even more urgent booking. At Nashville's St. Thomas Hospital he underwent a delicate four-hour coronary bypass to relieve potentially fatal constrictions in three arteries near his heart. The danger signs hadn't shown until he was taping a TV special at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis and became dizzy running up the bleacher steps. "I was lucky," Roy says gratefully now. "Without immediate attention I could have had a massive coronary. I didn't ask the doctors about my chances. I said, 'Let's just get it on.' "
Orbison, 43, recovered "with a clean bill of health and no limitations," he boasts. "My blood flow is much better, and my hearing, sight and perceptions are magnificent." In fact, the only indications of his ordeal are a chest scar and a zipperlike knee-to-ankle incision where three sections of healthy blood vessel were removed.
Roy's celebrated honey throat is still in great shape, too. Though he has cautiously performed only scattered road gigs, he has just released an LP, Laminar Flow, that offers not only familiar Orbison country and rockabilly treatments but a single, Easy Way Out, that sounds suspiciously like disco. "I couldn't tell you what's disco or what isn't," Roy demurs. "We just found a groove and rocked right on." Simultaneously, Roy has switched from his Nashville-based Monument label to LA's Elektra/Asylum.
Quite possibly Orbison took his dramatic surgery and comeback so coolly because he had suffered far greater agonies before. In 1966 his first wife was killed motorcycling through an intersection, while Roy rode just yards ahead of her. (She was the Claudette he hymned in the hit he wrote for the Everly Brothers.) Two years later, while Roy was on tour, his two oldest sons, then 10 and 6, died in a fire in his home. "The traumatic things in my life," he reflects philosophically, "have always come side by side with the fame."
Roy credits his parents with instilling such a thoroughly sane world view. Raised in a two-room house in Wink, Texas (pop. 1,521), he says, "Mother always warned me of the pitfalls of being rich." His father, a guitar-playing foreman at an aircraft factory, invited soldiers from a nearby base into the Orbison home just before they shipped out for combat in World War II. "They'd sing and drink with such abandon," recalls Roy, "knowing they might never do it again. That was the foundation of my career."
He worked on rigs as a youngster but soon decided that his black gold would be wax, not oil. As a teenager he had a radio show and his own band, the Wink Westerners. Then, at North Texas State College, a classmate named Pat Boone sent him to Memphis and kingmaker Sam Phillips' Sun Records. Roy first wrote tunes like Down the Line for Jerry Lee Lewis, then began singing as well. By the early '60s he was launched on a string of hits that lasted five years, with LP and singles sales close to 30 million, he figures. His biggest 45, Only the Lonely, sold three million, and his Greatest Hits package stayed on the pop charts five years. When his U.S. career began to slump, Orbison toured Europe, where he was received heroically and championed by groups like the Beatles.
Orbison married his second wife, Barbara, a willowy German beauty, 10 years ago. They met while she was traveling in England during a break from medical school (which she then gave up). Home now is a sumptuous, three-tiered chalet on Old Hickory Lake, 40 minutes from Nashville, where they live with his son Wesley, 14, from his first marriage, and their two boys, Roy Kelton, 8, and Alex, 4.
Despite his coronary history, it is Roy's revitalized career that preoccupies him. Indeed, lying between life and death on the operating table, Roy had confidently instructed his doctor—a woman—" 'Make sure it's a clean, pretty incision. I perform with my shirts open pretty far down.' She thought I was completely bonkers." Right now Orbison is contemplating his longest crossover yet: a move to L.A. "There is super interest in me now," he reckons. "I was around when it all started—and I'm still alive."
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