Roy Orbison had a lot of reasons to be happy when he walked onstage at Cleveland, Ohio’s Front Row Theater on December 4th, 1988. After two decades of grinding it out on the oldies circuit, he was wrapping up one of the most amazing years of his career. It began in January when Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Brown and many others saluted his music at the televised Black and White Night concert. At the time he was cutting a new solo album with Jeff Lynne, which would lead to the formation of the Traveling Wilburys alongside Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Tom Petty.
The first Traveling Wilburys album landed in October and was a huge hit, peaking at Number Three on the Billboard 200. The single “Handle with Care” was all over radio and MTV, and Orbison’s next solo album – his first since 1979’s Laminar Flow – was completed and slated for an early 1989 release. All of this led to a big uptick in ticket sales, and the house was packed at the Front Row. The new material wasn’t worked into the show yet, so it focused entirely on classic tunes like “In Dreams,” “Only the Lonely,” “Ooby Dooby” and “Crying.” The second to last song (before the finale of “Running Scared”) was his signature tune “Pretty Woman.” Tape was rolling that night, and you can hear the performance of that song right here.
Orbison had been complaining about chest pains all month, but he carried on with an extremely busy schedule and was already planning a huge world tour for 1989. Just two days after the concert, he died of a heart attack at his mother’s house in Henderson, Tennessee. He was just 52.
Two months after his death, Mystery Girl arrived in record stores. It received rave reviews and the single “You Got It” became a big hit. “She’s a Mystery To Me” – produced by Bono and the Edge – also got a lot of airplay. There were rumors that the Traveling Wilburys were going to replace Orbison with Del Shannon, but that idea was cut short a year later when he committed suicide. The group briefly carried on as a four-piece, but without Orbison it just wasn’t the same.