When singer Roy Orbison was touring England in 1968, it had been four years since he last appeared at the top of the charts with “Oh, Pretty Woman,” even though he continued playing live and recording long after the pulse of rock music shifted away from his signature brand of sweepingly operatic pop.
At a show in Leeds on that tour, he met 18-year-old German fan Barbara Ann Marie Wellhoener Jakobs, and within a year the two were married.
“In the ‘70s I think I nearly cost him his career, because I don’t think he was ambitious enough,” Barbara Orbison, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles of pancreatic cancer, told Goldmine magazine last year. “He fell in love with me in ’68, he asked me to marry him, and we had two kids. And I think he just wanted to live.”
It was a turbulent time in Roy Orbison’s life: The singer had lost his first wife, Claudette, in a motorcycle accident two years earlier. Later, while he was still on the same tour of England, two of his three children died when his house in Tennessee caught fire. His relationship with Barbara appeared to bring him a new sense of joy.
“In the ‘70s, he was basically rebuilding a life,” she told another interviewer earlier this year. “He didn’t want to do anything except be somebody in love, with a little money and lots of fun. By the ‘80s, he was ready again.”
Indeed, in the 1980s Barbara was a catalytic force behind much of the activity that restored the shine to her husband’s star in the pop music world.
Orbison was lionized by rock stars including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Jackson Browne, starred in a popular and widely acclaimed HBO documentary “Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night,” and was an early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Orbison also was drafted by ex-Beatle George Harrison to join him in the rock supergroup the Traveling Wilburys along with Petty, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne, and the band released a pair of platinum-selling albums.
Orbison’s final studio album, “Mystery Girl,” reached No. 5 on the national sales chart in early 1989, two months after his death, and yielded the top 10 hit “You Got It.”
Barbara remained her husband’s manager until his death at 52 on Dec. 6, 1988, 23 years to the day before she died at age 61 at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where she’d been undergoing cancer treatment since May, a family spokesman said.
Barbara was born Jan. 10, 1950, in Bielefeld, Germany, and after marrying Orbison raised their children in Nashville and Malibu.
She worked relentlessly to keep her husband’s legacy not just alive but growing after his death, leading to his induction into Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and a 1998 Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.
Barbara also oversaw the creation of “Roy Orbison: The Soul of Rock and Roll,” a four-CD, 107-song box set, in 2008 and co-produced a stage musical, “Only the Lonely: The Roy Orbison Story,” which toured England in the 1990s.
She established her own publishing company, Still Working Music, in Nashville that worked with successive generations of songwriters including Taylor Swift, Billy Burnette and Tommy Lee James. Still Working received the 2010 song of the year award from BMI, the publishing rights organization, for Swift’s hit single “You Belong to Me.”
In addition, Barbara spearheaded philanthropic efforts including a 1991 benefit tribute to Roy at the Universal Amphitheatre that raised $1 million to help the homeless in Los Angeles, and she funded Orbison House, a 21-unit residence for the mentally impaired homeless in L.A.
She produced another tribute album, “Roy: A Tribute to Roy Orbison,” by Irish Australian singer-songwriter Damien Leith, which was released in Australia in conjunction with what would have been the singer’s 75th birthday, on April 23 of this year.
Barbara is survived by her sons Roy Kelton Orbison Jr. and Alexander Orbison, and her stepson, Wesley Orbison, Roy’s son from his first marriage.
Services in Los Angeles will be private. Details on a public service in Nashville are pending.