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Did Roy Orbison Work Himself to Death?

Roy Orbison was one of America’s top singers and songwriters from 1957 to 1988. He sang his emotional ballads while standing still and wearing black clothes and dark-framed tinted glasses. Between 1960 and 1964, 22 of his songs placed on the Billboard Top 40. Elvis Presley said that his voice was the greatest and most distinctive he had ever heard. Today, 27 years after his death, you can still hear “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” “I’m Hurtin,” “Running Scared,” “Oh Pretty Woman,” “It’s Over” and many of his other songs. He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987), the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1987), the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1989), and America’s Pop Music Hall of Fame (2014).

In 1988, he died suddenly of a heart attack at the very young age of 52. His obituary in the National Enquirer said that “he worked himself to death”. He certainly was an incredibly hard worker. He spent more than 30 years constantly touring and was rarely at home. In 1963 his wife, Claudette, had an affair from sheer loneliness, so he divorced her, but he loved her so much that he remarried her in 1965. He continued his brutal concert schedule until he died.

Many people believe that job stress can lead to a heart attack, but there is no physical way to measure stress and nobody has ever shown that reducing job stress prevents heart attacks, or that working long hours causes heart attacks or strokes (Neurology, October 14, 2015). However, hard workers often have lousy lifestyles, and Roy Orbison had almost all of the known lifestyle causes of heart attacks:
* smoking several packs per day of Camel cigarettes from early high school onward,
* drinking alcohol,
* eating lots of junk food, fried foods and meat
* being overweight,
* yo-yo dieting,
* almost never exercising

Why He Worked So Hard
I can understand why he worked so hard because like me, he was born in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. His father was an unemployed oil well driller and car mechanic and mother was an unemployed nurse. My unemployed father lived with his in-laws throughout those years. The Orbisons moved from desolate Vernon, Texas to Fort Worth, to desolate Wink, Texas looking for jobs. Like mine, Roy’s family was saved by World War II. His parents found jobs in a defense plant and my father got a job with Metropolitan Life insurance Company, which was hiring again because servicemen and shipyard workers could buy insurance policies. You do not ever forget early poverty. When Ray had hit songs, he toured all the time. When he had personal tragedies and felt depressed, he couldn’t write songs but he toured all the time anyway. When he didn’t have new songs, he played old songs on weekend tours and tried to write new songs during the week.

From his early years he wore thick glasses to correct his terrible nearsightedness. He dyed his almost-white hair black and, at age 13, he joined a band that played country music. When the band received $400 to play at a dance, that was more money than he had ever seen. In 1956, the band recorded a song called “Ooby Dooby” and played it for Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records in Memphis and the discoverer of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty. Phillips offered Roy Orbison’s band a contract, the band moved to Memphis, and that record sold more than 200,000 copies. In Memphis he socialized with Elvis Presley and even got to drive his purple Cadillac. In 1957, he married his first wife, Claudette Frady, and sold a song about her to The Everly Brothers. He used the royalties to pay for his own Cadillac. However, Sun Records never really promoted him effectively and he quit performing completely for seven months in 1958. He went broke and his car was repossessed. Many years later when he was rich and famous, he owned more cars than most people have pens and pencils. Whenever he would pass an elegant and unique car that he liked, he would follow the owner and offer to buy the car for any price that the owner wanted.

“The Big O” Makes it Big
While he was not recording, he tried to make a living by writing songs. In 1960 he signed with Monument Records and they developed the “Nashville Sound”. The time was right for a new country star. Elvis Presley was in the army. Eddie Cochran had died in a car crash, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, Little Richard had returned to religion, Chuck Berry was in jail on unproven charges that he transported a 14-year-old girl across state lines, and Jerry Lee Lewis was disgraced because he had married his 13-year-old cousin. Orbison toured the country for three months with Patsy Cline and came home a national figure. His third single with Monument, “Only the Lonely,” was an instant success.

In April 1963, he signed on for a tour in England with an unknown new group called the Beatles. On the opening night he went on first and sang through his 14th encore before John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr sang their part. When the audience started yelling, “We want Roy!”, Lennon and McCartney held Orbison and prevented him from going back on stage. He was now an established performer and toured Ireland and Canada, then Australia and New Zealand. He toured with the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones.

In 1967 he signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a million dollars but it didn’t work out. His records were no longer selling at their former high rate. Besides, the Beatles got even. They toured North America and their brand of rock music dominated record sales. Orbison continued to tour the world even when his popularity had declined. In the 1980s his popularity soared again. In 1987 he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Personal Life and Tragedies
When he went to Memphis for the recording contract with Sun Studios, he asked his 16-year-old girlfriend, Claudette Frady, to join him and stay in Sam Phillips’s home, They slept in separate rooms and the next day, he sang “Claudette”, which became a hit for the Everly Brothers. In 1957, at age 21, he married her and they lived with their young son in a very small apartment. He toured almost every week. In 1963 at age 27, he found out that Claudette was having an affair with the contractor who built their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee and he divorced her. While on tour in England in 1965, he fell off a motorcycle and broke his foot before thousands of screaming fans at a race track. Claudette went to visit him while he was recuperating and they remarried in August 1965. They both were avid motorcycle riders. On June 6, 1966, he was riding his motorcycle in front of hers, when a pickup truck pulled out in front of her and she was killed instantly. He became depressed and was unable to write songs, but he kept on touring. In 1968, he was on tour and learned that his home in Hendersonville had burned down, killing his two eldest sons. His parents cared for his youngest son, Wesley. Johnny Cash tried to help by buying the burnt out property and turning it into an orchard. In 1969 Roy married a German teenager, Barbara Wellhonen, and they had two sons, Roy Jr. and Alexander. His boys all became musicians.

His Heart Problems
In late 1977, while in Hawaii, he developed severe chest pains, was admitted to hospital and eventually had triple bypass surgery for three blocked arteries leading to his heart. He should have taken this surgery as a wake-up call to change his lifestyle, but he continued to smoke, even though he knew that smoking was bad for his heart and aggravated the duodenal ulcer that he had had for at least 17 years. He did nothing to change his terrible eating habits, continued to be overweight and continued his hectic touring schedule.

On December 4, 1988, he gave a concert in Highland Heights, Ohio, and returned to his home in Hendersonville to rest before flying to London. On December 6, he flew model airplanes with his sons and went to dinner at his mother’s home. At 11:00 PM, he collapsed in the bathroom and was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead of a massive heart attack. He was only 52 years old.

Risk Factors for Heart Attacks
More than 40 percent of the deaths in North America are caused by heart attacks and most heart attacks are brought on by an unhealthful lifestyle. Clues that you are at increased risk for a heart attack include:
• a family history of diabetes
• overweight
• storing fat primarily in the belly, rather than the hips
• small, narrow hips
• triglycerides>150 (European Journal of Internal Medicine, February 6, 2014)
• low levels of the good HDL cholesterol (below 40)
• a fasting blood sugar greater than 100
• a blood sugar over 140 two hours after eating
• a HBA1c greater than 5.5. (HBA1c is a blood test that measures how much sugar is stuck on cells and predicts cell damage from high blood sugar levels)
• a fatty liver (diagnosed from abnormal liver blood tests or a sonogram of the liver)
• small particle HDL and LDL cholesterol (Ann Clin Biochem, 2011;48(Pt 2):166-169)
• high blood pressure (J Am Coll Cardiol, 2010;56(14):1113-1132)
• smoking
• taking more than one alcoholic drink a day or binge drinking
• small muscles
• lack of exercise
• in men, a thick neck or male pattern baldness
• in women, excess hair on the face or body, or having diabetes during pregnancy

My Recommendations
You can learn from Roy Orbison’s sad story and make lifestyle changes to help prevent a heart attack. Even if you are at low risk for a heart attack, you should still make the effort because the same lifestyle changes also help to prevent many types of cancers, diabetes, strokes, dementia and other diseases.
• avoid smoking and being around smokers
• avoid taking more than one drink a day
• lose weight if overweight (Obesity Reviews, March 24, 2014;15(4))
• avoid sugared drinks including fruit juices (The Lancet Diab and Endocrinology, Feb 2014), except during vigorous exercise
• severely restrict all sugar-added foods and other refined carbohydrates
• restrict fried foods (Am J Clin Nutr, August 2014; Diabetes Care, January 2014;37:88-95)
• avoid red meat (blocks insulin receptors — Am J Clin Nutr, October 2011;94(4):1088-96) and processed meats
• eat large amounts of fruits and vegetables (Am J Clin Nutr, April 30, 2014;100(1):218-232)
• Keep hydroxy vitamin D above 26 mcg/L or 65 nmol/L (J Nutr, 2014;144(5):734-42)
• exercise (Brit Med J, October 2013; J of Clin End and Metab, 2000;85(7):2463-8).

Roy Kelton Orbison
“The Big O”
April 23, 1936 – December 6, 1988

October 25th, 2015
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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