Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: Will you please explain the circumstances and cause of death of Roy Orbison? He died at age 52, which seems so young.
—Bernard Blumberg, New South Wales, Sydney Australia

DEAR BERNARD: The unexpected death of the extraordinarily talented Roy Orbison came as a complete shock to everyone.

While visiting the Nashville-area home of his mother, Roy began complaining about pains in his chest. He was rushed by ambulance to nearby Hendersonville Hospital, but too much damage had already been done to his organs.

Orbison died that night, December 6, 1988, the official cause of death being a massive heart attack.

As you stated, Roy Orbison's life lasted only 52 years, and about eight months.

DEAR JERRY: An article I read recently, written by a fellow named Frank Coffey, states that the original recording of the Elvis classic, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” is by Al Jolson, and that he recorded it in 1950.

For one thing, I am not aware that Jolson was still recording in 1950. Did he record that late in his life?

And the other thing that makes me question this statement is that I have a Harmony 78 rpm of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (Turf & Handman). On the label is printed “Jan 21, '13 - May 22, '23.” Since those dates are much earlier than 1950, might this be the original version?

Regardless, am I right about Al Jolson not having the original?
— Katherine Jensen, Spring Hill, Fla.

DEAR KATHERINE: You are correct on that point, though it may interest you to know Jolson did record about 16 tracks in 1950, one of which is “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” This tune is from an April '50 session.

As with all of Jolson's discs after 1948, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” did not show up on any of the best-sellers charts.

On October 23, 1950, Al Jolson died at an age we can only approximate. Estimates vary a bit, but most seem to center around him being about 65 when he died. Reportedly, birth certificates, as we know them, did not exist in the area of Russia where Al was born, circa 1885.

Widely regarded as the original released version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” is the 1927 issue by Charles Hart (Harmony 431).Vaughn De Leath also recorded it later that same year, and it became the biggest of her dozen or so hits. Other than the recitation heard on Presley's 1960 multi-million-seller, De Leath's rendering is very similar to his, in both style and tempo.

Those numbers on your Harmony single do not indicate year of issue, especially since this tune did not exist until 1926 — when Roy Turk (not Turf) and Lou Handman wrote Are You Lonesome Tonight.”

Finally, for those who find Vaughn (Deleath) an unusual name for a woman, it comes from her real name: Leonore Vonderleath.

IZ ZAT SO? Tragedy at times is a visitor in most everyone's life. Yet, from 1966 through '73, Roy Orbison endured more than his share of heartbreak and misfortune.

An avid motorcyclist, Roy was nearly killed while riding his bike in March 1966, in Great Britain. Fortunately, he suffered only a broken ankle in this mishap.

That summer, while riding motorcycles with his 25-year-old wife, Claudette, her bike crashed into a truck that unexpectedly pulled in front of her.

Claudette's injuries were extensive, and she died an hour or so later.

In 1968, with Roy again on tour in England, a fire completely destroyed the Orbison family home in Hendersonville. Two of his sons, Roy Jr. and Anthony, perished in the blaze.

Their other son, Wesley, the youngest, was safely removed from the inferno by Roy's parents.

In 1973, while en route to spend Thanksgiving with Roy, an auto accident claimed the life of his older brother, Grady Lee Orbison.

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