OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Roy Orbison had a late-career resurgence, thanks to David Lynch and the Traveling Wilburys

Roy Orbison hits the high notes during the 1987 concert special “Roy Orbison & Friends: A Black and White Night.” Arkansas PBS will broadcast the concert in all its lustrous glory Tuesday during its fundraising drive.
(Courtesy of Arkansas PBS)
Roy Orbison hits the high notes during the 1987 concert special “Roy Orbison & Friends: A Black and White Night.” Arkansas PBS will broadcast the concert in all its lustrous glory Tuesday during its fundraising drive. (Courtesy of Arkansas PBS)


"All I can really say about him is, you know, we loved him. We told him, fortunately, at any given opportunity, you know any time we had we always told him we loved him. We always hugged him. And we said, 'Roy, you're so great.' I once said to him, 'Roy, you're probably the greatest singer in the world,' and he said, 'Probably.'" -- Tom Petty, on Roy Orbison

Few people would put forward the case for Roy Orbison as a handsome man.

He had bad hair and weak eyes; his skin was sallow. If you look on the internet, you'll see that some people think he was an albino, which isn't true but fits the narrative. The truth was he dyed his light hair jet black, probably because he hated the way it looked, maybe because -- like Elvis Presley, who also dyed his hair black -- he thought it was better for the stage and screen. You can find support on the internet for his having started this practice when he was 6 years old, but can we really believe that? What parent would allow that?

According to his authorized biography -- which was written by his sons and should also be taken with a grain of salt -- Orbison didn't start dyeing his hair black until sometime after he arrived in Nashville in 1961. That's after he worked with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. That's right at the onset of his recording career with Monument Records.

If you look at some of the photos of Orbison when he was working with Phillips in Memphis, you'll note that his hair color appears (in the black-and-white photos) to be a shade of dirty blond. In other photos taken around the same time, it looks like it might be brown.

Boyhood photos of Orbison argue for blond hair; his 1950 Wink High School yearbook photo (he was in the eighth grade) is of a kid with darker but not black hair. It's not dyed; it might be Brylcreemed. Same thing for 1952, in which Orbison looks like a 45-year-old pharmacist, the boy least likely to become a rock 'n' roll legend.

But here we are, 35 years after Orbison died, devoting precious column inches to him. Because he may well have been the best singer of rock 'n' roll to ever live.

And because, on Tuesday, Arkansas PBS, as part of its fundraising drive, is presenting the 1987 concert special "Roy Orbison & Friends: A Black and White Night." (I'm scheduled to be on hand to talk about Orbison and the special during the breaks.)

"Black and White Night" has a simple concept: On Sept. 30, 1987, producer T Bone Burnett assembled Orbison and guests Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Steven Soles, J.D. Souther and Jennifer Warnes, along with the TCB ("Taking Care of Business") Band, which accompanied Elvis Presley from 1969 until his death in 1977, in the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel. The TCB band consisted of Glen Hardin on piano, James Burton on lead guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass and Ronnie Tutt on drums, augmented by Mike Utley on keyboards and percussionist Alex Acuña, percussion.

They played a show. And filmed it in black-and-white.

They ran through 18 of Orbison's songs (they played "Oh, Pretty Woman" twice). That was it. No retakes, no studio overdubs. No fixing anything in post. An edited version -- 15 songs -- was originally broadcast on Cinemax in January 1988, VHS and Laser Disc version were released soon after. Then someone put out a bootleg of the show, which led to Virgin Records releasing the concert as an album in 1989.

Sometime after Orbison's death, his estate made the special available to PBS stations to run during fund drives. So it pops up every few years, in all its lustrous glory. If you haven't seen it, you need to -- if you have, then you know how remarkable that night really was.

Wink, and you'll miss it

There was a moment in the late 1980s when it seemed like Orbison might enjoy the sort of late-career renaissance that, a decade later, his contemporary Johnny Cash would experience thanks to his collaborations with Rick Rubin.

The impetus for this near-revival was a scene in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," a 1986 suburban Gothic horror movie that gave us one of American cinema's creepiest villains, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a psychopathic kidnapper rapist who periodically inhales some unspecified ether from a tank.

In one of the movie's most surreal and disturbing scenes, Dean Stockwell, playing an effeminate brothel keeper, his face slathered with white makeup, lip-syncs to Orbison's "In Dreams," with its saccharine creepy lyrics about "the candy-colored clown they call the sandman" as Booth watches, at first fascinated, then gradually roiling into a sanguinary rage.

The context converted "In Dreams" -- originally a hit for the singer in 1963 and rerecorded for the movie -- from an arcane pop curiosity to an evocative murder ballad, a piece that critic Greil Marcus said has the "old, weird America" of blood and eerie blues.

On its own, "In Dreams" has an embarrassing faux naif quality -- a cut above pure bubble gum, a set piece to show off a swooping vocal gift. But Lynch heard something terrible in it, a scraping theremin tone that invested the pleading words with threat. In a way, David Lynch rediscovered Roy Orbison.

But Orbison had been around, seemingly forever.

He was 50 years old the year "Blue Velvet" hit theaters, a nostalgia artist who still toured performing 20- and 30-year-old hits. He'd been born in Vernon, Texas, in 1936 and reared in the west Texas boomtown of Wink. His father, a peripatetic laborer who strummed Jimmie Rodgers songs, gave him his first guitar when he was 6.

Within a couple of years Orbison was performing regularly on the radio; at 10 he played a medicine show. He sang ballads during high school assemblies and formed his first band -- the Wink Westerners -- when he was 13.

The Westerners featured an amplified accordion and played dances and jamborees throughout west Texas with an eclectic repertoire that included Webb Pierce songs as well as "Moonlight in Vermont" and "In the Mood." They were clean-cut kids, regulars on local television, exactly the sort of band the high school principal would recruit to play at his rally when he campaigned for the presidency of the local Lions Club.

Orbison was a year younger than Elvis, but he can't really be counted as part of that original rock 'n' roll wave. He belongs more to the second generation of rock 'n' rollers because for him, the music was more a career choice than an accidental discovery. His tastes ran more to country-flavored material along the lines of Lefty Frizzell. He saw opportunity in the greasy kid stuff and made a careerist decision.

At the urging of fellow North Texas State University student Pat Boone, he changed the name of the Westerners to the Teen Kings and recorded -- at the band's expense -- some tracks at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, N.M.

"Ooby Dooby" caught the attention of Johnny Cash, who suggested Orbison send a tape to Phillips at Sun Records. Phillips -- with Presley, Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis already in his stable -- recut "Ooby Dooby" and gave Orbison his first hit. But Orbison bristled at what he saw as Phillips' lack of professionalism, and the Teen Kings disbanded after a follow-up hit failed to materialize.

"Sam brought me out a set of thick 78 records and said, 'Now this is how I want you to sing,'" Orbison said many years later. "He played Arthur Crudup's 'That's Alright (Mama).' He said, 'Sing like that ... and like this.' And he put on a song called 'Mystery Train' by Junior Parker. I couldn't believe it ... I said, 'Sam, I'm a ballad singer. I want to sing ballads.' He said, 'No, you're gonna sing how I want you to sing. Elvis wanted to sing like the Ink Spots or Bing Crosby.'"

For a couple of years Orbison worked as a staff writer for Acuff-Rose in Nashville, Tenn. -- he wrote "Claudette" for the Everly Brothers, "Down the Line" for Jerry Lee Lewis and some album filler for Buddy Holly -- before deciding to try again as a solo artist.

That's when he put on the black (prescription) Wayfarers and started dyeing his hair black. That's when he stumbled into his signature look.

Dream Baby

In 1960, "Only the Lonely" kicked off a remarkable run of singles on Monument Records.

In four years, Orbison had nine Top 10 singles and a number of near misses. These were good records, marked by a haunting, operatic lushness that rivaled -- from a production standpoint -- Phil Spector's Wall of Sound creations. Orbison incorporated everything from weepy steel guitars and swirling strings to syncopated Latin rhythms and traces of classical fanfares. They soared and swooned, with Orbison's voice building from a low conversational tone to the inevitable keening crescendo -- a wired, nervous edge cutting into the high-end quaver.

In 1963, he toured the U.K. with the Beatles. He'd originally been booked as the headliner, but by the time the tour kicked off Beatlemania was in full undeniable force. So he agreed to allow the Beatles to close the show.

Still, Orbison would not let himself be upstaged. As he was greeted by roaring (weeping, screaming) Beatles fans every night, he started out his shows quietly, having his band play softly so that the audience had to hush to hear him. And once the hall grew quiet, Orbison's preternaturally beautiful voice had no trouble winning them over.

His future bandmate in the Traveling Wilburys, George Harrison, remembered:

"He'd had so many hit songs and people could sit and listen to him all night. He didn't have to do anything, he didn't have to wiggle his legs, in fact he never even twitched, he was like marble. The only things that moved were his lips -- even when he hit those high notes he never strained. He was quite a miracle, unique."

While Orbison had no U.S. hits after 1967, he continued to chart in Australia and Germany, and bootleg recordings of his work were popular in the Soviet Union. He was beloved in Holland and France.

But for nearly 20 years, he was over in America.

  photo  Bruce Springsteen joins in with Roy Orbison during the 1987 show. (Courtesy of Arkansas PBS)
 
 

DOWN THE LINE

I'm not old enough to remember Orbison in his heyday, but saw him play a couple of times in the 1970s when he was trying to re-ignite his failing career. To see him on stage was to feel embarrassed for him. He looked chunky and painfully sincere, and worst of all like he didn't quite get it. In his stage gear, Orbison seemed like the worst Elvis impersonator.

Black leather and prescription Wayfarers failed to camouflage a heavy shyness that seemed to pin him to the stage, lock up his spine and bend him forward at the hips, his guitar jammed up under his chin like some old-fashioned jazz player. Roy was no Jumpin' Jack Flash, no dervish spinning in Spandex tights. He was just a big ol' lumbering boy from Texas.

The best way to see Orbison was always through the blind of AM radio, for his voice was undeniably beautiful; an uncanny, utterly redeeming instrument. It was seamless and true and invited comparisons to guys with Italian names like Caruso. Roy easily reached notes in his natural voice that other singers would strain for in falsetto; he could glide through one-two-three-four-five octaves just like that.

Orbison's bel canto tenor lent bitter resonance to the often scary words he sang. He was rock's first public neurotic. Songs like "It's Over," "Only the Lonely," "Running Scared" and "Crying" ached with unrequited desire.

His life imitated his high drama art -- Orbison's first wife died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, and two years later two of his three children died when his house in Nashville burned down. When I finally got to see him he was a kitsch figure, the musical equivalent of an athlete who'd hung on too long. Roy Orbison was like Willie Mays with the New York Mets -- maybe he'd been great once, everybody said so, but you couldn't tell it by the evidence at hand.

  photo  An all-star cast of musicians was assembled by producer T Bone Burnett for Roy Orbisons special. (Courtesy of Arkansas PBS)
 
 

IT'S OVER

But Orbison didn't quit, and some of the recordings he made during his supposed fallow period were more than interesting. He was always trying; he's probably the only rock artist whose commercially motivated re-recordings of his early hits are better than the original versions.

"Black and White Night," combined with "In Dreams," finally jump-started Orbison's long-stalled career. Also in 1987, Orbison contributed the shivery ballad about suicide, "Life Fades Away," to Rick Rubin's landmark "Less Than Zero" soundtrack and recorded a new version of his hit "Crying" with lang that would go on to win a Grammy.

The last year of his life found him goofing around with Tom Petty, Harrison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne as a member of the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys.

"The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1" was the biggest-selling album Orbison ever sang on; the posthumously released "You Got It" was his first hit single in 23 years. He collaborated with Lynne and Mike Campbell of Petty's Heartbreakers on a solo album, "Mystery Girl," that featured a track written by U2's The Edge and Bono, whose trademark dark glasses are an homage to Orbison.

The Wilburys album was released in October 1988 and immediately entered the Top 10; it would go on to sell over two million copies over the next year. Orbison seemed poised to break back into the mainstream consciousness of America. But he played his last concert in Highland Heights, Ohio, on Dec. 4. His solo album was scheduled for release in January and he had major U.S. and European tours planned for the next year.

After his last show he flew home to Nashville. On Dec. 6, he spent the morning shopping for radio-controlled model airplane parts. He felt chest pains in the afternoon. He collapsed and died a few minutes before midnight.

But one of the genuinely beautiful things about rock 'n' roll is that it has always been available to the socially awkward. And every once in a while prodigious talent is sufficient. Maybe Roy Orbison didn't make it on his looks, but that boy could sing. He might have been the greatest singer in the world. There was something odd and beautiful about that voice. Mercy.

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