A Black and White Night

I’ve been watching a film lately called A Black and White Night, a comeback concert benefit for Roy Orbison made in November 1988, the month before he died of a heart attack. First time around I missed out on Roy Orbison. I dodged Elvis, the Doors, the Grateful Dead and scores of other artists in rock pop: what the heck, you can’t listen to everything. I did listen to a ‘best of’ CD of Roy, thought it pretty good, and didn’t play it again until recently. The first thing I noticed then was the incredible range and delivery of the voice. The next thing was the unusual construction of the songs, and their beautiful melodic line. So I went looking for more, and found the concert footage.

This was a concert in which many popular artists and famed producers participated, one of the best produced concert films I have ever seen. And it didn’t matter. Had it been filmed by someone sitting in the back row of a flea pit hall in Tulsa with a phone camera and with Roy the only musician, it would still have been mesmerising. Roy was 52, his voice deeper and a bit time worn compared to the CD I’d listened to. But the range, delivery and power was still there undiminished, and I actually preferred it to the higher tenor range of the CD. As I knew, he performed wearing dark glasses, and without moving, but he had a real presence on stage, as intense at times as Edith Piaf. The expression was mainly in the soaring voice and the melodic lines, and the lyrics which expressed intensely dramatic stories with real power. You could take any Roy Orbison song and make a film of it, or turn it into a novel.

Roy had had an unusual career. For 10 years 1956 to 1966 he performed and wrote his songs, and had such a string of hits that Elvis and others were expecting him to be the next king of rock and roll. Then, in 1966, his wife Claudette was killed by a semitrailer. Two years later, while he was touring, two of his sons burned to death in a house fire. Orbison stopped writing and performing, and gradually faded from people’s memories.

Some of his songs (not all his own compositions) were:
“Oooby Dooby” 1956
“Claudette” 1957
“Only the Lonely” 1960
“Blue Angel” 1960
“I’m Hurtin’” 1960
“Running Scared” 1961
“Crying” 1961
“Candy Man” 1961
“Dream Baby” 1962
“Workin’ For the Man” 1962
“Leah” 1962
“In Dreams” 1963
“Falling” 1963
“Mean Woman Blues” 1963
“Blue Bayou” 1963
“It’s Over” 1964
“Oh, Pretty Woman” 1964.

The scenario was pretty much the same, an insecure man afraid of losing his girl, a man who had lost love and was nursing his heartache. The arrangements became standardised too, do-wop backing singers, a string section, a drum beating a bolero rhythm. Although he was a rockabilly and country singer, Roy had staked out a territory, though limited, in which he was supreme. His style is often described as operatic, and the comparison with Pavarotti singing Puccini’s ‘Nessun dorma’ is pretty close.

In the 80s Roy started performing again, and other artists started covering his songs. They became hits all over again. He performed with and formed part of the Traveling Wilburys, and wrote and recorded a new album, Mystery Girl, which was due for release after the concert recorded in A Black and White Night. Many people in the music industry wanted to support him: he’d been a legend to them while they were growing up and discovering music, and they knew of and sympathised with his personal tragedies.

This support crystalised in 1988 with a concert at the Coconut Grove Ballroom in Los Angeles which was filmed for television. The concert was filmed in one take and aired on Cinemax under the title Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night; and released on video by Virgin Records.

Credits are due: to Stephanie Bennett, whose production was flawless; to director and cinematographer Tony Mitchell, whose camera was always in the right place and whose black and white photography was superb; there was great editing by Sean Fullan; and the sound supervised by Tim Boyle I thought exceptional. Musical production was by T Bone Burnett – it was out of this world.

The band was too, especially James Burton on guitar and Ron Tutt on drums. And the back up singers, what were their names?, Jennifer Warnes, Bonnie Raitt, k d lang. Pretty good. Milling around on stage and showing support were Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. And a pretty good string section too, beautifully recorded (and wearing Big O dark glasses).

And Roy Orbison, a superb guitar player, and almost as good on the harmonica, a four octave singer with an effortless delivery, and, as effortlessly, the star of the show.

The film deserves a few bests. Best recorded rock music concert (that I’ve seen). One of the top five voices in rock history. Among the greatest of song writers in American popular music. You don’t have to like Roy Orbison to appreciate this concert; you just have to like music.

Roy Orbison certainly had an extraordinary career. He reached the top of the tree not once, but twice, and each time success was snatched away by unexpected tragedy, the death of his loved ones, then his own.

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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