Today is the anniversary of the birth of Roy Orbison. “In Dreams” was the hit that launched Orbison’s comeback when David Lynch used it on the soundtrack in “Blue Velvet.” Dreams — dreams shattered, dreams haunted, dreams fulfilled — also provided the thematic material to which Orbison applied his operatic voice in the ballads and other songs that made him a star in the early 1960’s: “Only the Lonely,” “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Dream Baby,” “Leah,” “Oh Pretty Woman.” It was a string of hits impressive enough that he could tour Great Britain in 1963 with the Beatles as his opening act.
Orbison essentially began his career on Sun Records as one of the several incredible artists that Sam Phillips signed in the wake of his success with Elvis Presley. As an undergraduate at North Texas State Orbison had in fact traveled to Dallas to see Presley perform in the Big D Jamboree. “I can’t overemphasize how shocking he looked and sounded to me that night,” he subsequently recalled, “his energy was incredible and his instinct was just amazing.”
Yet, as Colin Escott notes in Good Rockin’ Tonight, the most uncharacteristic music Orbison ever made was for Sun. Phillips wanted him to sing rockabilly; Orbison wanted to sing ballads. Orbison found his voice in the sympathetic setting Frank Foster provided for him on Monument and produced a remarkably consistent body of work until he left Monument for MGM in 1964.
Orbison lived through devastating family tragedies in the 1960’s. They slowed him down for a while, but he soldiered on. Writing in the present tense in the first edition of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll in 1976, Ken Emerson observed that “Orbison never stopped touring and has never given up hope that he can make a comeback.”
When his time came around again in the 1980’s, his fans in the business lined up to pay tribute, producing one of the highlights of his comeback years. Recorded in 1987 at the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, “Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night” aired on HBO in January1988. Orbison died the following December.
Among the “friends” who turned out to lend muscial support that night were James Burton, Glen Hardin, Elvis Costello, J.D. Souther, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and others. In the video of “Pretty Woman” above, Burton and Springsteen trade solos as Orbison turns the clock back to 1964.
PAUL adds: Public television here in the Washington DC area airs “Roy Orbison and Friend” several times a year to help raise money. I can’t get enough of this show, a great mixture of the ballads and the rock tunes. I always get a kick out of the great trio of Bonnie Raitt, K.D. Lang, and the underrated Jennifer Warnes doing the back-up vocals, which consist mostly of “Sha-la-la; Sha-la-la-la.”
By the way, has there ever been a better opening lyric than “A candy-colored clown they call the Sandman. . .”?