Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Roy Orbison. “In Dreams” was the hit that brought Orbison back into currency when David Lynch used it 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 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. Orbison found his voice in the sympathetic setting Frank Foster provided for him on Monument and produced a remarkably consistent body of work.
Orbison lived through devastating family tragedies in the 1960’s. When his time came around again in the 1980’s, his fans in the business lined up to pay tribute. The highlight of his revival must have been the “Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night” special recorded in 1987 at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles for broadcast on Showtime (it aired in 1988). Among the “friends” who turned out to lend muscial support were James Burton, Glenn Hardin, James Burton, Elvis Costello, J.D. Souther, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Jackson Brown, Bonnie Raitt and others. In the video of “Pretty Woman” above, Burton and Springsteen trade solos as Orbison gloriously turns the clock back to 1963.
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