What does it sound like?:
Roy Orbison is famous for his operatic vocal range, his emotive, melodramatic ballads and his tragic personal life. He is credited with popularising the Rock & Roll Ballad and bringing splendour to the ‘Nashville’ sound. He began his career blending Country, Rockabilly and Rock & Roll at Sun Records, just like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, but it was at Monument Records in the first half of the sixties where he made his mark.
His first hit, Only The Lonely set the tone. The song’s power is strengthened by being delivered with little force. The backing vocals are a whisper, pushing the musicians right into the background. Orbison’s lead is gentle, unassuming, compelling the listener to pull up a chair and pay close attention. The pain expressed feels complex and deeply personal, yet involving and inclusive at the same time. By the time The Big O rips his heart apart hitting the high notes at the song’s climax, our hearts are broken too. Somehow, he recovers enough at the end to re-enter the fray in search of lover, regardless of the risk. This mix of honest vulnerability and stoic masculinity transfixed his audience. He was soon in demand and hit followed hit right up to his biggest success in 1964, Oh, Pretty Woman.
In 1966, tragedy struck. His wife, Claudette, was killed in a motorbike accident. Worse followed in 1968, when two of his sons died in a house fire. He tried throwing himself into work but his foray into the movies flopped and his songwriting dried up.
He endured a barren two decades until a remarkable revival in 1987, prompted by David Lynch’s striking use of In Dreams in his film, Blue Velvet. He re-recorded an album’s worth of his old songs, including a duet with kd lang and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame by lifelong fan, Bruce Springsteen.
A Black & White Night was a TV special, a live concert recorded September 1987 and broadcast in January 1988. It is a rare recording of The Big O’s extraordinary voice in the live setting. Unfortunately, the tapes weren’t rolling very often during his Monument peak. Roy was actually very shy and suffered from stage fright. He would often struggle to control his vibrato, especially at the beginning of a concert. He wore all black clothes and very dark shades almost as a protective armour. He also had no stagecraft and so remained stock still at the microphone. His songs rarely had instrumental passages for dancing in any case. This image enhanced his air of mystery, adding to the intensity of the performance. He concentrated on faithfully replicating the records, a difficult job considering the dynamics and the vocal pyrotechnics required. His audience was delighted. After all, they only came to hear his spectacular voice.
The concert took place at The Cocoanut Grove, Los Angeles, an intimate setting with cabaret tables. The stage had several levels with Orbison’s platform slightly off-centre, protruding into the floor. He was backed by a dream band, all of whom were suitably dressed in black and white. The bedrock was Elvis Presley’s famous TCB (Taking Care of Business) band; Glen D. Hardin piano, James Burton lead guitar, Jerry Scheff upright bass, and Ronnie Tutt drums. Backing vocals were provided by J. D. Souther, Steven Soles, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang and Jennifer Warnes. Additional musicians included T. Bone Burnett acoustic guitar, Bruce Springsteen guitar, Elvis Costello acoustic guitar, organ, harmonica, Tom Waits organ, acoustic guitar, Michael Utley keyboard and Alex Acuña percussion. There was even a string section. All these stellar musicians were present purely to pay homage to a unique artist they admired and loved. None of them intrude on the spotlight to the real star of the show.
The audience, also including celebrities, lapped it up. All the hits were present and beautifully performed. The Big O displayed his full range, his tiger growl, his exceptional falsetto, his operatic power, his Spanish baritone, his ranchera phrasing, his spiritual tenor. Hairs must have been standing on thousands of necks. There was even room for two new numbers, to be released later on the Mystery Girl album.
It was filmed entirely in ravishing black and white on seven cameras. This reissue uses shots previously unused for the broadcast. The songs are restored to their sequence in the concert rather than the broadcast, including two that were edited out. There are also five retakes, recorded after the audience had left but these are only accessible via a download. There is an extended Oh, Pretty Woman, featuring a guitar duel between Springsteen and Burton. The sound quality is exemplary. The whole package (CD & Blue-Ray or CD & DVD) is described as a ‘re-imagining’.
The following year, Orbison contributed to The Travelling Wilburys as Lefty Wilbury, in tribute to Lefty Frizzell, and made Mystery Girl. In December 1988, he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-two.
What does it all *mean*?
Roy Orbison & Friends: A Black & White Night 30 acts as a summation and a validation of a remarkable career. It is something to be treasured, rubbing sleeves with the Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special.
Goes well with…
A pair of ears and a pair of eyes, assuming the heart is functioning.
Might suit people who like…
Imaginative songs performed to perfection. Justifiable adoration.