Sunday, June 4, 2017

Roy Orbison: A Black & White Night (Stephanie Bennett, Barbara Orbison, Albert Spevak, Virgin Records, PBS, 1987_

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution KPBS showed something called A Black & White Night 30, which I briefly thought was going to be an entirely new program paying tribute to Roy Orbison by reuniting some of the guest stars that joined him for the original A Black & White Night program in 1987 — Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, k. d. lang, T Bone Burnett and others — in new performances of his songs. Surprise: it was actually simply a rerun of the original A Black & White Night, with Orbison in surprisingly good vocal form in songs he’d first recorded nearly three decades earlier (though, alas, he did not still have the vocal chops to sing that awesomely beautiful falsetto high note at the end of “Blue Bayou” — Linda Ronstadt duplicated that on her 1970’s cover but it’s nowhere nearly as much a surprise to hear a woman go that high than a man) and with the other stars placed well back of the mix because the business of the evening was to allow Roy Orbison to present his songs directly instead of to shoehorn him into a series of slapdash “duets” with later artists. Roy Orbison had one of the weirdest career trajectories of just about anyone with a reputation as a rock ’n’ roll artist. It looked like he was going to begin where so much white rock of the 1950’s began — at the legendary Sun record label of Memphis, Tennessee, owned by Sam C. Phillips, which had broken the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis (and Black artists like B. B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Ike Turner before that!). He and his first band, the Teen-Kings, landed a Sun audition after recording a song called “Ooby Dooby” on a tiny label called Je-Wel (notice the hyphen). Sam Phillips heard both the song and the Teen Kings, liked them, thought he could do better re-recording the song in his own studio, and Orbison had a minor Southern hit. But he didn’t get along with Phillips, he didn’t really fit into the rockabilly mold of most of Sun’s white artists, and after his contract ran out he signed with RCA Victor and made seven records with them, of which only two were considered releasable. The one single RCA put out on Orbison flopped and his attempts to place his songs with other RCA Victor artists also failed (though he did get a song called “Claudette,” named after the 17-year-old girlfriend he eventually married, placed with the Everly Brothers, who recorded it as the B-side of their mega-hit “All I Have to Do Is Dream”). 

In desperation Orbison signed with a producer named Fred Foster who owned a tiny record label called Monument — and Foster’s idea of how to break Orbison and have hits with him was to steer him away from rock ’n’ roll and make him over into a ballad singer, using soft-rock backbeats on his songs but backing him with strings and “whisper” backing vocalists in the style of mainstream country crooners of the period like Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. While Orbison kept up his rock chops on songs like “Mean Woman Blues,” “Mean Little Mama” and his last Monument hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman” (a big seller in both the U.S. and Britain in 1964 despite the rivalry of the Beatles and the other groups of the so-called “British Invasion”), most of his Monument successes were slow or mid-tempo songs in ballad tempo that took advantage of Orbison’s unique voice, perched on the edge between tenor and baritone and with a far stronger legato than most rock singers. Coming in during the early 1960’s, generally a wretched time for rock ’n’ roll — Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and Eddie Cochran had died; Elvis Presley had been drafted for two years (and had come home to a new strategy by his manager, Col. Tom Parker, to steer him away from rock and rebrand him as a mainstream crooner); Little Richard left music for four years to become a minister; and sexual scandals wrecked the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry — and these overpowering greats had been replaced on the charts by the bland likes of Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Besides Orbison’s Monument hits, about the only enduring rock being made in the early 1960’s was coming from the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys (I’ve often joked that if you lived, or wanted to live, on the East Coast in the early 1960’s you thought the Four Seasons were the future of rock and if you lived, or wanted to live, on the West Coast you thought the Beach Boys were the future), and solo artists Del Shannon and Ricky Nelson (who was often lumped in with the fakers like Avalon and Fabian but who actually had a flair for rock and went out of his way to record with the best musicians, including session guitarist James Burton who later toured with Elvis). 

As Orbison’s Wikipedia page sums him up, “While most male rock and roll performers in the 1950’s and 1960’s projected a defiant masculinity, many of Orbison’s songs instead conveyed a quiet, almost desperate, vulnerability. His voice ranged from baritone to tenor, and music scholars have suggested that he had a three- or four-octave range. During performances, he was known for standing still and solitary, and for wearing black clothes, to match his jet-black hair and dark sunglasses, which lent an air of mystery to his persona.” He achieved superstardom with the ballad-rock hit “Only the Lonely,” an extraordinary song that was a major influence on the Beatles — John Lennon tried to write a rock ballad like it called “Please Please Me,” and when the Beatles’ record producer, George Martin, rejected it John sped it up as an all-out rock song and it became the Beatles’ first Number One hit in the U.K. and the real start of their career — and throughout the rest of the early 1960’s the hits just kept on coming: “Blue Angel,” “Dream Baby,” “Blue Bayou,” “I’m Hurtin,” “Leah” (a bizarre song about a Southern Pacific pearl diver who drowns while attempting to pull up the biggest pearl of all for his girlfriend Leah — Orbison was known as an inveterate movie-goer who when he wasn’t working would see as many as three movies in one day, and this song suggests his film viewing extended to the 1931 F. W. Murnau-Robert Flaherty Tabu), “Crying” (later remade by Don McLean in 1980 into a comeback hit for him), “Pretty Paper” (a Christmas-themed song by the young Willie Nelson at a time when Nelson was trying to get his career established by placing songs with other, more established artists: he placed “Hello Walls” with Faron Young and really scored big when he placed “Crazy” with Patsy Cline). “It’s Over” and occasionally a midtempo rocker like “Uptown” for a musical and commercial change of pace. After releasing “Oh, Pretty Woman” in 1964, Orbison went into a slide; he made the mistake of leaving Monument Records and signing with MGM Records because MGM also owned a film studio and promised him five movie roles as well as a record deal. (He made only one film, a 1967 comedy Western called The Fastest Guitar Alive in which he played a Confederate spy who carried a guitar that could convert into a rifle, of which he says in the film, “I could kill you with this and play your funeral march at the same time.” The film was such a flop MGM canceled his other movie commitments.) 

His personal life also unraveled at the same time, reaching its lowest point when in 1968, while on a tour in England, he got word that his home in Tennessee had burned to the ground and killed two of his sons. Later his health declined; he was diagnosed with heart disease in 1977 and had triple bypass surgery, though as soon as he was well enough to record Scott Mathews, Ron Nagle’s songwriting partner in the Dúrocs, got him a gig recording a new version of “Oh, Pretty Woman” for the woman’s beauty product Tone Soap, and he made a lot of money both in song royalties and his performance. Orbison drifted around to several record companies when his deal with MGM ended, including a one-album return to Monument and an attempt to cut a new album for Asylum (home of Linda Ronstadt, who had covered “Blue Bayou,” and the Eagles, who had once opened for Orbison), Laminar Flow, which was such a big flop cut-out copies turned up in record close-out bins for years after its release in 1976. Orbison finally got his crack at a comeback in 1987 when Jeff Lynne, co-founder of the Electric Light Orchestra and a major record producer in his own right, recruited him for an all-star band called “The Traveling Wilburys” that also included George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. He parlayed that into the deal to do the Black & White Night video, which was shot at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub inside the Ambassador Hotel where Bing Crosby had first achieved stardom with Gus Arnheim’s band in 1931, and a new solo album called Mystery Girl which sold well. But Orbison responded to his comeback by scheduling a back-breaking tour that caused a return of his heart disease, which killed him in 1988 at age 52. I hadn’t seen A Black & White Night since pretty close to its original release (though it’s been a mainstay of PBS pledge-break periods ever since) and this time around I was surprised at how deliberately retro the production was. Not only was it shot in black-and-white, it was lit very much like a band performance from a 1940’s musical and there were even shots of cigarette smoke drifting past the stage lights and becoming visible. (In fact there’s a brief shot of a cigarette girl working the audience exactly as would have happened in a 1940’s club — and the whole thing is a wrenching reminder that in my lifetime it was still not only permissible but even encouraged to smoke inside a night-life venue.) 

The other thing that sets this apart from most tribute shows to veteran acts today is that the focus remains exclusively on Orbison: there are no duet performances (though Bruce Springsteen contributes virtually inaudible second vocals to “Uptown” and “Dream Baby,” and these songs — among the few uptempo hits Orbison had at his peak — might actually have been more exciting as Orbison-Springsteen duets) and none of the guest artists are introduced: they’re just there, and one goes, “Was that  — ?” as you see Costello playing harmonica on “Uptown” or Browne or Raitt or lang at a backing-vocal mike. It also helped that Orbison’s voice was surprisingly intact (he had to duck the big falsetto high note at the end of “Blue Bayou” but that was pretty much the only time he had to compromise), and unlike a lot of singers in his later years that killer legato was still intact. (It’s the legato — his ability to sustain a long, heavily ornamented vocal line and enunciate each note clearly but also bind it to its neighbors — and his command of melisma, the “sliding” from one note to the next that rock ’n’ roll inherited not only from Black gospel and R&B singing but also traditional Irish folk music — which is where Irish-descended singers like Bing Crosby and John Lennon learned it — that make Orbison’s voice so unique in the history of pop music in general and rock in particular.) A Black & White Night seems astonishing today not only for how well Orbison’s voice had held up from its heyday in the early 1960’s in this 1987 performance but for how the production strove for a “class” image throughout, with the musicians (the male ones, anyway) in suits and ties, the cinematography recalling classic Hollywood rather than the quick cutting and disconnected imagery of music videos that was already being established as the standard way to present rock on film, and the visible evidence of the entire orchestra, including the string players, being present and performing their parts in real time instead of Orbison singing to pre-recorded backing tracks the way Elvis did on most of his later TV specials. Orbison’s legacy is one of the quirkiest in rock ’n’ roll, and though he could rock he was always most effective on ballads, and his unique performing style (he stood stock-still through his songs and didn’t move around to the music, which he said was because so few of his songs contained the instrumental breaks during which other rockers did move, but may have also been part of his big-time stage fright) was well showcased in A Black & White Night.