Sometimes I wonder if I’m one of those tragic individuals who’s fated always to be the last cab off the rank. I had one of those occasions last week when I bought a DVD called Black&White Night – a recording of a 1987 concert by Roy Orbison and a select group of friends.
I learned of this film only recently from hearing Kim Hill interview Stephanie Bennett, the Englishwoman who produced Black&White Night and now lives on Waiheke Island. But when I started mentioning the DVD to friends, it seemed I was the only person still alive who hadn’t already enjoyed it.
No matter. I decided to write this anyway, in the unlikely event there are other benighted individuals out there like me.
Black&White Night was originally made as a TV special. It was filmed at the Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles and features a stellar lineup of backing musicians and singers: guitarist James Burton, Bruce Springsteen, T-Bone Burnett, Jackson Browne, J D Souther, Tom Waits, k d lang, Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Warnes. The bass player is Jerry Scheff and the drummer is Ronnie Tutt – both, like James Burton, former members of Elvis Presley’s TCB band and veteran LA session musicians. (A slight annoyance, for me, was the presence of the ubiquitous Elvis Costello, who since the early 1980s seems to have made a career out of hanging around in the shadow of much greater performers and not bringing anything to the table. But that’s a personal thing.)
There are several factors that make Black&White Night (and yes, it’s entirely shot in monochrome) a fantastic concert. The first is Orbison himself, who at 51 was still in exceptionally good voice and still hitting the high notes as if the previous 25 years hadn’t happened. The second, of course, is the songs – and they’re all here: Running Scared, Only the Lonely, Crying, Oh, Pretty Woman, Blue Bayou (perhaps my favourite), In Dreams and It’s Over, among others. Orbison himself was so charisma-free that he became, paradoxically, almost charismatic. The impassive way he sings these songs – songs of great emotional intensity and almost operatic scale – is part of his appeal. His expressionless delivery also means the songs have to stand on their own, unembellished by any histrionics. Which, of course, they are well able to do.
But what gives this performance a special magic is the guest stars – not because they take over the show, but for quite the reverse reason. At no point does anyone look remotely interested in trying to upstage Orbison. It’s his night, and they’re there strictly in a supporting role. Their great respect for him, and their pleasure at helping him present his songs, is obvious in every frame. Raitt, Warnes and Lang sing like angels and there are moments when they look positively rapturous. Even Springsteen is caught several times looking at Orbison with unabashed admiration.
It’s quite moving, and all the more so when you consider Orbison’s history. He was a giant in the early to mid-sixties (I recall Crying, a Christmas present from my brother, as the first LP I ever owned), but from the late 60s onwards he vanished from the radar, displaced by the pop revolution that followed the so-called British invasion led by the Beatles. There seemed no place for Orbison in the musical tumult that followed, and his career went into a long decline. He suffered terrible personal tragedies too: first the death of his wife Claudette in a motorcycle accident in 1966, followed two years later by a house fire that killed his two sons.
The hits stopped coming after 1967; it was to be another 13 years before he had another song in the Billboard Top 100 (1980’s That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again, a duet with Emmylou Harris). For much of that period Orbison was reduced to playing second-rate venues on the has-been circuit. His career must have been close to its nadir when I interviewed him for an Australian Sunday paper in 1974: he had just performed for the inmates of Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison. But in one of the great redemption stories of pop music, he began to emerge into the light again when other stars – among them Harris, Springsteen, Lang and Don McLean (who had a big hit with Crying in 1980) – rediscovered his songs. The formation of the Travelling Wilburys with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne in 1987 marked the completion of Orbison’s journey back from obscurity.
You need to know this story to fully appreciate Black&White Night. On one level it’s simply a great concert; on another it’s a poignant tribute to a man who went from hero to zero and back again. And it seems somehow consistent with the rest of Orbison’s life story that within months of making this film, he was dead from a heart attack, aged only 52. His last top 10 hit – You’ve Got It, with the Travelling Wilburys – was issued posthumously.