Roy Orbison: Black & White

Until its demolition in 2005, the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd. in Hollywood was home to the Cocoanut Grove. The glamorous supper club and entertainment venue designed originally like a Moorish oasis tent opened in 1921, and for decades the stage hosted leading orchestras and singers while movie industry stars and executives dined and drank at tables.

On Sept. 30, 1987, Roy Orbison taped a Cinemax special there. Black and white film was used to maximize the dramatic effect and to retain the retro deco feel of the club. Joining Orbison on stage was a range of top talent, including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, K.D. Lang, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Tom Waits and others, including Elvis Presley’s TCB band.

Now, Sony/Legacy has released Roy Orbison: Black & White Night, a DVD and CD set to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original Cinemax production. There also are five alternate takes taped after the audience left. Unfortunately, the cameras ran out of film on the fifth song during the after-concert session, but the new set’s accompanying CD includes the complete audio.

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Whether or not you’re familiar with Orbison, the Black & White Night concert remains an essential document. The DVD captures one of his finest stage events, and the camerawork and music are spectacular. Orbison was an interesting singer-songwriter. Many of his pop compositions had a melodramatic and melancholy quality while his lyrics tended to fixate on unattainable love interests or a range of romantic anxieties. His rhythmic arrangements leaned toward the bolero, and his vocal delivery was an odd quasi-operatic attack that merged the confidence of Western swing with the sensitivity of doo-wop falsetto.

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Born in West Texas, Orbison came out of the cowboy yodeling tradition and Mexican folk rhythms, sealing them tightly together with a rockabilly guitar and trance-like vocal. The Beatles loved Orbison, and while watching the new Black & White Night DVD, I couldn’t help but notice that John Lennon’s performance stance owed a great deal to Orbison’s (or was it the other way around?). Also of interest is how Springsteen can’t take his eyes off of Orbison and how hard Elvis Costello works to stay humble and detached, earning Orbison’s admiration.

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Orbison’s stylistic cool and man-in-heat vocal style was remarkable, and it’s all on display here in glorious black and white. Orbison would die a year later in December 1988 of a heart attack after ignoring warning signs of health trouble. Sensing a commercial rebound, he continued to work and tour at a brutal pace with hopes of reviving his career. He was 52.

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Roy Orbison: Black & White Night, a 30th anniversary CD/DVD set here.

JazzWax clip: Here’s Only the Lonely

And here’s Uptown