Roy Orbison had a voice of such beauty, and of such an operatic range, that other rock stars might have found reasons to hate him. But he was just too nice. There is reason to think that there was something strange about his gentle personality: his personal tragedies had been so devastating that his sweet smile might have had an element of the traumatic, as if he were living in a trance. Right to the end of his life, however, the other stars loved to be in the same studio with him. George Harrison did the initial organizing for the Traveling Wilburys, but Orbison was the magic ingredient. In the great HBO concert Roy Orbison and Friends (otherwise known as A Black and White Night), recorded in 1987, the year before his premature death, the stage was crowded with names that were either famous then or would be famous later. Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen were in the line-up, and two of the backing singers were Bonnie Raitt and the as-yet scarcely known K.D. Lang. Several of the numbers from the concert are available on YouTube, and the musicianship is amazing on all of them. But my pick of the bunch is “In Dreams”, whose inclusion on the sound-track of the David Lynch film Blue Velvet had helped to put Orbison back in the big-time all over again. As with many of the songs in Orbison’s mature phase, the structure is as adventurous as spilled mercury looking for equilibrium, constantly adding new forms as it proceeds unpredictably to a ringing climax: listen to the way a whole different song starts up with the sumptuously articulated line “But just before the dawn,” yet the new angle of attack seems to emerge inevitably out of what has already happened. And of course the voice is simply beautiful, as it always was. When the Beatles first toured Europe, the young Roy Orbison was the supporting act that went on just before them, and they used to stand in the wings wondering how they could follow that. He generated the same reaction throughout his career, which was cut cruelly short by a heart attack. What he would have achieved had he lived into a late phase there is no telling, but it is safe to say that it would have been extraordinary.
Listen HERE to Roy Orbison singing “In Dreams”, in the 1987 HBO concert.