Roy Orbison’s Amazing 80’s Comeback Revisited

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On September 30, 1987, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, k.d. lang and other musicians gathered together to perform at the Cocoanut Grove lounge in L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. They were great that night, but it wasn’t their participation that made it a landmark night in Rock history, because this was to be night of Roy Orbison’s triumphant return to the music scene after more than 20 years in the wilderness.

The concert film and album recorded that night – A Black & White Night – returned Orbison to a year and a half of big-time success and acclaim after he had lived so long without it. It’s an amazing artifact and a fabulous performance, and it is being re-released on February 24 to mark the 30-year anniversary of the concert. The package is expanded, remixed and re-edited to include different camera angles and previously unreleased performances and other bonus content.

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Anyone interested in Rock history should take a look. It was one of the unlikeliest comebacks ever, but then again, Roy Orbison was one of the unlikeliest Rock & Roll stars ever. Where other artists of his time featured high-energy performances full of youthful energy and braggadocio, the mysterious, be-shaded Orbison stood still as a statue and sang of losers and dreamers and heartbreaks. He broke every rule of song structure, and sang in an indescribable voice that was unlike any other.

His vulnerability hit a nerve in the public consciousness. He made it OK for men to sing about crying, and audiences ate it up. Between 1960 and 1964, he was one of Rock & Roll’s very top acts based on a string of hits during those years. His 1964 smash “Oh, Pretty Woman” remains one of the greatest songs of the Rock era. But not long after that, the mystery man pretty much disappeared from view.

In the late sixties his life was devastated by tragedy, losing his wife and two sons in separate accidents. In the seventies he faced label battles and public disinterest. But in 1978 Linda Ronstadt had a hit with his song “Blue Bayou”, and in 1982 Van Halen had a hit with “Oh, Pretty Woman”, and in 1986 David Lynch featured “In Dreams” prominently in the movie Blue Velvet, and all of a sudden there was interest in Roy Orbison music again.

Things really took off for him after the Cocoanut Grove performance. In 1988 he became a founding member of the Traveling Wilburys and then released a solo album Mystery Girl, and both albums were huge hits. He became the first artist since Elvis Presley to have two albums in the top five in the same month. And then, just as suddenly as his comeback began, it all came to a sad end when Orbison had a heart attack and passed away in December that same year.

It’s an amazing story of an amazing artist, and this concert re-issue is a good enough reason to celebrate it and to remember his role in Rock’s crazy history.

Photo: By Ronzoni (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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