Behind the Shades of Rock's "Other" Man in Black

Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison By John Kruth, 256 pp., $27.99.

Dwight Yoakam once likened Roy Orbison's voice to "the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window." Tom Waits called him the "Rockabilly Rigoletto." And Bruce Springsteen, whose own music shows a clear debt, said his music was best listened to "alone and in the dark."

In any case, it's that tearjerking, heartbreaking, and utterly unique vocal sound that distinguishes Sun Records' other Man in Black from anybody else.

With songs like "Only the Lonely," "Crying," "Blue Bayou," "In Dreams, and "Oh, Pretty Woman," the native of Wink, Texas behind the black Ray Ban Wayfarers was the epitome of cool. Even if he originally wore the shades onstage when he couldn't find his prescription glasses (they also hid his admittedly tiny, close set eyes).

Kruth's book examines both the life and music of Roy Orbison (as well as set a real atmosphere) with a smooth synthesis that many rock bios lack.

There are plenty of tidbits of trivia. Both Elvis and the Everly Brothers declined to record "Only the Lonely" when Orbison tried to sell it to them (which turned out well, since it became the Big O's breakthrough hit). He recorded "Oh, Pretty Woman" more than 30 times -- including one where he serenades Daisy Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard TV show. And he once thought about opening a car museum in Houston to display his large collection of autos.

And when his house caught on fire, resulting in the tragic death of two of his sons, it was next-door neighbor Johnny Cash who ran over with a hose to try and extinguish the flames. That loss -- along with the previous death of first wife Claudette in a motorcycle accident when the two were out biking -- only adds to Orbison's aura and image of beautiful sadness.

But after that initial run of hits in the '60s (most produced by Fred Foster at Monument Records), Kruth details how Orbison's career stalled amidst poor recording choices (including an ill-advised trip to psychedelia), and oldies circuits.

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Happily, he saw his fortunes revive greatly in the mid-'80s with the all-star tribute concert A Black and White Night, his involvement in the Traveling Wilburys (where he sings "I'm so tired of being lonely" in "Handle with Care"), and a hit comeback record in Mystery Girl.

It's a sad joke, though, that Orbison didn't live long enough to really enjoy the resurgence, dying of a heart attack in 1988 at age 52. And the subsequent better-and-worse grip that second wife Barbara seemed to have on his career and legacy -- somewhat, the author suggests, to the detriment of surviving son Wesley -- is detailed.

Kruth, who also penned bios on Townes Van Zandt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, conducted more than 20 original interviews for the book, and also drew on previous sources. His effort is a concise, detailed, and rich look at a sometimes-overlooked rock pioneer. And one of its most unique voices.


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