Classic Rock Corner

Roy Orbison's Sons Help Refresh His Black & White Night

Roy Orbison and Bruce Springsteen (who inducted Roy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987) rip it up with no color!
Roy Orbison and Bruce Springsteen (who inducted Roy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987) rip it up with no color! Courtesy of Roy's Boys LLC
click to enlarge Roy Orbison and Bruce Springsteen (who inducted Roy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987) rip it up with no color! - COURTESY OF ROY'S BOYS LLC
Roy Orbison and Bruce Springsteen (who inducted Roy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987) rip it up with no color!
Courtesy of Roy's Boys LLC
He was an Original Titan of early rock and roll. The Master of Melancholy whose heartbreaking lyrics and piercing, otherworldly voice were like no others then, or since: “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” “Blue Bayou,” “In Dreams,” “It’s Over,” “Running Scared”…the list goes on.

Likewise, his ever-present black shades – originally donned as an accident – became his visual trademark.

And when he passed away unexpectedly on December 6, 1988, at age 52, Roy Orbison was enjoying a major career comeback. The Traveling Wilburys – the ad hoc supergroup featuring Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne – had a hit album, a video and singles. And he had wrapped up recording of Mystery Girl, a solo record that would come out posthumously and boast the hit “You Got It.”

click to enlarge LEGACY/ROY'S BOYS LLC COVER
Legacy/Roy's Boys LLC cover
But it was the third part of that activity that has overshadowed the others through time. Recorded on September 30, 1987, before a live and appreciative audience in L.A.'s storied Cocoanut Grove nightclub, the concert film A Black and White Night featured Orbison in top form performing his hits, deep cuts and even some new material. And filmed entirely in black and white.

His backing band of players and singers wasn’t too shabby, either: Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, J.D. Souther, T Bone Burnett and Elvis Presley’s core TCB Band. It was broadcast on the cable channel Cinemax in early 1988, with an album and VHS (remember VHS?) release soon after.

Now the Black and White Night 30 (Legacy/Roy’s Boys) DVD/CD package is out, but it doesn’t look quite the same. The “reimagined,” re-edited and remastered show also includes songs not included in the original broadcast, a never-before-seen “secret” mini-show, and a documentary with backstage interviews.

The project was spearheaded by Orbison’s sons, and youngest boy Alex answered some questions for the Houston Press via email.

Houston Press: Tell me a bit about the decision to re-edit the entire film rather than just re-release it. And what percentage of this version is different from the original?
Alex Orbison: When we found the tapes of the show, we were excited about the opportunity to find extra bonus material that had never been seen before. When we saw how much of it there was, we considered doing the new cut. We felt that the show was perfect originally, so we couldn't make it better. But we could do a different take on it by editing it as a live show that you were viewing from the front row center.

By doing this, we used about 80 percent new shots. The shots that you see that are the same as the original actually meant that there was not a useable alternative, or the moment was so special that we went with the original shot.

How did the idea for the show develop, and how were the guest artists approached?
My mom and dad wanted a definitive "Roy show" as far back as when they met in 1968. When the producers (Stephanie Bennett) of the Cinemax series sought them out to do the show, they had already tried as many as ten times to get this kind of a show together, but it was never right. They brought on T-Bone Burnett as musical director, and he called the guest artists. Legend has it that several of the guest artists had gigs that they cancelled to do this, and no one said "no!”

All of the guests clearly have an incredible love and respect for your father. What were his feelings about it?
My dad felt so appreciated and supported by everyone, and most of all he had a blast doing the show. Sometimes people bring their baggage into these things and their egos, but the band and my dad are all such mellow-natured people and so professional that they all had a ton of fun. My dad was very understated and cool about everything, and if you asked him how he felt about it, he would probably just say "tickled."

What did shooting it in black and white do for the impact of the film that would have been different had it been in color?
The show is still going strong after 30 years, and I think a huge factor of it was the timelessness of shooting it as a film and shooting it in black and white. They did a show that was on videotape and in color the year before, and it was never used, so I guess that is the proof right there.

I will tell you this. My dad watched the show on loop for a few weeks, and he would fist-pump and high-five me and thumbs-up, looking very proud. And I think anyone who watches the show gets the same feeling.

click to enlarge Elvis Costello, Jerry Scheff, Ronnie Tutt (behind drums), Bruce Springsteen, James Burton, Roy Orbison and T Bone Burnett onstage. - COURTESY OF ROY'S BOYS LLC
Elvis Costello, Jerry Scheff, Ronnie Tutt (behind drums), Bruce Springsteen, James Burton, Roy Orbison and T Bone Burnett onstage.
Courtesy of Roy's Boys LLC
What were your own personal or favorite memories about that night?
There was a huge buzz and energy in the air. Just the fact that my dad was playing Hollywood proper was exciting, and made it easier to attend than other shows before that were out of L.A. I could feel it like a pulse. It was electric in the room even before the band went on.

For me, seeing the new songs "Comedians" and "Dream You" were the big highlights. Those songs stood up there with all those hits and sounded so good! The guitar solos and Bruce's duets with my dad were amazing too!

How did you uncover the “secret” show footage as well as the footage for the documentary?
Actually, I found a DAT tape recording of the show in our vault and when I put it on, T-Bone started talking and I thought to myself, "What is this?" Then I heard the other songs and I excitedly ran to my brothers and told them about the stuff. Roy Jr. told me then about the rehearsal footage, and we all talked about how amazing this would be for diehard fans as well as the casual fans.

You dad, sadly, was on a real career resurgence when he passed. Did he talk to you about plans for the future? And were there ever any talks about a Traveling Wilburys tour?
My dad talked about intensive rehearsals in January ’89 that he was going to do with his band to combine the old material with the new material. He wanted to craft the set so it would be one and a half hours or two versus the 50-minute set he was doing at the time.

As far as the Wilburys tour went, he was all for doing shows. I think the pressure and big business of doing a full tour felt wrong for them since they were so anti-industry. But the potential to do a few big-city supershows (with each member doing five to six songs solo, like the original Rock shows in the ’50s and ’60s) and then a Traveling Wilburys closer. That seemed to be a real [possibility].

Roy Orbison: Black & White Night 30 is out now on Roy's Boys/Legacy Recordings.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero