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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

With Roy Orbison's landmark all-star 'Black & White Night' long form video being re-

Roy Orbison

Credit: Roy's Boys/Legacy

One of the great live long form rock video programs, Roy Orbison & Friends: Black & White Night, gets a makeover in a re-edited, remastered and expanded 30th anniversary version titled Roy Orbison's Black & White Night 30.

The new edition is set for release February 24 via Roy's Boys/Legacy (Sony Music's Legacy Recordings in conjunction with Roy Boys LLC, the Nashville-based company founded by the late Orbison's sons to administer and safeguard his catalog). It is available both as a CD/DVD set and as a CD/Blu-ray, both celebrating the 30th anniversary of Orbison’s September, 1987 all-star comeback concert at the Cocoanut Grove night club at the since demolished Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Then 51, Oribison was backed by Elvis Presley's TCB Band (guitarist James Burton, , bassist Jerry Scheff, pianist Glen D. Hardin and drummer Ron Tutt) and jioned on stage by guests Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Jennifer Warnes. The filmed concert was shown on Cinemax the following January—less than a year before Orbison's untimely death—as Roy Orbison & Friends: Black & White Night.

The concert had been shot using seven cameras, so there were hundreds of hours of footage that went unused and unseen. Orbison's youngest son Alex Orbison, along with co-editor Luke Chalk, have re-edited the entire show such that most of Black & White Night 30 is made up of new material while retaining the distinctive black-and-white look of the original release. Additionally, the program has been resequenced according to the concert's correct set order.

Among bonus features are a previously unseen alternate version of Orbison’s biggest hit "Oh, Pretty Woman" and a previously unseen "Blue Angel"; an unreleased five-song ("Dream You," "Comedians," "Candyman," "Claudette" and "Uptown") mini-concert performed onstage by Orbison & Friends after the show is also included, though film ran out in the middle of "Uptown." Audio of these songs is available to Black & White Night 30 buyers via download code.

The set further includes a new 33-minute documentary consisting of rehearsal footage and interviews with Springsteen, Costello, lang, Raitt and Browne that has never been released commercially. The package also contains liner notes penned by Roy Orbison Jr.

Roy Orbison & Friends followed the prominent use of Orbison's 1963 hit "In Dreams" in David Lynch's 1986 film noir Blue Velvet, which helped catalyze resurgent interest in Orbison, who had been out of the limelight for quite awhile. He would become a founding member of the Traveling Wilburys in 1988, but died shortly after the group's debut album was released.

Jennifer Warnes vividly remembers the intense production of Roy Orbison & Friends.

"Jackson called me a couple weeks before the show," recalls Warnes. "He was at a house somewhere in the Hollywood Hills and wouldn't say what he was working on, but was going through some old records and trying to decipher what the background vocalists were doing and asked me to come help."

Warnes arrived to find Raitt, Souther, and Burnett ("the visionary behind the whole thing") among other show guests already there.

"It sounded fun to me and I sat down with the women—who were separated from the men for some reason. Bonnie and I started picking apart the songs and making personal charts out of the great Nashville vocal arrangements [for Orbison's recordings] by Anita Kerr: I write my own 'dots' system—not music notation—and Bonnie was scribbling, too. Not only is she a great singer but thoroughly professional, so it was easy as pie learning the music with her. It was all about getting it right."

Browne, Souther and singer-songwriter/guitarist/producer Steven Soles were busy learning the lower vocal parts, Warnes continues.

"We were doing [Orbison's 1956 rockabilly hit] 'Ooby Dooby' and all that stuff that Bonnie and I hadn't done much of. But that's why Jackson wanted my presence, because I could place the sonics in the right places—[which voice] went on top, which on the bottom. But I let Bonnie sing anything she wanted to and adapted to her because we knew the songs very well after a couple six-hour days."

Lang came in at the end, "and I was seriously worried that she wouldn't get it, because none of us are background singers--though we know how to do it if we have to! But she was instinctively correct and rhythmically right on the money."

And Warnes now understood why the the boys and girls were separated: "We needed to only hear each other, because in the beginning it's very difficult to get all the voices."

She also admits to "feeling pretty cocky" when she walked onstage to do the sole run-through.

"I was coming off [her acclaimed 1987 album of Leonard Cohen songs] Famous Blue Raincoat and Dirty Dancing [her duet with Bill Medley on the 1987 Dirty Dancing soundtrack hit "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song] and the only downside for me was, Where's the groove? But I'd worked with Glen D. on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour [she was a regular] and knew about Jerry and Ron—and I even knew the string players. But when you're on a sound stage you can't hear the band if the monitors aren't perfect."

Luckily, Elvis Costello was there.

"I was standing there during the run-through trying to figure out where to start and end the songs, and looked at Ron's hand or listened to his kick drum—and looked at Elvis, and his rhythm [guitar] hand was dead spot-on. I couldn’t hear everything, but he knew his job and nailed the song intros so tightly that he was lassoing in the strays! It taught me a lot about him: He's a supreme student of American rock and understands the inner workings of our rhythm-and-blues—and he knows the interior feel of a song. I'm really grateful T Bone placed him near the girls, and just watched him for every intro—and I knew exactly what my job was."

Warnes credits Burnett, too, for being "absolutely right in thinking we'd all rise to the occasion."

"Doing something off-the-cuff like that with that kind of wild group and with little time to rehearse, you'd better be a good musician--because it's going to get confusing!" she says. "I wonder how [Joe Cocker's legendary] Mad Dogs & Englishmen band did it, but everybody in it was a pretty good musician and they rose to the occasion of the moment—and that's what happened here, too. We were a wild group just like the Mad Dogs!"

Come showtime and Warnes, whose "Up Where We Belong" duet with Cocker for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) likewise won an Academy Award, was still feeling cocky.

"I told Leonard he needed to be there, because I knew it would be good. He was my friend and my ticket, and I'd just finished Dirty Dancing and Patrick Swayze was there and he lifted me up and said I'd win an Oscar! I remember where Leonard was sitting, and Rebecca De Mornay [who was briefly engaged to Cohen] was there, and Kris Kristofferson. I didn't know anything about Bruce Springsteen, but not only was he a gentlemen and charming and was singing backstage, but I got the sense that he really was everything I thought he might be—exactly how he presents himself onstage. He saw himself as troop leader and was able to really support everyone else on stage."

"But I was so impressed with everybody," Warnes adds. "k.d. sang a song backstage about a dog, and it was adorable and I'll never forget it. James Burton played on my first album so we went back decades, and he was so very sweet and winking at me while we were playing. And it was a real pleasure to sing with those girls because they were as strong as I was and no one had to carry anybody!"

And then, of course, there was Roy Orbison.

"Roy! He had the throat of an operatic tenor—no separation when he slides up to the high parts. All those acrobatics that people love in opera tenors, he did in a pop context."

Show over, it all had a lasting effect on Warnes.

"In studying Anita Kerr's arrangements I began to understand how to support a pop record with stacking, and what that does to a song. In her time, a group of singers performed their choir parts together, live, with the band. That’s how we performed at the Ambassador: one pass, live, real, mistakes and all. That’s what’s great about Black & White Night. It’s real."

She contrasts stacking ("a slang term generally used in the recording studio, when one singer can compose an arrangement and then sing all the parts in layers") with the process of "my generation of recording artists, who lowered the costs and risks of recording live by multi-tracking or overdubbing. Meanwhile, digital technology can now 'clone' vocals: Virtual choirs can be constructed by an engineer through 'cut and paste' technology--infinite construction [such that] the live, real, spirited force in the room when music is created live, is absent."

A week after the show, then, Cohen, "like he usually did," sent Warnes a number of new songs to go over and make suggestions.

"He must have been deeply impressed by the show and was very respectful of Roy afterwards," she says. "I picked what I thought I had something strong to add to, including 'Tower of Song'--but didn't tell him I was taking the information I learned from Anita Kerr and applying it. When he showed up at the studio I told him he probably wasn't going to like what I did, but to give me a chance. I'd layered up three or four voices on 'Tower,' and he just loved it and ended up going with that approach for many years. He was hooked on the idea of making his recordings sound more pop."

Warnes notes that when she first came to record in 1967 at the famed Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, Brian Wilson was stacking vocals on his Beach Boys productions.

"He was influenced by barbershop singing, as were a lot of great singers. I learned in high school choirs and always had a vocal arranger head, and when Leonard asked me to write something for 'Tower' and 30 other songs, I'd start with the Beach Boys approach that was sweeter and rhapsodic on songs like 'The Guests.' But Anita Kerr's genius opened my understanding of music in that crash course of Black & White Night—to find out what was missing in a track and put it in with a voice. I had all these hours and hours of learning Anita Kerr stuff when Leonard sent me the tape, and brought that aspect to his music—and he liked it and we did a lot more after that."

And as for Roy Orbison: Black & White Night 30, PBS will air it in March as part of its special programming.

"Black & White Night 30" trailer



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