Until its demolition in 2005, the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd. in Hollywood was home to the Coconut Grove. The glamorous supper club and entertainment venue designed originally like an oasis tent opened in 1921, and for decades the stage hosted leading orchestras and singers while movie industry stars and executives dined and drank at tables.
On Sept. 30, 1987, Roy Orbison taped a Cinemax special there. Black and white film was used to maximize dramatic effect and to retain the retro feel of the club. Joining Orbison on stage was a range of top talent, including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, K.D. Lang, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Tom Waits and others.
Now, Sony/Legacy has released Roy Orbison: Black & White Night, a DVD and CD set to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original Cinemax concert. There also are five alternate takes taped after the audience left. Unfortunately, the cameras ran out of film on the fifth song during the after-concert session, but the new set’s accompanying CD includes the complete audio.
Whether or not you’re familiar with Orbison, the Black & White Night concert remains an essential document. The DVD captures one of his finest stage events, and the camerawork and music are spectacular. Orbison was an interesting singer-songwriter. Many of his pop compositions had a melodramatic and melancholy quality while his lyrics tended to fixate on unattainable love interests or a range of romantic anxieties. His rhythmic arrangements leaned toward the bolero, and his vocal delivered was an odd quasi-operatic attack that seemed to merge campfire storytelling with doo-wop faslsetto.
Born in West Texas, Orbison sifted the cowboy yodeling tradition together with Latin rhythms, sealing them tightly together with a rockabilly guitar. The Beatles loved Orbison, and while watching the new Black & White Night DVD, I couldn’t help but notice that John Lennon borrowed Orbison’s front-on microphone stance (above). Also interesting is how Springsteen can’t take his eyes off of Orbison and how Elvis plays it humble and wins Orbison’s admiration.
Orbison’s stylistic cool and sensitive-male vocal heat was remarkable, and it’s all on display here in glorious black and white. Orbison would die a year later in December 1988 of a heart attack after ignoring warning signs of health trouble and continuing to work at a brutal pace with hopes of reviving his career. He was 52.
JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Roy Orbison: Black & White Night, a 30th anniversary CD/DVD set here.
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