Roy Orbison is not your average rocker. He was born in Wink, Texas, and he's over 40, well over 40, even older than Mick Jagger. He made his rockabilly debut on Sun Records in 1956 with "Ooby Dooby." He hit his stride as a Nashville songwriter and performer for Monument Records in the 1960's. He still wears tinted glasses and an odd helmet of jet-black hair. His performing style is strait laced. No shaking and rattling here.
But don't be deceived. Mr. Orbison is still an enormously influential figure on the music scene. Ample evidence can be found on Cinemax Sessions: Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, which can be seen tonight at 10 on the Cinemax pay-cable service. Produced by Stephanie Bennett and directed by Tony Mitchell, this superb music special was filmed in 35-millimeter black and white. The style is perfect, capturing a sense of the past while demonstrating that the Orbison repertory is as fresh as ever.
Performed at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, this is no ordinary session. Mr. Orbison is joined by a one-time-only superband. Contributing the backup vocals, the "sha la la la" motifs, are Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, Jackson Browne, K. D. Lang and J. D. Souther. The guitar section includes Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, T-Bone Burnett, James Burton and Bruce Springsteen. Glen D. Hardin is on piano, and Alex Acuna is on percussion. There is also a small string section.
There are no frills. Courtesy of lean editing, one number quickly follows another. The spotlight is kept firmly on Mr. Orbison. The others aren't even identified, never mind introduced. The audience, dotted with celebrities, is seated at tables and is clearly swept up in ebullient vibrations.
Hardly seeming to move a muscle, though sometimes shifting disconcertingly into country keening and rhythm-and-blues falsetto, Mr. Orbison rambles confidently through the songs he made famous. These include "Only the Lonely," "Dream Baby," "Leah," "Candy Man," "Oh, Pretty Woman" and "In Dreams," which he re-recorded for the movie Blue Velvet.
The ballads can sometimes get sticky, their formula crescendos suggesting that Mr. Orbison may have overdosed at some point on Ravel's "Bolero" or Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone." The up-tempo rock numbers are uniformly irresistible. Mr. Orbison doesn't have to shake or rattle. His audience does it for him. Just watch the look of sheer enjoyment on Mr. Springsteen's face.
Mr. Springsteen attended Mr. Orbison's induction more than a year ago into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. He said at the time: "In '75, when I went into the studio to make 'Born to Run,' I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector. But most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison." This session of Roy Orbison and Friends shows why he was quite serious.