"I knew his voice was pure gold," Sam Phillips, founder of the pioneer rock label Sun Records, once said of Roy Orbison. "I also knew if anyone got a look at him he'd be dead inside of a minute."
Dumpy, with a chinless, sappily grinning countenance, his night-owl eyes perpetually hidden by sunglasses, Roy Orbison always has been our most unlikely rock star. But tonight, you can look at him for an hour on Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night (Cinemax at 9), and you'll love what you see.
Shot entirely on 35mm black-and-white film, this latest of the cable company's Cinemax Sessions is an edited version of a concert that Orbison gave Sept. 30 at Los Angeles' Coconut Grove night club. The concert turned into a pop event when many of the contemporary rockers most influenced by Orbison signed on to accompany him. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, T-Bone Burnett and songwriter-singer J. D. Souther assist Orbison's band, while Jennifer Warnes, Bonnie Raitt and K. D. Lang sing backup.
What counts most, however, is Orbison himself. Of all the heroes of rock's first generation, his talent has survived most gracefully. Chuck Berry creaks a little when he duck-walks; Jerry Lee Lewis' voice rasps with wear and tear when he performs his oldies. But Orbison's singing is as beautiful and unsettling as ever. His ringing tenor regularly ascends to a keening falsetto on songs such as "Leah," "Only the Lonely" and "Crying."
Orbison sings every song during Roy Orbison and Friends - this isn't one of those schlocky "tributes" so common to television, in which stars interpret their favorite songs as the honoree stands around looking awkward. No, Roy Orbison and Friends lets Orbison make his own musical testament; and backed by a band whose non-superstars include 30-year rock vets James Burton on guitar and Glen D. Hardin on piano, he sounds great.
This is not to say, however, that Orbison's presence makes the rest of the performers fade into the woodwork. No matter how lovely his singing, Orbison remains as much of an oddball stiff as Sam Phillips thought he was. The visual drama of Roy Orbison and Friends consists in the hovering presence of the other rockers, especially Springsteen and Costello.