Be­hind the sun­glasses

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - BOOKS - JIM HIG­GINS

WHEN bi­og­ra­pher John Kruth writes that Roy Or­bi­son’s “life seemed to mir­ror that of Job’s from the Old Tes­ta­ment,” he is not stretch­ing too far to make a point.

The singer’s first wife died in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent with Or­bi­son just a few hun­dred yards down the road ahead of her; two of his sons died as boys in a house fire while the singer was over­seas; and poor man­age­ment con­trib­uted to a se­ries of bad al­bums and to Or­bi­son be­ing nearly for­got­ten.

Yet, like Job, as Kruth tells the tale in Rhap­sody in Black, Or­bi­son had a nice come­back, with a dot­ing ( if not strong- willed) sec­ond wife, ad­mir­ing friends in the Trav­el­ing Wil­burys and the hit sin­gle You Got It. Un­for­tu­nately, that 1989 hit was post­hu­mous; Or­bi­son died the year be­fore at 52.

His arias of long­ing and heart­break, such as Blue Bayou, Crying and his mag­num opus, Oh, Pretty Woman, won him elec­tion to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the ad­mi­ra­tion of Bruce Spring­steen, who namechecked Or­bi­son and quoted him in Thun­der Road, one of the Boss’ big­gest hits.

While it’s hard to call Or­bi­son a ma­jor rocker, he’s a trib­u­tary who keeps feed­ing the great river of mu­sic. Per­form­ers as dif­fer­ent as Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter Re­vival ( Ooby Dooby), Linda Ron­stadt ( Blue Bayou), The Cramps ( Domino) and k. d. lang ( Crying) have recorded ex­cel­lent takes on songs as­so­ci­ated with him.

Or­bi­son adopted his trade­mark ac­ces­sory the dark Ray- Bans by ac­ci­dent, when he for­got his pre­scrip­tion sun­glasses at an Alabama gig, Kruth re­ports. They added a touch of mys­tery to his homely face, and au­di­ences came to ex­pect it.

Born in small- town west Texas, Or­bi­son made it to the famed Sun Stu­dios in Mem­phis, early home of Elvis Pres­ley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.

His sound was a poor fit with their more mus­cu­lar mu­sic, though he recorded some cred­i­ble rock­a­billy there ( Ooby Dooby, Go! Go! Go!). He hit his stride with Mon­u­ment Records, with Only the Lonely, Run­ning Scared ( which Kruth notes was in­spired mu­si­cally by Ravel’s Bolero), Crying, Dream Baby, In Dreams and Oh, Pretty Woman ( a rare Or­bi­son clas­sic with a happy end­ing). String sec­tions, back­ing singers and ad­di­tional mu­si­cians crowded the stu­dio spa­ces in his ses­sions, as Or­bi­son and his pro­duc­tion team strove to cre­ate a fit­ting quasi- op­er­atic sound.

Kruth ar­gues that Or­bi­son’s big sound pre­fig­ured some of the later stu­dio moves of Phil Spec­tor, Brian Wil­son and the Boss him­self.

“Yet for all their di­vine ex­cess, there was never a wasted note on Roy’s Mon­u­ment record­ings.”

Un­for­tu­nately, the hit streak pe­tered out, es­pe­cially af­ter man­ager Wes­ley Rose com­mit­ted Or­bi­son to an im­pos­si­ble three al­bums a year for MGM.

“Or­bi­son’s MGM records all too of­ten lacked the rar­i­fied at­mos­phere that made his Mon­u­ment record­ings so time­less,” Kruth writes. Cul­tural changes would no doubt have dimmed Or­bi­son’s star any­way, but Kruth ap­por­tions some blame to Rose’s man­age­ment. As Kruth de­scribes him, Or­bi­son also had a pas­sive streak that some­times led him to yield de­ci­sions to oth­ers.

Af­ter years on the oldies cir­cuit, Or­bi­son popped back into view with the Trav­el­ing Wil­burys, surely one of the most re­laxed su­per­groups ever. Fel­low Wil­burys Ge­orge Har­ri­son, Bob Dy­lan, Tom Petty and pro­ducer Jeff Lynne shared a gen­uine re­spect for their el­der in sun­glasses. Petty and Lynne also co- wrote with Or­bi­son the singer’s fi­nal hit, You Got It.

Kruth is the rare mu­si­cian who writes well about mu­sic for a pop­u­lar au­di­ence. His bi­og­ra­phy is sym­pa­thetic and en­thu­si­as­tic, though he does not let Or­bi­son and his pro­duc­ers off the hook for the bad al­bums or the laugh­able movie he made, The Fastest Gui­tar Alive ( 1967).

His pre­vi­ous books in­cluded bi­ogra­phies of jazz multi- in­stru­men­tal­ist Rah­saan Roland Kirk and singer- song­writer Townes Van Zandt.

“Dif­fer­ent as my sub­jects might seem all three of th­ese men were great lemon­ade mak­ers,” Kruth wrote in an email mes­sage.

“They took the lemons fate/ life what­ever you want to call it dealt them and trans­muted pain and suf­fer­ing into some­thing beau­ti­ful that re­freshed peo­ple’s spir­its.”

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