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ORBISON : Roy Orbison, the Man in Black, Riding High on Comeback Trail

October 20, 1988|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — George Bush might have his Beach Boys and Crystal Gayle, and Michael Dukakis his Paul Simon and Barbra Streisand. But neither candidate campaigning for the presidency can boast the cavalcade of pop-superstar support that Roy Orbison can. His campaign for a successful comeback has attracted the likes of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, and U2's Bono Vox.

"I prefer to call it a renaissance," said Orbison, who will be appearing here Friday night at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park. "When my wife, Barbara, and I decided to move out to Los Angeles (from Nashville in 1984), it was for two reasons.

"No. 1, we wanted to get our lives in order with management and promotion and a good go-getter record company. And, No. 2, we felt I would be more free to do what I do best, which is write and sing songs. We had our plan, and God must have had his plan, too, because a lot of things just happened, particularly over the last two years."

Indeed. In 1986, several of Orbison's songs were featured in the critically acclaimed movie, "Blue Velvet." A year later, he was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of Elvis Presley, James Brown, Ray Charles and Buddy Holly.

Off and running, Orbison soon found his campaign staff swell with a veritable "Who's Who?" of pop-music heavyweights.

Last January, he performed many of his best-loved hits--including "Only the Lonely," "Running Scared," "Crying," and "Oh, Pretty Woman"--on an hour-long Home Box Office/Cinemax cable television special. Among the members of his all-star "back-up" band were Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, J.D. Souther, Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Warnes.

Later this month, Warner Bros. Records will release the debut album by a band called the Traveling Wilburys. The group consists of Orbison, Dylan, Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.

And, in January, Orbison's first album of new material in almost a decade will come out on the Virgin Records label. Lending a hand in the studio: Harrison, Bono, and Lynne.

Nearly all of Orbison's "friends" have publicly acknowledged the influence he's had on their own careers, and on rock 'n' roll in general.

"It's amazing, and it's wonderful," said Orbison, 52. "I think you have to be open for someone to say, 'I love you,' because it's a really neat feeling. Becoming aware that all these people liked what I did, and what I do, and then working with them and reciprocating . . . it really felt good."

Orbison is particularly pleased with his soon-to-be-released solo album, which includes a song each by Bono and Lynne (who also produced the LP) as well as "some Orbison songs, definitely some Orbison songs," he said.

"It's a really tough thing to go out and make an album of 'Cryings' and 'Running Scareds,' things like that," he added. "But if you're really inside the business, if you have credibility and support from other artists, as I do, people will give it a shot.

"Hopefully, everybody will want to listen to the album. My music hasn't really changed that much over the last 30 years, and I think that puts me in an ideal situation. To have an artist you like, to be able to say, 'I heard him when I was 8, and he still sounds the same,' is a wonderful thing. It's like a good car will always be a good car."

This good car rolled off the Sun Records assembly line in Memphis back in the middle 1950s, along with such other rockabilly models as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

Orbison's first Sun release, "Ooby Dooby," was one of the label's best-selling singles of 1956. In his heart, however, Orbison--born in Wink, Tex., 20 years earlier--was a balladeer. His quavering, bel-canto tenor wasn't raw enough for rockabilly, and his attempts to shake, rattle, and roll like the other Sun artists appeared forced, even silly.

Four years later, Orbison left Sun, and Memphis, for Monument Records in Nashville. There, he was finally allowed to sing the kind of songs he loved best: melodic ballads with sentimental lyrics, lush orchestration, soaring vocal and instrumental crescendoes, and emotionally explosive climaxes.

From 1960 to 1966, Orbison scored nearly 2 dozen Top 40 hits. As his music became introspective, so did his persona. He dressed entirely in black, wore dark glasses and, instead of prancing around on stage, as he had in his rockabilly days, he stood in one place, as still as a statue.

With the arrival of the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion bands, Orbison, like most American rockers, found it increasingly difficult to crack the charts. His last hit, "Twinkle Toes," peaked at No. 39 in 1966. The same year, his wife, Claudette, was killed in a motorcycle accident. In 1968, two of his three children perished in a fire.

His career and his personal life in shambles, Orbison called timeout. He remarried in 1969 and for the next decade, he concentrated on building a new family and battling poor health (in 1979, he underwent open-heart surgery).

Still, Orbison continued to tour and record, albeit sporadically, and with little success. In 1980, however, a duet with Emmylou Harris, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again," from the sound track to the movie "Roadie," brought him his first chart hit in 14 years.

A year later, Orbison formally announced his candidacy for a comeback at a critically acclaimed concert in New York City. But it wasn't until "Blue Velvet" and his subsequent induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame that Orbison's campaign really got off the ground.

And now that he's been getting help from so many of his friends, Orbison is predicting nothing short of a landslide.

"Everything's been going wonderfully well," he said, "and a large part of it is that these people are really great colleagues."

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