"There was nobody like Roy in the Orbison clan, not before or since. Although his kin all loved, played and sang country music with genuine feeling, it was Roy, the withdrawn, sensitive kid, who possessed the ability to tap directly into that deep turbulent/sometimes joyful river of song that flowed through his veins and one day would come thundering through the cathedral of his lungs." -- page 3
He was at once one of the most gifted and enigmatic figures in the entire history of rock & roll. In a roller-coaster career spanning more than three decades Roy Orbison would ride to the top the charts then plunge into the abyss of irrelevance. Yet Roy Orbison would prove to be an incredibly resilient character who would bounce back from adversity time and again. The checkered life of the man known simply as "The Voice" is the subject of author John Kruth's captivating new biography "Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison". Although I have been a huge fan all of my life there was an awful lot about this man that I simply did not know. Sadly, Roy Orbison would be forced to endure more than his fair share of tragedy during his relatively short lifetime.
In the opening chapter of "Rhapsody in Black" we discover that our hero actually began his recording career at the tender age of 14 with a group he formed in high school known as the Wink Westerners. Orbison's path to the big time would take him to Sam Phillip's legendary Sun records in 1956 where he scored his first hit single with "Ooby Dooby". Although Roy would record a number of other memorable sides for Sun his career seemed stuck in neutral. As John Kruth observes: "Whether Sam Phillips realized it or not, with Roy Orbison he'd inadvertently found the Pavarotti of the prairie--a Texan who emoted like an Italian opera singer." History shows that it would take a different producer to coax the best out of Roy Orbison. That man was Fred Foster, the owner of the fledgling Monument label who signed Orbison to a long-term deal back in 1959. Foster had the unconventional notion to produce pop music in Nashville. Orbison found himself surrounded by a phenomenal group of musicians including Boots Randolph, Bob Moore and Charlie McCoy. Meanwhile, producer Fred Foster was all too happy to let his talented young vocalist just do his thing. Over the next five years Roy Orbison and company would make some of the most enduring records in the history of rock & roll. Sadly, it would all come to a screeching halt when Roy's manager Wesley Rose convinced his client to leave the friendly confines of Monument to sign a long-term deal with MGM records. They say "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". It was an extremely bad fit from the beginning and the decline in the quality of the music was painfully obvious to just about everyone. Although he remained extremely popular in places like England and Australia Roy Orbison would not have another hit record in his native land for more than two decades. Being an avid record collector and a lifelong student of American popular music I was pretty familiar with a good bit of the history of Roy Orbison's in and out recording career. However, what I discovered in "Rhapsody in Black" was the unspeakable amount of tragedy and bad luck that haunted Roy Orbison throughout his adult life. It hardly seems fair because very little of it was self-imposed. John Kruth does a workmanlike job of chronicling the misfortune that "The Big O" was forced to endure along the way including the tragic death of his wife Claudette on 6/6/66 and the equally heartbreaking death of two of his sons just a couple of years later. With each knockdown Roy Orbison managed to pull himself off the mat and carry on. If nothing else, Roy Orbison proves to be a survivor.
The worm would turn for Roy Orbison in the final decade of his life. Incredibly, he would pick up his very first Grammy Award in 1980 for his duet with Emmylou Harris "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again". A few years later, a whole new generation would be introduced to "The Voice" when he teamed up with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne as part of the super-group Traveling Wilburys. Then in 1986 Orbison recorded the unforgettable concert for Cinemax called "A Black and White Night". There was no doubt about it. Roy Orbison was back in the game. Although his health was in decline he never sounded better
"Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison" just might be the most entertaining book I have read thus far in 2013. I have a great deal of admiration for authors with great vocabularies and John Kruth can turn a phrase with the best of them. He is an extremely gifted storyteller. In my opinion, "Rhapsody in Black" would be a great gift for that baby-boomer in your life. Very highly recommended!
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