Twenty years ago Roy Orbison and k.d. lang — making her first, big, mainstream media  appearance at the tender age of 25 — appeared on the Tonight Show together to sing a live duet of Roy’s classic song, Crying.

The first thing you notice is what appears to be an obvious disconnect between Roy and k.d. — she’s connected with him and he’s standing there cold and staring. That performance style is how Roy related to the world. He isn’t ignoring her, as some claim, and he isn’t hating on her as others still claim.

He’s concentrating on his performance. k.d., on the other hand, is quite jittery and nervous. She’s searching around for approval and since Roy doesn’t give her any she seeks it out in the response of the band members. A few of them smile at her and nod while playing and k.d. glows in their positive affirmation of her.

The reason k.d. is so fixated on Roy is because she’s watching him for clues on when it’s her turn to sing or not. Crying is a Roy Orbison Song — k.d. understands that — and to make sure she doesn’t sing when he’s supposed to sing, she needs to watch his mouth, neck and throat for clues that he’s about to sing. She’s being careful and cautious and respectful even when she timidly adds some beautiful vocal harmony.

The fact that Roy gives k.d. the “Big Finish” proves that Roy respects k.d. to gift her the glorious peak of the song, and k.d. recognizes that offer of freedom and she closes her eyes, no longer worried about butting in at the wrong time, and wails it out. Finally, the band is delighted to be playing with the pair. You can see in the wide shots that they are not just hanging around and playing by rote. They are febrile, anxious and they know they’re making history.

You can see the excitement bubbling forward in their faces and in their eager playing. The entire Tonight Show performance of Crying by Roy Orbison and k.d. lang is a common musical touchstone of extraordinary means. When Roy Orbison died a year later of a heart attack at the unseemly age of 52, the songwriting world mourned the loss of a great superstar.

When Roy’s wife Barbara was being interviewed on a national call-in television show I was lucky enough to ask her a question live on the air: “Did Roy sing in the shower?” Barbara’s reply consisted of a long pause and then this: “Why, yes, he did sing in the shower. He sang to me every morning while I put on my makeup. How did you know?”

“I knew because Roy’s music told me.”

14 Comments

  1. I’ve you’ve ever seen Roy perform before, Katha, he always appears ethereal and disconnected and his unique and beautiful voice makes him even more of a talent you cannot pin down. He is not of this world, never really fit in and, in the end, he never really had to try to fit in with the middling.

  2. You’re right about that, Katha. Roy had a lot of admirers who were bigger “stars” than he was but they’d just back him up on stage and play in his band every now and then and let Roy take the spotlight. Neat stuff, that.

  3. Hi Donald!
    It’s good to hear from you again. You’re right that Roy was never about looks or showmanship or stardom. He only cared about crafting good songs and performing them. His voice was incredible, beautiful and unique and he knew he didn’t need anything else to mark the world.

  4. Hi David,
    I wonder if there are other great singers who “don’t connect” except through their music? I’ll have to keep an eye out, because most singers in live situations always try to do something to reach out to the crowd and their band members.
    It’s amazing that you were able to speak with Roy’s wife on the call-in show and ask a question of that magnitude.

  5. Hi Chris!
    That’s a great question! What singers don’t care about connecting with an audience? People say Waylon Jennings was that way. He’d just come out sing all his hits and leave. He’d never chat with the audience between songs. It was like listening to a record because there was no “live” element to it since his performances were so stoic and non-emotional.
    It was a thrill to speak to Roy’s wife. She was so warm and eloquent. She was on the Country Music Channel way back when — when it wasn’t called that — and it was a noontime show that sometimes had live callers. The host tried to pawn me off as a maniac not worthy of answering, but Barbara stopped him and was kind enough to answer me. It was a delight!