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.”