October 1st, 2008
12:43 PM ET

The big voice

For me, the most effective scene in the 1987 movie “Less Than Zero” comes at the end. Right at the end, actually.

As the credits roll, over the terse drums on the Rick Rubin-produced track, Roy Orbison’s beautiful voice sings “Life Fades Away.” “I long to be at peace for-ev-er-more/Forevermore. Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,” he announces coolly, and then: “Life fades … a … waaaaay.” A crescendo, etched with pain and emotion, Orbison bringing it home.

The movie, for me, is a mixed bag: soulless, drug-addled L.A. youth talking past each other, with only Robert Downey Jr.’s performance enlivening the proceedings. But “Life Fades Away”? That’s the whole movie in three minutes and 41 seconds.

At the time I saw the film I remember thinking, Roy Orbison is back. Around the same time HBO had aired his performance in the TV concert “A Black and White Night.” Not long after came the Traveling Wilburys album, where he sounded as relaxed and effective as his younger colleagues. (And they - that is, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty - were thrilled to have him.) And then, cruelly, just when his “Mystery Girl” solo album was about to be released, Roy Orbison died on December 6, 1988.

Orbison’s 30-year career is being celebrated in a new box set, “The Soul of Rock and Roll” (Monument/Orbison/Legacy), which came out yesterday. Here it is: the Western swing of the Wink Westerners, the rockabilly of Sun Records, the Fred Foster-produced dramas, the erotic growl of “Mean Woman Blues,” even obscurities such as “So Young,” which Orbison recorded for the 1970 film “Zabriskie Point.”

Bruce Springsteen often talks about being haunted by the “unearthly” (Springsteen’s word) sound of Orbison’s voice on the double-LP greatest hits Monument put out in the ‘70s. Jules Shear introduced one of his best songs, “Whispering Your Name,” with the dedication, “This one is for Roy.” (Get the acoustic version on “Unplug This”; Todd Rundgren’s studio sound of “Watch Dog” is all wrong.) Ringo Starr, who should know, once said, “Roy Orbison was the only act that the Beatles didn’t want to follow.” (The artists played together on a 1963 UK tour.)

What songs. What a man. What a voice.

- Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

Filed under: Music
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