Roy Orbison needed just one take to record the magnificent vocal to his ballad “A Love So Beautiful,” which would appear on his 1989 album “Mystery Girl.” When he finished, producer Jeff Lynne saw that tears were streaming down the Big O’s face.
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Lynne joked.
“No, man – it’s so beautiful I can’t stand it,” Orbison replied.
Within a matter of weeks, the wondrous singer known as the “Caruso of rock” would be dead of a heart attack. He was just 52.
Twenty-five years after “Mystery Girl” pierced countless hearts over the premature loss of the sweet-natured, prodigiously gifted singer, Sony’s Legacy division has reissued an anniversary edition of the album with bonus demos and a DVD on the making-of, featuring interviews with Lynne, Tom Petty, Bono, Orbison’s sons, and more.
The record-business habit of repackaging classic albums in anniversary editions has gotten a little out of hand: The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” was recently overhauled to mark its big sapphire anniversary, its 45th year. But in the case of the golden-voiced Orbison, silver seems like a proper benchmark.
The singer’s all-too-brief comeback, sparked by the inclusion of “In Dreams” on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986) and Orbison’s participation (with Lynne, Petty, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison) in the good-time supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, came during a fallow creative period for pop music. A quarter-century ago, Debbie Gibson and Bobby Brown were among the artists dominating the year in pop.
That was true during Orbison’s first emergence, too. His elegant laments – “Crying,” “It’s Over,” “Only the Lonely” – almost singlehandedly rescued radio from the teenage pap of the early 1960s, when rock ’n’ roll was experiencing its first trough, and he would soon be the headlining act on tours that included second-wave upstarts calling themselves the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones.
They were all in awe of Orbison’s gift. Bruce Springsteen, a diehard, inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and Dylan would write that Orbison sounded as if he were singing “from an Olympian mountaintop.”
There were Greek-style tragedies, too: the death of his first wife, Claudette, in a motorcycle crash, and of two of his young sons in a housefire. Yet Orbison always insisted he was a lucky man.
“I have the greatest life,” he told his second wife, Barbara.
“Mystery Girl” sure sounded like it, led by the hit single “You Got It,” a rare (for Roy) slab of unmitigated exuberance. Even his signature pangs, from the ghostly “In the Real World” to “She’s a Mystery to Me” (written by U2’s Bono and the Edge), were – and remain – bursting with life.
“Roy transitioned well from the ’50s into the ’60s,” said Barbara Orbison, who died in 2011. “In the ’70s he was basically rebuilding a life. He didn’t want to do anything except be somebody in love, with a little money and lots of fun. By the ’80s, he was ready again.”
He played two nights to enraptured audiences at Boston’s old Channel nightclub in early December 1988, just days before his death. “The man had no strain or stress in his voice at any time,” says drummer Jim Keltner in the “Mystery Girl: Unraveled” documentary. That voice: it was a beautiful thing.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.