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Backstage at the Roy Orbison Tribute

February’s star-studded tribute to the late Roy Orbison at Universal Amphitheatre--taped for a Showtime special premiering Saturday at 10 p.m.--was an event where, in the words made famous by another benefit, egos really did seem to be checked at the door. Orbison was enough of a legend--and a gentle man--that, even in death, he reduces grown celebrities to childlike fans.

Chris Isaak was one of several performers backstage collecting autographs from fellow cast members; he’d brought along a vintage Orbison songbook. “You see, I have two Syd Straws,” he pointed out. “They’re worth a lot.”

Among the others in the diverse cast of rock and country stars on hand to put their John Hancocks on the Orbison songbook--literally and figuratively--were Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty, Iggy Pop, k.d. lang, John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, Michael McDonald, B.B. King, Was (Not Was), a reunited lineup of original Byrds and even Bob Dylan.

Of them all, Isaak is widely acknowledged as probably the closest of any modern rocker in mood and style of Orbison--the all-time master of the melodramatic pop ballad in classics like “Only the Lonely” and “In Dreams,” plus a rockabilly pioneer. But for Isaak, like most performers on the bill, this benefit marked one of the first times he dared perform an Orbison song in public.

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Even though Orbison was a, if not the, primary influence, said Isaak, “I never did any of his songs, because I figured as long as he was alive, he could do ‘em so much better.”

According to Barbara Orbison, her husband didn’t like that kind of talk. “People would always say to Roy, ‘I would never touch this song...Nobody could do it better.’

“But Roy the songwriter always separated himself from Roy the singer, and the songwriter in him always wanted a Top 10 song by somebody else,” added Barbara, who organized the concert to benefit several organizations that help the homeless. “So this is wonderful for me to see, because just about everybody stepping on that stage is doing something real magical--that is, 90% of them are singing one of Roy’s songs and they’re making the songs theirs.”

Fogerty was one of the few who did record an Orbison song while he was alive. He remade “Ooby Dooby,” an early silliness of Roy’s, for one of his first post-Creedence Clearwater albums, and resurrected it once more this night.

“The thing still sounds as great as ever,” said Fogerty. “I was in my kitchen a couple of weeks ago playing Roy’s ‘Ooby Dooby'--the unadulterated, messed-up version--and then ‘Go Go Go’ came on. And in the middle of that song, I became 12 or 13 years old again, standing there with an imitation broomstick, playing the guitar.”

Most of the performers opted to pay homage to Orbison in tried-and-true fashion: From Dwight Yoakam’s twangy rendition of the ‘50s standard “Claudette” to JohnnHiatt’s sly take on Orbison’s final 1989 hit, “You Got It”; from lang’s show-stopping “Crying” to the all-female, all-star rendition of “Oh, Pretty Woman” by the Femmes Fatales (lang, Raitt, Tina Weymouth, Wendy & Lisa and others).

“Roy always said his voice was a gift, and he didn’t have anything to do with it, and the only way he knew to keep a gift was to freely share it with everybody,” said Barbara Orbison. “When you have a gift like that, there’s a responsibility too. Everybody doing the show, I think, is proud to have helped a cause and to show their love and respect for Roy. There was something magical in the room, and I think it had to do with just giving back.”

For many onlookers, the most “magic” moment came when Dylan unexpectedly sneaked on stage while the Byrds were performing his “Mr. Tambourine Man” to join in on raggedy vocals and guitar.

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But perhaps even more magical was the extent to which Orbison’s famous gentlemanly spirit pervaded the proceedings, to the point that several witnesses swear up and down they spotted reclusive, ornery Dylan actually chatting it up with record store retailers at the mammoth tent party after the show. Now that’s the sort of thing that only happens “in dreams.”


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