As was ever so plainly evident with the release of his second album, Catch The Wind, the Dublin boy raised in County Kildare had ears like antennae and what they tuned in to became embedded for the long haul – that is, life. In the notes to that fine album I opened that “Like all musical Irishman, like all good creative Celts, Damien – whose affection for words is taken to another level by his role as a novelist – has an ear attuned to the inherent quality of a song.”
It was his father who headed him in the direction of things Orbison though there’s no doubt that, like Bruce Springsteen, he would have come upon it all himself and been irrevocably marked by the experience. Or like another Dublin lad, U2’s Bono, who once marvelled at how Roy was “As gentle, wise and mysterious as his voice. His great gift was to turn the pain and bad luck that he had endured for a lot of his life into ground-breaking shiny pop songs that were a light to everyone else. He was the finest white pop singer on the planet.”
Damien had already led a family band in Ireland, recorded in America, and made the Irish Top 100 before he found himself in Sydney, Australia, throwing in his lot with myriad hopefuls at an Australian Idol audition. On the journey through to his ultimate crowning in 2006 he drew upon sounds, styles and approaches that had impacted upon him and one of those was, perhaps inevitably, Roy Orbison. Not only did his soaring rendition of the sublime Crying lift the roof off, it also came to the attention of Roy’s widow Barbara, who sent down a message to the station asking for a copy of the stirring performance.
What she saw stayed with her; which is why you find her credited as Executive Producer on this project and why the release of the tribute album is set to coincide with what would have been Roy’s 75th birthday. “It was such a nice surprise to have received a call from Australia in regards to the young artist Damien Leith wanting to record an album of Roy Orbison songs. It is always such a nice surprise that even to this day, Roys music continues to inspire new generations of singers and songwriters around the world … Damien, You Got It!” says Barbara of Damien Leith.
While it was not necessarily inevitable that Damien would record an album such as this, fate cannot be discounted. “I grew up with In Dreams, I loved Leah, they were some of the songs that taught me how to sing, how to use my voice,” he reveals. “In fact, In Dreams may be my earliest memory of Roy. A couple of years ago I started doing him live again, that song and Crying, and it went over incredibly well. “But when I took it on seriously, I was actually adamant about NOT sounding like him, about not just trying to imitate him. I mean certainly, with things like Only The Lonely I couldn’t go far from the original, but this was always intended to be a Damien Leith album, one that draws upon a unique body of song.”
From a truly unique creator. Certainly the boy from Wink, Texas could rock on with the best of them (as evidenced by his first hit, on the legendary Sun label, Ooby Dooby) but, though the kickers (like Working For The Man, Dream Baby and Candy Man) would always be part of his mix, he truly came into his own with maudlin, melodramatic almost operatic ballads. He projected an image radically different to other young rock’n’roll stars. Hiding behind his dark glasses, he could be an enigmatically moody, withdrawn individual who cherished his privacy. Yet those who encountered the man, including myself, were struck by a deferential modesty and soothing sincerity and by an ability to make you feel that everything he had accomplished up until that point in his life had been for the sole purpose of being able to sit down and tell you all about it.
Roy Orbison soared, swooped and serenaded us with sturdy, shimmering sounds of rich splendour that become part of our lives. Because his hit run came a little after most of the original rock’n‘rollers, he bridged two phases of popular music and was able to tour in various parts of the world with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – as a headliner. In fact, in 1964 he achieved the seemingly impossible by scoring a #1 in Beatle-crazed America with Oh, Pretty Woman. Dressed in sombre black, not much given to conversation in public, Roy projected an imposing stage persona and an incomparable ‘cool’ combined with an impeccable musical integrity that many younger performers found to be quite irresistible.
That he wrote or co-wrote most of his songs, most of his timeless hits, at a time when there were the Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building professionals on hand to supply repertoire to the young stars of the day, renders him even more remarkable and admirable. Indeed it is a testament to his enormous artistry. Little wonder that Messers Dylan, Harrison, Petty and Lynne were not so much honoured as schoolboyishly-excited to have him in their lil’ group and The Big O deftly stamped the Traveling Wilbury’s project indelibly with his trademarked quavering bel-canto tenor voice. As the ‘Quiet Beatle’ once put it, “He could have been an opera singer.”
For a man, as he puts it himself, “Drawn to great songs being sung very well” Damien was both dazzled and daunted by the task that lay before him, for his fifth album. “We had to be really careful with what we picked. It was much more challenging than the Catch The Wind album because these are complicated songs, believe me. Even the seemingly simple ones were much more complex than I imagined. I mean, he would go to minor chords that other singers wouldn’t. And to get them just right I had to really, really work on them.”
The load was lightened and the task rendered truly pleasurable by the participants. Not just the producers, including Damon Elliott (who has worked with Beyonce, Pink, Gwen Stefani and Macy Gray), Marti Frederikson (who has worked with Aerosmith, Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Faith Hill), Stuart Crichton (Kylie Minogue, Delta Goodrem. Guy Sebastian and Sugarbabes), Wayne Connolly (Silverchair, Josh Pyke, Vines) and David & Dan Huff (formerly of hard rock act Giant, Keith Urban, Jewel, Martina McBride and Reba McEntire).
songwriters, producers Keith Urban, Martina McBride, Faith Hill), but those fellow performers who graced the sessions with their own, let us say, something special.
When Damien took on Handle With Care he effectively assembled his very own Wilburys – himself, Ilan Kildron from the Potbelleez, Mark Gable from the Choirboys and Idol alumni, the highly regarded Bobby Flynn. With Blue Bayou, known to many as a 1978 hit for Linda Ronstadt, the keening femme tones come to us from the mellifluous McClymonts – Brooke, Sam and Mollie. This Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Chemistry does know a thing or two about powerful blends.
“It takes you on a journey” says Damien, for this is the Roy of the first half of the sixties and this is the Roy of the end of the eighties, when he was perpetually surrounded by some of the important artists on the planet, many of whom (including Bono & the Edge, Elvis Costello and Fleetwood Mac’s Billy Burnette) rushed to write him songs. There’d been some outside contributions in the first phase, though not that many. Standing tall has always been Boudleaux Bryant’s pretty-much perfect Love Hurts, which you’ll hear here in what its singer describes as ”a more folkier treatment.”
Caught somewhere between respect and acknowledgement, between tribute and interpretation, is a true command. Damien understands, sometimes burrows beneath that spell, that alchemy that was at the heart of that which we so loved about an Orbison record.
In putting it together there were moments when the planets instantly aligned, there were other moments when the right tone and spirit remained elusive for longer than they should have. And there moments our tribute-giver is not likely to ever forget. Like being left alone during a visit to the famous RCA Studio B in Nashville, where Roy had put down most of his masterworks, and singing In Dreams just for himself.
Captured at sessions in a half dozen studios – in Nashville, Los Angeles and Sydney – Roy proved to be an ever-evolving odyssey for a singer who started out a fan and very likely ended up as a disciple. A singer who readily declares: “Roy Orbison, his soulful voice and dignified artistry, has touched millions of people across all generations.” That he touched them so profoundly is evidenced not just by reams of hits that will never fade but by six Grammy Awards (one for Lifetime Achievement) and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and two Songwriters Halls of Fame
“There’ll only ever be one Roy.”
Yeah, verily and more so.