How Don Was Learned an Important Lesson From Roy Orbison
Before Don Was worked with the Rolling Stones, he was co-leader of the Detroit-based band Was (Not Was).
The band had a hit with "Walk the Dinosaur" in 1987, but it was an experience with Roy Orbison the previous day that left Was with a different perspective when he showed up to shoot the video for his group's song.
Was tells UCR about his experiences working with Orbison, including producing a couple of tracks for Orbison's posthumous 1992 album, King of Hearts, which was recently remastered and reissued for its 30th anniversary. A few years earlier, Was was tapped to work on a new version of "Crying" for the 1987 Jon Cryer movie Hiding Out, when he met Orbison. That led to him producing parts of King of Hearts.
Those moments he spent with the legendary singer left Was with a valuable view of what he wanted to do with his career moving forward.
The sessions for King of Hearts were probably a delicate line to walk. How did you get the right vibe?
The important thing is, Can you lock in with the vibe? In the case of Roy, it was really tough. Because not only was he not present, but he was long gone. It came with a lot of complications. A year earlier, I was hanging out at Cello Studios, which is now called EastWest. I was out in the hall and I saw [Toto drummer] Jeff Porcaro standing out there. He was upset because they were having him overdub on top of a Temptations master tape. You know, Eddie [Kendricks] and David Ruffin were already gone. It wasn’t that it gave him the creeps, but it gave him the creeps not to do the authentic thing behind it. They were having him do something different. He was my drummer of choice then and would probably still be if he had survived. So I wanted to call him when I got the call to do these two posthumous tracks with Roy. Jeff was my first choice. But I remembered the encounter in the hallway about the Temptations. I didn’t want to freak him out. He said, “No, no, as long as it’s done the right way with respect to who the artist is, I love doing it.” So he came in and played on the Roy sessions. For that, we didn’t want to do anything maudlin or garish or un-Roy-like. We wanted it to feel like he was there - to the extent that we even set up a microphone in the vocal booth in Studio 2. We tried to feel him through the headphones.
Listen to Roy Orbison's 'We'll Take The Night'
Orbison wrote "We'll Take the Night" with JD Souther and Will Jennings. Did you reach out to those guys at all?
No. I know I sent it to him. You just want to go sometimes with an unfettered approach to it. What does it sound like to you? Also, what would Roy have wanted? I got to know him pretty well. He was a man without affectation. He was a very humble, sweet, straightforward, honest, positive guy. He was kind of like a Tibetan monk, in a way. He was very Zen, very cool. I never saw him lose his cool ever. I never saw him get mad about anything. We hung out a little bit together. One time after we did “Crying,” David Was and I became real good friends with him and we all went up to Big Sur one time to write songs. We got three cabins and I was shocked. He went to LAX and he was on his own and obviously one of the most iconic … he looks like Roy Orbison.
He sticks out. He can’t hide.
Yeah, and he was just nice to everybody. Obviously, everybody recognized him, but he was just cool and sweet. A very real guy. That’s what he [also] favored in music. Even when you hear some of the real old Monument records, the productions … it’s still got his humble honesty at the core, which is why the records work so well. Those wouldn’t have been hits with someone else singing it. “Crying” is certainly operatic, but it was not affected. It was not a guy showing off: “Yeah, I can hit that fuckin’ note.” That wasn’t him. That was just him bleedin’, you know?
How did you end up working on the new version of "Crying" with Orbison and k.d. lang for the Hiding Out movie in 1987 before all of this?
It was a really weird set of circumstances. David Was and I came in late in the game. They wanted that song for the film. They wanted to cut a new version of it. This just goes to show you how goofy film can be sometimes. [Laughs] And by the way, this was 35 years ago. I may have a lot of this wrong. But this is what I remember: Before we were involved, [they were working with] Pete Anderson, who is a friend of mine and a great musician. He was hired to cut that, but with the directive from the film company that he was to recreate the original record note for note, except that it’s a duet with k.d. lang. But he had to do it 10 beats per minute slower. Why? Because the record was too short for the scene. I’m sure Pete’s response was, “Let’s put an instrumental section in the middle and make it longer.” But they insisted on slowing it down. Pete did what he was told and that arrangement doesn’t work 10 beats per minute slower. That’s a lot, whatever that is, going from 90 to 80 beats per minute. It was so slow that gravity barely held it on the earth.
Listen to Roy Orbison and k.d. lang's Version of 'Crying'
It’s not a fast song, to begin with.
Exactly. He didn’t have a prayer. And somehow, he got those incredible vocals out of Roy and k.d. They’re magnificent vocals. I don’t know if he just got fed up with the film company or if he had dates with Dwight [Yoakam] - he was still playing live with him at that point. Whatever it was, they knew it wasn’t working and he didn’t want to work on it anymore. They gave it to us and I remember we mixed it on my birthday. We inherited this tape, and we went to a studio and listened to it. We knew the vocals were great, and we knew the arrangement wasn’t working at that tempo. I thought, “Well, we should just make a new track that works with this tempo.” When I sat down to play along with it, it felt kind of country-ish. I’d never recorded in Nashville and I didn’t know anybody there. This was before I [worked with] Bonnie Raitt. The day after we mixed it, we did the video for “Walk the Dinosaur,” so we were nobodies and very inexperienced. We had no cachet with anybody. All I knew was that I liked the sound of Neil Young’s Harvest album. I got [Young’s longtime producer] David Briggs' phone number and I explained the situation to him. He said, “Don’t worry, man. Get on a plane, bring the tapes, I’ll put a band together for you and we’ll make a new track.” So it was magnificent. I couldn’t believe it. I flew down there and I’d never been there before. It was in the old days - Music Row was actually Music Row. We went to his studio, which I think it’s the same studio where they cut Harvest. He put a great band together and it was a couple of takes and they just reinvented the song. I was just blown away. It was beautiful. All of a sudden, the thing came to life and it had a new vibe to it. That was it. It was one afternoon and I got back on a plane, and then the next day we went to the studio and mixed it. I called Don Smith, who I ended up working with a lot. He had worked with Keith Richards and [he later] did [the Rolling Stones'] Voodoo Lounge. I made a number of records with him, but it was the first time I’d met him. Someone recommended that he’d be a good guy to mix it, so he came to the studio and mixed it. David and I sat up all night with Roy - it was the first time we’d met him - and we had a great time. It sounded beautiful. We walked out of there at about six in the morning, and we had to go to the set at what’s now Henson Studios on the A&M Soundstage for the video to “Walk the Dinosaur.” We had such a great night with Roy. He was just such a soulful, humble sweet guy and very forthcoming. He’d done this incredible vocal, right? And then we walk in just as they’re greasing up the girls to do the dance. I was so depressed, man. It was my birthday and I thought, “Oh, man, it’s come to this. We need greased-up girls to do what Roy Orbison can achieve with just his vocal.” I was really bummed out. [Laughs] I still can’t listen to the song anymore because of that moment. But it was also just a lesson. If you’ve got to grease up girls to get a hit record, maybe something’s wrong.
Watch Was (Not Was)'s 'Walk the Dinosaur' Video