Leonard Cohen’s Gateway To Roy Orbison: Jennifer Warnes At Black & White Night

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“Make it like Roy Orbison would do it”
~ Leonard Cohen

That Leonard Cohen held Roy Orbison in high regard is a certainty, as evidenced by this excerpt from Various Positions – A Life Of Leonard Cohen by Ira Nadel (Random House of Canada 1996):

In rehearsal [for the 1988 tour] Cohen would tell the band to ‘make it like Roy Orbison would do it.’ The musicians had a picture of Orbison pasted into their chart folder.

And, as noted in Roy Orbison’s “House Without Windows” (Or Hank Williams’ “House Without Love”) Is On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox, #6 on Leonard Cohen’s Top Ten Songs Of 1988 list is “House Without Love” by  Roy Orbison.1

It’s significant that these two Leonard Cohen references to Roy Orbison, both dated 1988, are the only allusions the Lord Byron of Rock ‘n’ Roll made to the Big O I found – until I came across a Jan 30, 2017 article about the re-release of Roy Orbison’s Black & White Night video.

Jennifer Warnes Explains How Roy Orbison’s Black & White Night Impacted Leonard Cohen’s Music

Jennifer Warnes was one of the friends at Roy Orbison’s September 30, 1987 Black & White Night With Friends performance. Her entire account of the event, including Jackson Browne inviting her to participate and her work with T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, and Bonnie Raitt, is a treat to read (and the full article is available at the link below), but the focus of this post is on the influence this experience ultimately had on Leonard Cohen. The following excerpts are pertinent:2

“I told Leonard he needed to be there [at the Black & White Show], because I knew it would be good. He was my friend and my ticket, …  I remember where Leonard was sitting, and Rebecca De Mornay [who was briefly engaged to Cohen] was there…

“In studying Anita Kerr’s arrangements I began to understand how to support a pop record with stacking, and what that does to a song…  She [Warnes]  contrasts stacking (“a slang term generally used in the recording studio, when one singer can compose an arrangement and then sing all the parts in layers”) with the process of “my generation of recording artists, who lowered the costs and risks of recording live by multi-tracking or overdubbing. Meanwhile, digital technology can now ‘clone’ vocals: Virtual choirs can be constructed by an engineer through ‘cut and paste’ technology–infinite construction [such that] the live, real, spirited force in the room when music is created live, is absent.”

A week after the show, then, Cohen, “like he usually did,” sent Warnes a number of new songs to go over and make suggestions. He must have been deeply impressed by the show and was very respectful of Roy afterwards,” she says. “I picked what I thought I had something strong to add to, including ‘Tower of Song’–but didn’t tell him I was taking the information I learned from Anita Kerr and applying it. When he showed up at the studio I told him he probably wasn’t going to like what I did, but to give me a chance. I’d layered up three or four voices on ‘Tower,’ and he just loved it and ended up going with that approach for many years. He was hooked on the idea of making his recordings sound more pop.” [emphasis mine]

So, while it seems safe to assume that Leonard Cohen, the aficionado of jukebox tunes and country music radio, must have been aware of Roy Orbison prior to 1987, it appears that Jennifer Warnes and the 1987 Black & White Night were the catalysts that led Cohen to Orbisize some of his songs and make his “recordings sound more pop.”

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  1. Leonard Cohen – In Eigenen Worten by Jim Devlin []
  2. With Roy Orbison’s landmark all-star ‘Black & White Night’ long form video being re-released in new format, Jennifer Warnes reveals its influence on Leonard Cohen by Jim Bessman (Centerline: January 30, 2017) []