Welcome to the first post in what I hope will be a series called “I Was There.” Every now and then we’ll interview someone in the Nashville area who was there when a popular public television show or concert performance was taped. In this edition, we emailed a few questions to local songwriter and composer Stacy Widelitz, who called me on my cell phone at 11:30 at night recently to tell me he was there when the iconic Roy Orbison & Friends: Black and White Night special was recorded at the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on September 21, 1987. He had caught the special during a recent pledge drive where I casually asked the viewing audience to call in and let us know if they were there. I never imagined someone actually would.
Stacy is an accomplished songwriter and composer, and is probably best known for co-writing the Patrick Swayze smash “She’s Like the Wind” for the Dirty Dancing Soundtrack. He also serves as the president of the Nashville Film Festival board, drives a really cool car and is a super nice guy.
I assume this was not open to the public. How did you hear about it and wind up at the show?
Patrick Swayze and his wife, Lisa, had been invited. He was the hottest thing in Hollywood at the time due to the unexpected success of “Dirty Dancing”, and we’d been friends and co-writers for a while at that point (we wrote “She’s Like The Wind” together). He called me and said to get down to the Ambassador Hotel as quickly as possible, but he wouldn’t tell me why. He said, “Trust me, you want to be here”. He left my name with security, and when I was ushered in I immediately saw Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello onstage. Then I started picking out the other performers, and realized this was a huge deal.
I never get tired of watching the show, but you were actually there. Was it as amazing as I imagine? When you were there, were you aware that you were seeing something historic?
Yes. And it was also enormously entertaining. What one may not realize watching the show, however, is that it took over 3 hours to film. There were retakes, some technical glitches, etc.. But the music was incredible, and the sound in the room was great.
The show remains eternally popular on public television, especially as a pledge special. Why do you think as a concert film it endures?
First, it’s Roy Orbison, one of the greatest voices and writers of popular music. He’s simply amazing in the show. Second, the sheer number of legendary musicians all onstage at once, and the joyful sense of celebration that comes across from them. Third, the look of the film is great – that grainy black and white captured the feeling in the room perfectly.
Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel, where this was recorded. Is there some marker there or something in the kitchen acknowledging that?
I went into the kitchen during one of the breaks in filming just to see where Kennedy was shot. It was a very eerie feeling, but there was no marker. As a matter of fact, the hotel was already slated for demolition at that point.
Orbison died just over a year after this was taped. Do you remember when and where you were when you learned that Roy Orbison died? Did you immediately think back to this night?
I don’t remember exactly where I was, but I did immediately think of that night, and was very saddened. I had the pleasure of meeting Roy after the filming, and he was very gracious and soft-spoken. As a songwriter, it was a big thrill for me.
On the broadcast, you can spot Billy Idol, Sandra Bernhard and Kris Kristofferson. Anyone else there you remember?
Oddly, no – my attention was so focused on the music.
I was at the Ryman recently for Levon Helm’s Ramble on the Road. I don’t think I’ll soon forget it. It was being recorded and may one day become a concert film classic. Any other shows you’ve been to since the Roy Orbison taping that feel like that to you?
There are shows I’ve seen that I wish were taped, like the time at a club in LA when I saw Lou Rawls and Edgar Winter get up onstage and do an impromptu duet of “Tobacco Road”. But there’s nothing that stands out more than that night at the Ambassador Hotel – it was a privilege to be there.
If you “were there” at the taping of a great public television program, drop me a line at email@example.com.