Remembering Roy Orbison

“You Got It! A Salute to Roy Orbison,” now running at the Maui Theater, opens with the voice of the legendary musician’s oldest son praising the very talented star of the new tribute show.

“In my opinion there is only one singer in the world who can do justice to my father’s memory,” announces Wesley Orbison. “And that’s John Stephan.”

Since his days as a child growing up in Australia, Stephan has nurtured a love for the music of the late American icon.

“I grew up loving his music,” he explains. “He was especially huge in Australia. My mother was a singer and I grew up with great music being played all the time, and Roy Orbison was one of those artists who was always on.”

One of the most authentic artists rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced, Orbison was the only American rock musician to chart regularly during the British Invasion, and was so loved that he was invited on tour with both the Beatles and Rolling Stones. (“It was terrible, following Roy,” Ringo Starr remembered in an interview. “He’d slay them and they’d scream for more.”) Years later, he was invited to join Bob Dylan and George Harrison in the Traveling Willburys.

“Roy Orbison was the king of emotion,” says Stephan about his admiration for Orbison’s music. “He put his heart and soul into his music. People from that era sang with emotion and wrote music with emotion. They gave everything into their music. Today the majority of music is so throwaway. It doesn’t have that classic, timeless feeling of the olden days.”

A remarkable singer blessed with a four-octave range, Stephan doesn’t try to imitate Orbison like legions of Elvis impersonators trying to match their idols every move and nuance. His show is more of a respectful homage highlighting many of the star’s No. 1 hits in an entertaining performance that artfully combines music and dance – and draws standing ovations.

Island artists involved in the production include guitarists Halemanu Villiarimo and Sam Ahia.

“A lot of people are doing tribute shows to Roy, where they’re dressed up like him and copy everything about him,” Stephan notes. “I don’t believe in copying other artists or trying to sound like them or look like them. In my show, I’m performing as John Stephan and I don’t try to pretend in any way to be singing like Roy or looking like Roy. It’s a tribute to the great music of Roy Orbison.

Ever since his early days, Stephan has been amazing audiences. There’s a YouTube clip online, which opens with him letting lose on Orbison’s classic “Crying” at the age of 9 on an Australian TV show. And then we see him enthralling 50,000 folks at a CMA festival in Nashville in 2008, singing the same song acapella.

Befriended by country star Vince Gil, Stephan had been invited to perform at country music’s biggest party.

“It was a great opportunity,” he recalls. “The first song I sang was ‘Crying’ and people (before) said, ‘You’re crazy, you can’t do that, they’ve been in the hot sun all day and they’ve had at least five beers and they’re not going to sit back and listen.’ So I started, and the whole place went totally quiet, and I finished, and they erupted in applause and took to their feet. It was just amazing.”

As a child, Stephan’s talent led to working with the Australian Opera Children’s Chorus performing at the Sydney Opera House. “I loved it so much, my brother is an opera singer,” he says. He also entered and won a number of national singing competitions. “I was on stage so much it became my income,” he adds.

After a brief sojourn in college he decided to seek his fortune in America, and landed in Los Angeles at the age of 19.

“I walked into a building which I thought was a booking agency and left a small demo,” he reports. “That night I got a call from a guy named Babyface, the producer, and he said, ‘I was given this CD you left.’ “

A 10-time Grammy Award-winning musician, songwriter and record producer, Babyface is responsible for hits by stars like Whitney Houston, Madonna and Mariah Carey.

The young Australian had inadvertently left the demo at Babyface’s headquarters, and the two musicians soon became friends. “I lived with Babyface’s family for close to two years,” he notes. “It was amazing. It was good coming from Australia and not knowing anyone and ending up in Beverly Hills. So I worked with him for awhile.”

“John has that X factor that is very rare,” Babyface reported.

Stephan then began collaborating with another multiple Grammy-award-winning record producer and songwriter, Walter Afanasieff, who has worked with artists including Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson and Celine Dion.

“John is a superstar, the next big thing,” Afanasieff pronounced.

“He became a good friend and we worked a lot together, but I started to become homesick and went home for a few years,” Stephan says.

Nashville next lured him, and that’s when he hooked up with another celebrated producer/musician, Dann Huff, who has played on hits by Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson and Celine Dion. Stephan’s song writing talent led to country star Blake Shelton picking his tune “Good at Startin’ Fires” as the title track of his 2008 “Startin’ Fires” album.

Vince Gill also recognized Stephan’s talent. “I was so impressed with John’s abilities, that I asked him to join me at the Grand Ole Opry,” Gill enthused. “It was my distinct honor to introduce Nashville to John Stephan.”

While in Nashville, Stephan met Roy Orbison’s eldest son, and plans were hatched to create a tribute album and show.

“So I’m trying to promote Roy Orbison’s music and remind people of the 15 No. 1 hits he had around the world,” Stephan explains. “I sold out in Vegas, and then I was invited to come to Maui, and here I am.”

Aside from performing Orbison signature classics such as “Pretty Woman,” “Crying,” “In Dreams,” “Blue Bayou,” “Only The Lonely,” and the Willbury’s “You Got It,” Stephan pays respect to Hawaiian culture by including a lovely cover of Keali’i Reichel’s “E O Mai” in the show.

“When I first came to Hawaii, I heard it on the plane, and it kept going over and over in my head,” he explains. “We arrived in Waikiki and my 6-month-old son at the time wouldn’t go to sleep. I downloaded the song and played it to him and he fell asleep. Now the only way to get him to sleep is I either have to sing for him or I play the CD. He’s got good taste.”

* “You Got It! A Salute to Roy Orbison” is presented at Maui Theatre in Lahaina weekly at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; and at 8:30 p.m. on Friday. There’s a special matinee show featuring John Stephan and Benise – The Spanish Guitar at 2 p.m. on Monday. For tickets, call 856-7900. Kamaaina rates available.

Virtuoso guitarists Benjamin Verdery and Frederic Hand will appear in a special concert to benefit the Hawaii Nature Conservancy at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Makawao Union Church.

The program will feature Verdery performing his own arrangements of songs by Randy Newman, Elvis Presley, and Prince; music written for him by Yale composer Ezra Laderman; and his own compositions. In addition, he will perform music by J. S. Bach on a special baritone guitar.

Hand will perform music by Bach and classical composer C. W. Gluck, as well as his own compositions.

The concert is the first event in a weeklong master class being taught by the two guitarists, which will culminate in student concerts at Lahaina Jodo Mission on July 30 and Keawala’i Congregational Church in Makena on July 31.

An acclaimed classical musician whose ‘Bach: Transcriptions for Guitar” album was hailed by Guitar Magazine as, “unquestionably the finest playing of Bach ever heard on six strings,” Verdery also excels at creating classical arrangements of songs by rock icons like Jimi Hendrix and Prince.

A brilliant composer celebrated for crafting innovative, extended works for large guitar ensembles, he has recorded and toured with Andy Summers of The Police, and recorded with guitar legend Leo Kottke and flamenco master Paco Pena.

Verdery’s albums include his most recent “Happy Here” with William Coulter, and “Branches,” a solo album with works by Bach, Strauss, Hendrix and Mozart.

Hand is renowned as both a Grammy-nominated and Emmy-winning TV composer and recording artist. The creator of Jazzantiqua, a group The New York Times hailed as “brilliant,” he arranged and performed the theme from the Academy Award-winning film, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” and performed onstage with Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.

“Frederic Hand is a tremendously skilled and expressive guitarist,” praised Guitar Review. “But what makes him unique is that he is also one of today’s most fascinating composers, able to weave together a variety of influences, from jazz to Dowland to the avant-garde.”

* Benjamin Verdery and Frederic Hand will perform a concert to benefit the Hawaii Nature Conservancy at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Makawao Union Church. Suggested donation is $10.