“I Drove All Night” — Roy Orbison with Ward Thomas and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

A familiar intro started playing under the DJ’s early morning chatter. I knew what was coming. I loved this song…I’d heard it hundreds of times.

But then an unexpected orchestral flourish startled me.

I thought I knew what I was getting…but maybe I was having a senior moment and somehow managed to confuse that well-known intro with an entirely different song.

That puzzled me for a few seconds more, then a familiar lead vocal got under way, from one of the most distinctive voices of the late 20th Century. Now I was really confused — had I just imagined that out of place orchestral flourish? Am I really getting old enough that I’m starting to imagine hearing things that aren’t there?

The drums bothered me too. They weren’t quite right.

Then, catching me off guard, two female voices joined in where I’d never heard them before. I was so confused, I nearly missed my exit off the motorway. What on earth was I listening to?

I didn’t have to wait long. After three hugely confusing and disorientating minutes, the DJ came back on and told us all what we’d just been listening to. Once I understood I wasn’t going completely mad (or at least, not for that reason), I reflected on my experience of listening to the record and decided I’d quite enjoyed it.

It turned out to be one of those occasionally creepy “beyond the grave” collaborations, where someone who’s fortunate enough to still be alive “duets” with someone who’s passed away. In this case, the Roy Orbison classic “I Drove All Night” had been given the “beyond the grave” treatment.

This collaboration was more intriguing than creepy, though. Of course I recognised Roy Orbison’s immensely distinctive voice straight away, so picking him out wasn’t much of a challenge.

But who was singing with him? Turned out it was British country duo Ward Thomas (and, no, that wasn’t even in my Top 100 guesses of potential duet partners).

Twin sisters Lizzy and Catherine Ward Thomas are one of the leading British country acts at the moment. Last year, they did a song I really love called “Cartwheels” (here if you’re interested…https://youtu.be/vHd7sEJJA90 ). Their album, from which “Cartwheels” is the title track is very good too…I even bought a copy of it on CD for the car.

However, the surprises weren’t over. The orchestral flourishes were courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, no less.

Roy Orbison’s original version of “I Drove All Night” was produced by the wonderful Jeff Lynne from ELO, so there was already a great orchestral feel to his record. But I’m sure even Jeff Lynne wouldn’t mind admitting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra added one or two interesting extra dimensions to his already top-notch production work.

The only bit I wasn’t keen on was the drums. In the original Roy Orbison version the drums were a bit more subdued early on, becoming more urgent and driving later on. That light and shade was a really nice feature of Jeff Lynne’s original production work.

The Royal Symphony Orchestra’s version has rather relentless and urgent drums right from the start and keeps them going right through this new version of “I Drove All Night”. It was good, just a little over-done for my personal taste.

That said, the distinct plus, given this was a “proper orchestra”, was that the drums were “live” throughout. Most acts would just have looped a small section right through. No self-respecting orchestra would consider that for a moment.

So the drums were brilliant, and technically impressive. Just a little bit further back in the mix, especially early on, would have suited me better. In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue — the net result is still well worth a listen.

I always associate “I Drove All Night” with Roy Orbison, although Cyndi Lauper had the first big hit with it. The Big O recorded it first, but his version of “I Drove all Night” wasn’t released until after his death.

Cyndi Lauper’s great version made into the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1989… (here, if you’d like to check it out…https://youtu.be/2y1TZXc5DiY ).

Celine Dion also recorded her own version of “I Drove All Night”, although I much prefer the other two versions.

Roy Orbison reached the Top 10 in the UK with his version, after his lifetime vocals had been given an expert posthumous fettling by Jeff Lynne. This version picked up a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal in 1991 into the bargain, and it’s been a staple on radio stations for people of a certain age ever since.

Although I can’t find any stats on it, in the UK at least, whilst I remember hearing Roy Orbison’s version many times over the years, Cyndi Lauper’s equally-excellent version gets a lot less airplay, despite both tracks reaching a similar chart position on their first release.

That’s probably why I associate “I Drove All Night” so closely with Roy Orbison — all those years of hearing his version, rather than Cyndi Lauper’s, on the radio.

“I Drove All Night” was written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. Together, they wrote some of the biggest hits of the 1980s and 90s — “Like A Virgin” for Madonna, “True Colours” for Cyndi Lauper and “Eternal Flame” for the Bangles, amongst many others.

“I Drove All Night” tells the story of someone who is so desperate to be with another person that they drive right through the night so they can be with them.

I drove all night, to get to you
Is that alright?

I rather like the idea of them checking it was OK. I’ve always been intrigued by this line. Is it because they’ve had a falling out and this unexpected arrival in the wee small hours might not be appreciated as much as our traveller had hoped?

Is it because most people would be concerned about a loved one driving unexpectedly through the night just to be with them — what if they fall asleep on the way and crash…will they be on time for work the next morning…is something seriously wrong with them so they’ve had to drive straight here to tell me some really upsetting news? (That’s just a selection of the thoughts that would be going through my head, anyway — morale of the story, never do this to me, no matter how touching a gesture you might have intended it to be…!)

My favourite passage of the lyrics, though, is this section…

What in this world keeps tearing us apart?
No matter where I go, I hear the beating of your heart
I think about you when the night is dark and cold, oh yeah
No-one can move me the way that you do
Nothing erases the feeling between me and you

The last line of that verse makes me think the “is that alright?” line is probably about a couple who have gone their separate ways, but one of them just missed the other too much. However we’ve got to work that out for ourselves. Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly never give us the full picture, which I rather like in a song — it gives you a canvas to paint your own meanings on.

For me, the definitive version of “I Drove All Night”, with due respect to the wonderful Cyndi Lauper and the Ward Thomas sisters, is the Roy Orbison solo version. His vocal is just perfect and Jeff Lynne’s production work showcases his immense talents as a producer perfectly.

But the Big O’s version with Ward Thomas and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is a really nice, and an appropriately respectful tribute to one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century, and one of the founders of rock and roll as we know it today.

If you can’t bear any version but the original, that’s here…https://youtu.be/m5N9IHqqGcA

But, if you haven’t heard it, do give the new Ward Thomas/Royal Philharmonic version of “I Drove All Night” a try. It’s a respectful take on a wonderful classic recording. If you can approach it with an open mind, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did…which is quite a lot…

The video is below, but if you’d prefer to listen to the track on Spotify, you can find it here… https://open.spotify.com/track/6a6G5SI1oKvM7XMCtaGnjc

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