november 2008

The Dark Star Endures

By David McGee

Roy Orbison
Monument/Orbison Records/Legacy

Let it be said that Barbara Orbison has been a most dutiful steward of her late husband Roy's towering legacy, the latest manifestation being this four-CD chronicle of his complete career. It's true that there can never be enough Roy Orbison music in the world, but there have been so many hits collections, a previous box set from Columbia in 1988, and, in 2001, an ambitious seven-CD, 151-track box set from the Germany-based Bear Family label (retailing for around $270). Still, it's likely that this exemplary new box set will find its biggest audience among Orbison completists, who now, at last, have a career chronicle embracing not only the pre-Sun years through the Monument years, as do most other Orbison overviews, but also touches down in the '70s and '80s when he was doing good work on MGM, Elektra/Asylum and, of course, Virgin (when he was produced by Jeff Lynne, T Bone Burnett and, for only one cut but the best of the lot ["She's a Mystery to Me"], Bono), and adds some extra flavoring on Disc 4 by including cuts from the Class of '55 (with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis) and Traveling Wilburys projects, along with three Orbison songs used in recent films plus a previously unreleased live version of "It's Over." The other big advantage this box has over the 1988 version is vastly improved sonics, producer Gregg Geller and mastering engineer Vic Anesini adding to their exemplary record of restoring fading treasures to state of the art audio standards. In addition, the liner booklet includes thoughtful, insightful reminiscences of working with Orbison on his legendary recordings by his Monument producer Fred Foster and his co-writer Joe Melson.

The classics and formidable comeback work of the '80s are found on Discs 2 through 4; though these contain some rare tracks-such as the song "So Young" from Michelangelo Antonioni's near-forgotten first post-Blow Up film, Zabriskie Point and two cuts from Roy's deservedly forgettable cinematic debut, The Fastest Guitar Alive-and some previously unissued sides ("Land of 1000 Dances"—good but it won't make you forget the original), Disc 1 is an invaluable portrait of the artist as a young man, from his pre-Sun tenure with the Wink Westerners (whose "Hey Miss Fannnie" is here), which evolved into the band Sam Phillips first heard, the Teen Kings. Its 32 cuts include 10 demos from the mid-'50s period, nine of which are previously unissued, all showing Orbison quietly mapping out the emotional terrain of new songs, most featuring only his searching vocals and guitar. A previously unreleased (live) Teen Kings version of "Tutti Frutti" is startling in its intensity, and in the Kings and Wink Westerners tracks you can hear Orbison's vocal artistry beginning to take shape, along with his underrated guitar work. These formative explorations are endlessly fascinating, and despite being of a low-fi nature have been restored to a warm, analog immediacy by Geller and Anesini. It doesn't take an expert to pinpoint the artist who was having a profound impact on Orbison's style before and even during the Sun years-a fellow named Elvis Presley. You can hear Orbison reaching for Presley-like urgency in the Teen Kings' "Tryin' To Get To You," and a previously unissued "Guitar Pull Medley," which sounds like a casual living room gathering of friends (a female voice is heard breathlessly extolling "I Was the One," the dramatic B side of Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel" single-this might be Claudette, Orbison's wife and subject of the like-titled song he gave to the Everly Brothers), is a virtual Elvis homage, with Orbison performing "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "I Was the One," and "That's All Right," as well as a hard-charging version of Ronnie Hawkins's "Mary Lou." Even in 1960, after he'd had big hits with "Only the Lonely," "Blue Angel," "Running Scared" and "In Dreams," the spirit of Elvis infuses Orbison's powerful reading of Don Gibson's "I'd Be a Legend In My Time," which would become a #1 single 14 years later for Ronnie Milsap, an alumnus of one of Elvis's studio bands.

Of course, and ultimately, it's the Monument monuments that carry the day, and they're all here, sounding better than ever. Fred Foster believed in big productions-nothing about Orbison's Monument recordings can be considered "stripped down," and those sessions were among the first in Nashville to use large string sections-but the voice was always hot in the mix. Orbison never battled the arrangements, as would later on his celebrated 1989 comeback album, Mystery Girl. Rather, the voice established the mood, and the arrangements were sculpted to heighten the tension and to mirror the stories' fevered, anxiety-riddled atmosphere. Teamed primarily with Joe Melson in the early '60s and with Bill Dees in the late '60s, Orbison delivered songs that broke with standard songwriting formula and came on instead like mini-operas, minus the bloodlust, but fully invested in tragic melodrama. Paranoia, dread, and fatalistic anticipation were the dominant states of mind of those early '60s gems-"Running Scared," "Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel)," "Crying," "In Dreams," "It's Over," "Leah" (perhaps his most stunning moment on record, with a song that builds tension incrementally from verse to verse, without a chorus ever surfacing)-but there were also moments of aching tenderness in "Blue Angel," "Blue Bayou," and "Dream Baby." And of course Orbison could kick it into a higher gear and rock out, as he had done at the start with the wild-ass Wink Westerners and Teen Kings, and in that mode he produced, in 1964, "Oh, Pretty Woman," his last Number One single, but more significant an acknowledged rock & roll classic that still ignites a dancefloor whenever it's played on the PA or covered by a band. Orbison's voice was one of the most remarkable instruments in rock, and he used it to full capacity, most effectively on "In Dreams" when that full-bodied tenor rose from a strong, straightforward delivery to a plaintive wail, followed by a piercing falsetto shriek-always in tune, mind you-in a performance of breakthtaking majesty and passion, full of dark insinuation and the dreaded chill of abandonment. Rarely have a producer, an artist and material been so ideally matched as when Fred Foster was behind the board rolling tape on Roy Orbison. For those whose desire is to absolutely possess Roy Orbison, the pre-Sun recordings and guitar-vocal demos, not available elsewhere for the most part, are something akin to a musical Rosetta Stone for this artist. In that light, The Soul of Rock and Roll may explain this singular, dignified, mysterious artist better than any other collection.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024