Roy Orbison’s singular place in rock ‘n’ roll
I remember coming downstairs that morning in 1988 and hearing, on The Today Show I think, that Roy Orbison had died, at age 52 and only just then settling into a career resurgence with his compatriots, the Traveling Wilburys. What I can’t quite get my head around is the fact that, as of this past Saturday, December 6, Orbison already has been dead two full decades. A whole generation has come along in the interim, and I wonder what they could possibly make of Roy Orbison.
The Big “O” must seem an odd fit for anyone who is, by reason of their recent vintage or delayed interest, only just now exploring the half-century-plus history of rock ‘n’ roll. Roy Orbison is everything that rock ‘n’ roll isn’t, after all, or at least that’s the conclusion to be reached if we take at face value the rock ‘n’ roll story as it’s handed down. Rock ‘n’ roll is raw and rebellious, right? Macho and kick-your-ass-tough? It was also, we’re told, a sneering dismissal of what passed for the pop music of its day. It derived largely if not wholly from black gospel and R&B, and it died during the Dark Ages before the Beatles resurrected it in 1964. And, of course, it was all about the beat, the beat, the beat.
If all that is true about rock ‘n’ roll, then how in the hell do we account for that rock ‘n’ roll icon who was above all about the ballad, the ballad, the ballad that sweet and gentle, smooth-pop-adoring, gospel-deprived, C&W-and-Tex-Mex-raised rock ‘n’ roller called Roy Orbison?
The first step would be to see Orbison as exemplary of the many ways in which rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t only a rejection of older styles of pop music, but also a rhythmically modified continuation of them. I almost want to identify Orbison as something of a missing link between rock ‘n’ roll and the show-bizzy pop it never quite replaced. But only almost, for Orbison himself has hardly been missing. He’s there in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s at #13 on that recent Rolling Stone list of greatest-ever singers, and he’s received the well-documented adulation of fellow rock ‘n’ roll legends such as Bruce Springsteen and assorted Wilburys. No, Orbison is right there in plain sight. It’s an accurate acknowledgment of the fullness of his aesthetic, and of its place in rock history, that remains missing.
To that end, The Soul Of Rock And Roll (Monument/Legacy), a new four-disc, 106-track collection, moves several steps in the right direction. The box set takes in every phase of Orbison’s career: from his years with the Teen Kings in Texas and New Mexico, to his early Sun sides (including several charming and previously unreleased, if not exactly essential, voice-and-guitar demos from the period) and through to various Jeff Lynne collaborations which directed him belatedly to center stage.
In between, of course, were the records that made Orbison an international star. “In Dreams”, “Crying”, “Running Scared”, “Only The Lonely”, “Oh, Pretty Woman” all the swooning and swirling hits for Monument Records, each one a country-pop (read: Nashville Sound) classic, and each one refusing to be circumscribed by anything so incompletely human as the standard characterization of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. Orbison’s voice, paranoid and overjoyed by turns, always unabashed, is unlike any other, yet it takes wing in what are actually fairly conventional ways. The eerie sweetness of his tone, the distinctiveness of his vocal timbre, mask a singing style that was both looking backward he’s not doing much of anything Elvis or Roy Hamilton, or for that matter, Johnny Ray or Frankie Lane, didn’t do before him and anticipating rock vocals to come. We can see now, for instance, that Orbison provided a prototype of the presently ubiquitous power ballad. If he’d ever mimicked an old black bluesman with his one-in-the-world instrument, as many of his contemporaries did, he even would have been a proto Robert Plant, too. Probably he was anyway.
(By the way, The Soul Of Rock And Roll would make an ideal Christmas gift for anyone whose vinyl copy of that previously essential Monument double album, All-Time Greatest Hits, is by now too scratched up to play. It could prove a nostalgic gift in quite a different sense, too, as this holiday season will surely be one of the last in which people exchange anything so quaint as…compact discs.)
The liner notes, by Orbison’s son, Roy Kelton Orbison Jr., are appropriately enthusiastic but sometimes incorrect. Orbison Jr. writes, for example, that his father “was the only American to chart regularly during the British Invasion.” Granted, “regularly” is a fairly slippery adverb, as is pinning down the exact tenure of “the British Invasion.” Still…the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, the Supremes, Bobby Vinton, Dean Martin, the Four Seasons, and Johnny Rivers, Americans all, charted as many or more top-10 hits as Orbison did during the period.
Indeed, after his “Oh, Pretty Woman” knocked the Animals’ “The House Of The Rising Sun” from atop the singles chart in 1964, Orbison left Monument and longtime producer Fred Foster for MGM. The result was that he didn’t have so much as a top-20 hit for a quarter-century. And when his next hit did arrive “You Got It” reached the top-10 in 1989 Orbison wasn’t alive to see it.
The music he made for MGM wasn’t up to his previous standards, but it remained very much of a piece, sonically and thematically, with his classic period. Orbison’s MGM albums have been available on disc only since 2004, and only then via import (on a series of great twofer discs from Edsel Records). Unfortunately, The Soul Of Rock And Roll perpetuates this oversight, including a mere ten cuts from the eleven albums he made at MGM over nine years. Strangely, that’s only as many tracks as the set collects from Orbison’s much less productive, much less characteristic and far briefer stint at Sun Records; stranger still, it’s five fewer cuts than it collects from just the last two years of his life.
This disproportions the chapters of Orbison’s story, and overlooks some swell music besides. The missing MGM cuts might have included, just for starters, a “Claudette” that out-rocks the included Sun version; among the best renditions of “Money” you’ll ever hear; an album each of songs by Hank Williams and Don Gibson, the latter including a “Legend In My Own Time” that out-legends the again-included Monument version; and a number of fine original Orbison ballads such as “Heartache” and “You Fool You”.
What the set does have, among of course much else that’s absolutely essential, is a live version of “Land Of A Thousand Dances”, previously unreleased and recorded in Australia in 1972, in which Orbison stretches out the final note of his concluding “Oh yeah” for more than twenty seconds. That show-bizzy brand of rock ‘n’ roll, Orbison’s brand, was by then as hopelessly out of fashion as the thousand dances of which he sings. But listen to Roy Orbison sing it, and to the applause he receives, and I suspect you’ll also agree that what was once corny and old-hat has turned out to be timeless.