[15 October 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“You ready?” asks a young Roy Orbison before launching into the first recording of “Ooby Dooby” that opens The Soul of Rock and Roll. He sounds ready, excited and eager. But he wasn’t Roy Orbison yet. The very early recordings with the Teen Kings—and one called “Hey! Miss Fannie” with his previous group, The Wink Westerners—have the voice, but not the delivery. It’s recognizable, but it hadn’t reached remarkable. Orbison had yet to discover his divine, quavering and quaking vocal quality. In fact, some of his mid-1950s songs, featured on the first disc of this spectacular set, seem to borrow singing styles from his contemporaries, such as his Sun Records label mate Jerry Lee Lewis. Orbison’s “Mean Little Mama” has the all the swagger—and nearly the exact phrasing—of the Killer. Obvious stylistic similarities to fellow Texans, Gene Vincent, and Roy’s friend and sometime rival Buddy Holly, are apparent on tracks like “Rockhouse”. It’s interesting to follow the progression, as well as to note the prowess that was present as Orbison was developing and defining his distinctive sound. There’s an unreleased 1956 cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” that provides glimpses of the golden voice to come, and gives Mr. Penniman a run for his money on the falsetto “Whooooooh!”
Also never-before-released is “Guitar Pull Medley”, almost 10 minutes of a seemingly impromptu acoustic performance, during which a female voice calls out covers that Orbison gamely strums up, including Presley-perfect versions of “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” and “That’s All Right”, Ronnie Hawkins’s “Mary Lou”, and Johnny Cash’s “You’re My Baby”. Among the countless highlights of this compilation is a haunting live performance of “It’s Over” from Orbison’s final concert on 4 December 1987, which was recorded near the end of his life.
Impressively comprehensive and stunning in scope, The Soul of Rock and Roll is also a beautifully packaged boxed set. Its presentation befits the image, the voice, the legend of Roy Orbison. The limited edition comes in a gorgeous white linen-covered casing holding a collectible reproduction of the 1953 Wildcats of Wink High School yearbook, and a 95-page booklet filled with an extensive biography, clippings, a discography and hundreds of striking photos. The astounding four disc collection spans Orbison’s more than 30-year career with 107 tracks of classics, covers, ‘50s demos and live performances, 12 of which are previously unreleased.
Most of the unheard material is on the first disc, which follows Orbison from sessions in Odessa, Texas with Norman Petty (best known for recording Buddy Holly and the Crickets) to his Sun Records residency in Memphis. Perhaps most notable are the demos of hits like “Claudette”, which is a slowed and stripped acoustic here, but still possesses all the elements of the rave-up it became. It’s clear that Orbison had a knack for clever and catchy song structures, and he could have easily been a success even if he never learned how best to showcase his voice.
Fortunately for the history of rock and roll, he did find a formula unique to his vocal talents. In the late 1950s, and well into the 1960s, the sound the world came to associate exclusively with Roy Orbison was perfected. The Soul of Rock and Roll‘s second disc contains all of the biggest hits of that era. It’s futile to try and pick the best songs, or even favorites, from these 25, because each one is a peerless classic. There are the melodramatic ballads that only Roy Orbison could pull off like “Only the Lonely”, “Running Scared”, “Leah”, “In Dreams”, and “Crying”. There are the songs that swing, like “Uptown”, “Candy Man”, and “Dream Baby”. Disc two is also where Orbison’s talent for making other peoples’ songs entirely his own shows itself, with songs like “Love Hurts” (first recorded by the Everly Brothers, but first a hit for Orbison) and Willie Nelson’s Christmas composition, “Pretty Paper”.
The third disc of The Soul of Rock and Roll continues to present the artist’s way with covers, as well as live performances, including a brilliant 1965 concert recording of the Ray Charles standard, “What’d I Say”. This disc also features more of the mid-1960s hits, such as, “It’s Over”, “Walk On”, and, of course, “Oh, Pretty Woman”. Additionally, disc three contains some of Orbison’s work from soundtracks, including “So Young” from Zabriskie Point, “Pistolero” from The Fastest Guitar Alive, and a hauntingly gorgeous “That Lovin’ You Feelin’”, a duet with Emmylou Harris from the film Roadie.
The last disc in the set begins with a couple of tracks from The Class of ‘55. This 1986 release reunited Orbison with his old Sun Records label mates Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, and it’s a treat to have a couple of tracks featured here. “Coming Home” is Orbison alone on vocals, and it’s beautiful, but the fabulous “Waymore’s Blues” has all four of the then-surviving members of the 1955 roster singing together. The remainder of disc four gathers up several pieces of Orbison’s mid- to late-1980s so-called comeback, including the re-recordings of “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “In Dreams” for Pretty Woman and Blue Velvet, respectively; the standout Traveling Wilburys tune, “Not Alone Anymore”; the T Bone Burnett-produced live tracks from the concert film Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night; cuts from 1988’s Mystery Girl and 1992’s King of Hearts and several singles and soundtrack spots, including those produced by Jeff Lynne, Don Was, Brian Eno and Bono, and the 1987 duet with k.d. lang on “Crying”.
Roy Orbison’s widow, Barbara, who is The Soul of Rock and Roll‘s Executive Producer, states in her annotated liner notes, “For the first time, you will have a chance to hear Roy’s first recording to the last time he ever sang ... Roy recorded for several different labels and toured the world many, many times—we have numerous unreleased masters and live performances included in this box set to make it truly special.” It’s true that each and every one of these 107 tracks is special, and the collection as a whole is phenomenal. You’d be hard-pressed to find any box set, by any artist, that is as thoroughly comprehensive and as lovingly presented as this one is. So, for that, it is truly special. But Roy Orbison doesn’t really need all of those extras to make this box set unique. His music and his voice, his legend and his legacy, the long shadow he casts over every rock and roll singer to step into a spotlight, are a testament to the man who truly was the Soul of Rock and Roll.