The Big O: Beyond the Dark Glasses

Dara Kartz

Expanded reissues of the pivotal first three LPs recorded by Roy Orbison for Monument Records provides an insightful reminder of a true musical pioneer.

Music hit a rough patch in the late '50s and early '60s. Many critics mark the period as the "dark ages" of rock 'n' roll; the proverbial pin had been stuck in rock 'n' roll's balloon, if you will, and the best of what came out of rock was but a short-lived fad. We'd just lost the likes of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, Elvis Presley had just returned from his stint in the Army, and The Beatles had only just been born as a band.

In the midst of this rock lull was the rise of dominant songwriting and publishing companies, which became the most powerful forces behind pop music created at the time. Indeed, 1958 saw the doors of The Brill Building of New York open, representing the likes of songwriters like Carole King, Barry Mann, Neil Diamond, and Neil Sedaka - their music fare was much of what was played on the radio, those days. Meanwhile, the Brill Building's competition was producing pop classics, too: the team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller were behind Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock" in 1957 and "Stand By Me" for Ben King in 1961, and partners Kerome "Doc" Pomus and Mort Shuman Dion's boasted "Teenager in Love" in 1959. It was a time when these songwriting powerhouses were changing the way songs were created, and instrumental epics, vocal doo-wop groups, and dance crazes like Chubby Checker's "The Twist" dominated the airwaves.

Roy Orbison, Roy Orbison Sings Lonely and Blue (January, 1960)

Roy Orbison, Crying (1962)

Roy Orbison, In Dreams (1963)

Roy Orbison hit a rough patch himself around this time. His career had officially launched with legendary Sun Records, where his group, The Teen Kings, worked with Sam Phillips and recorded the hit "Ooby Dooby" in 1956. Roy was a capable rockabilly singer, but the rockabilly / blues sound of Sun's roster was never a proper fit for Orbison and his initial success was short-lived. His other Sun singles made little impact, and by the late '50s Roy was concentrating primarily on building a career as a songwriter, achieving some early success with "Claudette", recorded and released by The Everly Brothers as a B-side to their Number One hit, "All I Have To Do Is Dream" in 1958. After working with Sun for a couple of years and finding his career all but ground to a halt, Roy made the move to Nashville and Monument Records in '60; a move that would prove to be not only a better fit, but THE fit for Orbison.

Monument co-owner Fred Foster (also a producer and occasional co-songwriter) encouraged Roy's operatic, three-octave voice and unique style of rock-ballad songwriting. It was an unprecedented style at the time, and one that would pioneer a different brand of country / pop-based rock 'n' roll, and ultimately lead to Orbison scoring a number-two hit in '60 with "Only The Lonely". The single established what would become known as the Roy Orbison musical persona: a brooding rock-ballad of failed love with a sweet, haunting melody enhanced by Orbison's vocal trills and falsetto crescendo at the song's emotional climax. Between '60 and 1965, Roy would have 15 Top 40 Hits for Monument, including such classics as "Running Scared", "Crying", "In Dreams", and "It's Over".

While he almost single-handedly established rock 'n' roll archetypes of the underdog and the hopeless romantic loser, Orbison was not just a singer of these tear-jerking ballads. He was also capable of writing tough, bluesy swaggers such as "Mean Woman Blues" (In Dreams, 1963) and his biggest hit was also one of his most hard-rocking songs: "Oh, Pretty Woman" soared to Number One in late 1964 in the midst of the highly popular British Invasion.

Legacy Recordings embarked on the ambitious Roy Orbison Reissue Project last year with the release of the cornerstone double album of the project, the first-ever career-spanning hits compilation, The Essential Roy Orbison. The Project will continue to release virtually every Orbison recording he laid down, including the Sun Records, Monument, Jewel, MGM and Virgin catalogues. To commemorate Roy's 70th birthday, Monument / Legacy has released the second major piece of the Project: remastered and expanded versions of his first three LPs recorded with Monument in the early '60s that ultimately launched a unique style of country / pop-based rock 'n' roll, and an incredible career. For devoted fans, the set offers the long-awaited remastering that these albums deserve and, finally, the start of a complete career-spanning collection of Orbison's recordings. For those just being reminded of or learning about Orbison, the sound quality on these reissues provides the ideal platform to present the artist's comprehensive songwriting style and highlight his stellar voice.

Roy Orbison Sings Lonely and Blue was the first Orbison LP released following his leave from Sun Records and his departure from the straight-up rockabilly music style. It was also the beginning of Roy's successful songwriting partnership with the prolific Joe Melson who worked with Roy here on "Blue Avenue", "Blue Angel", "Come Back To Me (My Love)", "I'll Say It's My Fault" and the classic "Only The Lonely". Released as a 45rpm single by Monument, "Only the Lonely" was Roy's first major cut for the label and provided the launching pad for national and international attention, becoming a #2 hit in the US and soaring to #1 overseas. Today, the track is one of three Roy Orbison songs that have been entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame; the other two being "Crying" and "Oh, Pretty Woman".

Beyond the personal success "Only the Lonely" brought to Orbison, it was a significant mark in the changing of the tides in music at the time. Co-written and sung by Orbison at a time when most artists were utilizing the vast catalogue of lyrics coming out of powerhouses like The Brill Building, the operatic rock ballad was an unprecedented format, especially when the biggest hit on the Billboard chart that year was Percy Faith's instrumental "Theme From 'A Summer Place'". The album was an accomplishment even beyond the classic hits that came out of it, and reissue producer Greg Geller has gone to great lengths here to put together a proper package of Roy's musical achievement, linking up all the B-sides and singles that didn't make it on to the original LP released back in '60.

While many of the original tracks here have stood the test of time and remain standards today, this is the real value of this reissue since many of these bonus tracks are actually well-known favorites that attain even greater status when put into the context of the entire time period of this record. Especially of note here are the bonus tracks "Uptown" and "Pretty One", the two self-penned sides of Orbison's first official single for the label. The album was ultimately a couple of singles surrounded by filler, but it was also absolutely Roy Orbison's early masterpiece and strong enough to make an unprecedented impact on the music scene of the time.

If Lonely and Blue was proof that Roy Orbison was "on his way" as an artist, his second Monument release showed that he had in fact "arrived". Crying was released in January of 1961 and produced Roy's greatest string of hits, featuring nearly all original material written by Orbison along with collaborators Boudleaux Bryant, Felice Bryant and Joe Melson, a group that would become trusted partners and longtime friends of the artist. This album featured the trademark early Orbison production flourishes, like sweeping string sections and full vocal choruses, and the production benefits especially well by the top sound quality and care obviously taken in the remastering process here.

The album's first single, "Running Scared", would be the artist's first to go all the way to Number One; the second single, "Crying", would peak at Number Two but remains today one of the artist's signature songs and resurfaced as a hit for him again in 1987 in the form of a Grammy-winning duet with country artist kd lang. Orbison's huge leaning towards original material on this album, while at times inconsistent, overwhelming provides a great glimpse at the Orbison-Melson writing partnership that was in full swing by this time, and would be behind some of the artist's most successful records. Nine of the album's 12 tracks are credited to this Orbison-Melson pairing, including the classic title-track.

Songwriting responsibilities were more relaxed on Orbison's third Monument release in 1963, In Dreams: he penned four of the album's 12 tracks, including the title tune. Roy already had a string of hits under his belt and turned the remaining selections over to his favorite old standards; without too many standout moments, all worked well enough with Roy's unique touches. The bonus tracks here give further insight into the musical mind of Orbison at the time and include an additional original song, "Falling", as well as other second and third singles like the Willie Nelson penned "Pretty Paper", and the hit "Mean Woman Blues" that features a rare, harder version of the singer.

The obvious gem on this album is the title track: an incredible example of Orbison's ability to take the sappiest lyrics and turn them into dark, painful verses of haunting emotion. While the artist's re-recording of this song in the late '80s has appeared on many unremarkable hits compilations in recent years, the original version featured here is incomparable. As with all the remastered albums in this set, the original liner notes written by Roy's close friend and collaborator, Boudleaux Bryant, are included in the artwork. Here, Bryant suggests that the audience "Dream Big" while listening to the album, and there certainly is some magic associated to this release.

Following years out of the studio and a career that had all but officially hit retirement, Orbison was thrown back into the public spotlight when filmmaker David Lynch prominently featured the title track on the soundtrack for his film Blue Velvet. The reminder of Roy's talent prompted renewed interest in the artist and led to the singer making an entire record of re-recorded hits produced by T-Bone Burnett and, ultimately, to the artist's final and best-selling album, Mystery Girl, released after his untimely death in 1989.

Onstage in Vegas in the late '70s, Elvis Presley called Roy "the greatest singer in the world". Barry Gibbs of the Bee Gees referred to him as "the voice of God". All are well-deserved accolades that continue to be echoed over the years. The Monument / Legacy remastering project has finally created a complete and proper avenue to showcase Orbison's talent.


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