If one studied the history of rock and roll as the analog of the story of American literature, Roy Orbison would be Edgar Allan Poe. He’s the weirdo pioneer, whose early contributions to the genre influenced countless others and the early continental artist who was more respected and appreciated in Europe than at home. Also, there’s something downright spooky about Orbison’s crooning. His operatic voice had a quiver that suggested something was not quite right with the boy, as if he would break down or could explode at any moment. No wonder David Lynch chose him to provide the climactic tension to the soundtrack for the director’s Blue Velvet. When Roy sings, “A candy colored-clown they call the sandman / Tiptoes to my room every night / Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper / Go to sleep everything is all right,” the latent implication that something sinister is just about to begin seems more likely than mere dreaming.
Like all dead Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artists, Orbison’s material has been compiled and repackaged in many different collections. What makes this new two-disc anthology special is that it contains material from both ends of his recorded history. The Essential Roy Orbison begins with a sampling of his rockabilly tracks on the legendary Memphis Sun label from the fifties, like “Ooby Dooby” and “Rock House”. Then it collects all of his charted material from when he was on the independent Monument label out of Nashville, including his best known songs — “Only the Lonely”, “Blue Bayou”, “Crying”, and “Pretty Woman”. The 21 cuts from Sun and Monument are compiled chronologically on the first disc and provide the meat and potatoes of the collection, sure to please any fan.
The second disc is where things start to get a little weird. The next 19 tunes include cuts from albums he made for the MGM record company in the sixties (like “Communication Breakdown” from Cry Softly Lonely One and a slew of songs from the eighties, including selections from various movie soundtracks (such as a duet “Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again” with Emmylou Harris from Roadie), material from his television concert Black and White Night Live like the Elvis Costello song “The Comedians”, hits like “You Got It” from his posthumous hit album Mystery Girl, and various oddities from other discs (such as “Coming Home” from the Class of ’55). The songs are not in chronological or any discernable order. There seems to be no reason or rationale for the track listing or for why certain songs were chosen for inclusion and others were not. For example, where is the remake of Orbison’s “Crying” that featured k d lang and boosted both of their careers, or any of his songs with the Traveling Wilburys? Plus, there is not a single cut from the live recordings made in the seventies, a time when he earned most of his income touring Europe and drawing big crowds.
Whatever. What is here does reveal Orbison’s considerable talents as a singer and a songwriter. He did author most of the hits and his distinctive voice made him a force to be reckoned with. There are plenty of singers with a tear in their voices that can make one weep. Orbison had a haunting articulation that made one feel things in a deeper way. He invaded one’s thoughts and feelings. Consider his version of “Love Hurts” from 1961. Best known as a hit for the Everly Brothers (for whom Orbison had earlier penned the hit “Claudette”) and later remade again as a chart topper for Linda Ronstadt, most singers emphasize the word “hurts” from the title as a way of indicating their pain. Not Orbison. He sang the word in a clipped voice and let the other lines do the dirty work. When he crooned “Love is like a stove, burns you when it’s hot,” you know that he’d been singed by the intensity of the emotion more than the alienation of affection that the other vocalists allude to. There’s also a suggestion of eroticism, missing from both the dreaminess of the Everly’s rendition and the hard-edged vocals of Ronstadt.
Orbison captures how the body and soul react to love in song after song. That’s one of the things that made him so great, and why other famous musicians like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison, and Tom Waits have performed with and paid tribute to the man over the years. He’s essential listening for those interested in the power of rock and this new collection offers good evidence as to why.