“Mercy,” growls Roy Orbison as the snare drum pounds cadence and a figured guitar spins the curvatures of “Oh, Pretty Woman.” We know the feeling: walkin ‘down the street, confronted with a vision of loveliness that reveals all possibilities in that fabled at-first-sight, if only she’d look our way, and we hers. In the instant eyes meet, Roy Orbison sings. What do I see? He knows the song is as much about the toll exacted, the tragedies to be blindsided and witnessed, the hoped for absolution to the a-to-b problem that is two love to love.
To celebrate the 75th birthday he never reached, Sony Legacy has released The Monument Singles Collection, a cleverly-programmed double-disc collection that A-sides and B-sides Roy Orbison’s tenure on the Nashville-based label in the early 1960s. It encapsulates the peak period of a performing life that started as a rockabilly artist on the fabled Sun imprint and ended in respect-paid honor as a member of the Traveling Wilburys. His bel canto voice, a baritone that could transcend octaves to a fluttering high tenor tremulous in operetta-ic vibrato, is justly renowned as one of the most supple and expressive instruments in rock ‘n ‘roll, though Orbison’s compositions hardly hew to any roadhouse conventions, either in song structure or instrumentation. He reached for the grandiose, even as he remained true to his rockabilly beginnings, and he inspired singers as diverse as the Beatles and Bono and Bruce, and gave each of them a conviction that the song-as-written is something as ephemeral and immortal as adolescent passion – and that conviction is a word not lightly sung.
He would stand still on stage, eyes inscrutable behind black glasses. He held himself in check, even on his records, because he wanted you to feel his bottled emotion on the verge of bursting. The wordplay is simple – “Only the Lonely,” “Crying” – and yet the sense of simmering emotion provides a surface tension, the moment when all will be revealed in those final notes of “Crying,” a crescendo risen in an arc to the height of release.
The records are impeccably produced, a testament to the innovative studio prowess that was Nashville’s – politan wing in the early ’60s. Monument Records got off to a good start in October 1958 when it had a hit with Billy Grammer‘s “Gotta Travel On,” a fact I personally savor since, a few years later, it would be the first song I would learn on guitar. Roy’s first song was “You Are My Sunshine,” taught to him by his father, and it wasn’t long after the Orbison family landed in the west Texas town of Wink, that he was fronting Wink’s Westerners, with their own radio show on KERB when Roy was only in his mid-teens. Perfectly situated to catch the whirlwind of Elvis transforming the country charts, the newfound amped-up style of rockabilly was soon integrated into the group’s sound. “Ooby Dooby” might have been a nonsense syllable dance craze – “You rattle and you shake/ Like a big rattlesnake” – though the song captures all the trademarks of rockabilly, as much a showpiece for Roy’s guitar as for his echo-popped voodoo oo-doo‘s. He cut it for Norman Petty’s Je-Wel label at the same studios where Buddy Holly would try his luck two years later; and then was signed to Sun when Sam Phillips caught wind of the disc, and brought him to Memphis to rerecord it. In the spring of 1956, Orbison had himself a hit.
But he wasn’t enamored of the rockabilly stompers that Sun was churning out (even if these created some of the genre’s most notable classics, see Billy Lee Riley‘s “Flying Saucers Rock and Roll”). “I was writing more ballads then,” he told Colin Escott, but Sun – seeing the success of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, steered him away, “and Sam was the boss.” He left Sun to become a staff writer for Acuff-Rose, crafting “Claudette” for the Everly Brothers; but there was no way that a voice like his could languish behind the scenes. In 1959 he signed with Fred Foster at Monument, and began a string of chart-toppers that would carry him through 1965.
The first CD of this blow-out-the-candles singles collection is the greatest of hits, bringing new (monophonic!) ears to old familiars like “Running Scared,” “Dream Baby,” his first chart ascension (“Only The Lonely”), or his second, the perfect cha-cha of “Blue Angel.” To listen to these in chronological order is to feel Orbison’s gathering confidence in how much might be attempted within the confines of the three-minute pop single: Neither rock, nor country, arranged meticulously with pinpoint clarity for each drum fill, turn of phrase, background call and string response, all orbited by Orbison’s falsetto curlicueing each dramatic movement. It’s a surreal sound when he lets his voice spiral, made manifest by “In Dreams;” he revisits his favorite color in “Blue Bayou.” The b-sides on disc two try out different styles (“Mean Woman Blues,” the Marty Robbins-goes- Hawaiian of “Leah”), as well as wish-list cover versions: a stately “Love Hurts” and a gorgeous bonus “Beautiful Dreamer.”
His four-year run at the top of the Monument ended when Roy moved to MGM in 1965. He had survived the British Invasion – his 1963 tour of England had as openers the Beatles – with his biggest hit to date, 1964′s “Oh Pretty Woman,” but the MGM contract – which he’d hoped would offer him access to television and the movies, as well as a reputed million dollars – left him adrift creatively in a changing music scene. Personal tragedy – the death of his wife Claudette in a motorcycle accident, a fire at his house two years later in Nashville that claimed the lives of two of his three sons – darkened his career. He never ceased touring, especially overseas, and as the years continued, he became more venerated, honored, and deeply resonant as a performer. His songs – Linda Ronstadt‘s turn on “Blue Bayou,” or David Lynch’s use of his supernatural “In Dreams” aura in Blue Velvet – became standards. He died with his star on the ascendance, of a heart attack on Dec. 6, 1988, just a few short weeks before the album Mystery Girl would become his unexpected swan song, sung forever.