The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison, Volumes 1 and 2
It’s odd, but 150 years of statehood have done little to integrate Texas into American culture; everything about the state seems slightly askew, an exaggeration of how the rest of the country lives, from their obsession with high school football (rivaled only by Massilon, Ohio) to their stubborn resistance to the moderate impulse in public discourse. Texas, after all, is the only state to have fought two wars to keep African-Americans enslaved (they won the first, lost the second), and while it did give us George H.W. Bush (who moderation was presumably instilled in his East Coast upbringing), it also gave us Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, who share the view that foreign policy is mainly an extension of the President’s ego. In fact, I’d say we should go ahead and kick ‘em back out of the union, if it weren’t for the fine music Texas has shared with us.
Since the earliest days of rock and roll, the Lone Star State has released talent after talent to grace our turntables: Buddy Holly, Sam the Sham, Janis Joplin, Archie Bell and the Drells, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Freddie Fender, Steve Earle, the Geto Boys, Erykah Badu, Lisa Loeb. And standing head and shoulders above even this fine assemblage stands the favorite son of Wink, Texas: the Big O, Roy Orbison.
Orbison was not only a brilliant songwriter and arranger, he had the finest voice of his generation, a thrilling tenor with a chill-inducing falsetto range, a throaty growl and purity of tone (and, a rarity in those days, very clear diction, although I’m still confused about why he wants to “make him a ham” in “Working for the Man”). And during his glory days from 1960 to 1964, he dominated the airwaves with his own compositions and well-chosen covers. His impact was so great that even my dad, whose idea of hip is the Kingston Trio, was shocked by Orbison’s premature death.
Orbison might have been just another great voice if he hadn’t coupled his natural assets with a unique musical vision. He took not only from the rockabilly and country influences of his peers, but also from opera, Broadway, and tango, to create melodies with flair (some of these tunes could only be written by Orbison, as their range exceeds that of most singers) and arrangements full of drama and power (which was required to keep up with the force of Orbison’s voice: on most tracks, he sings in front of a full band, string section and choir, and still manages to dominate the mix; on “Oh, Pretty Woman” it takes a bass, four guitars, and two drum sets to match his vocal.)
Orbison had a talent for handling backing vocalists, too. Many of his hits have a distinctive set of nonsense syllables laying out a hook-filled countermelody, from “dom dom dom dooby do wah” of “Only the Lonely” to “bo bo bo diddly bo” of “Blue Bayou.” I can only imagine his singers must have eventually started begging him for some actual words to sing.
The emotional impact of these songs is not only in Roy’s exquisite singing and imaginative arrangements (“Blue Bayou” may be the only song in history to pair a harpsichord with a harmonica) but also in the lyrical vision: Orbison is a man of constant sorrow, whether paranoid about losing his love (“Running Scared”), wallowing in heartbreak (“Only the Lonely”, “I’m Hurtin’”) or recounting nightmares (“Leah”, “In Dreams”). Yet, he holds out hope in the waking world, with the Horatio Alger stories of “Uptown” and “Working for the Man.” Roy always has the right tone of voice for each song, with a quavering nervousness in the fearful tales, a bold approach in his upward striving, and a very convincing lustful growl when appropriate.
It’s hard to say too much about the immensity of this man’s talent; he was truly one of the greats, and these songs are justification enough to allow Texas to keep its electoral votes, if only in hopes that another genius will be able to synthesize all those currents of Texas music into something half as great.
CONSUMER WARNING #1: Roy later re-recorded many of these songs in the 1980’s; while his voice was in fine shape, the arrangements aren’t the same. Be sure to buy the original Monument recordings.
CONSUMER WARNING #2: This album is available on cassette with 20 songs in one package. The CD packaging splits them into two separate discs, for twice the price. Caveat emptor.
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