Trying to describe the voice of Roy Orbison is like trying to describe the night sky -- it's evocative and full of hues, shades, colors, and feelings, but it's impossible to accurately reflect their shape or meaning, so I won't try. What is possible, however, is to discuss this gigantic wonder of a box set. The German label Bear Family has issued a seven-CD Roy Orbison retrospective from 1955 to 1965; it collects virtually every known Orbison recording from what has been tagged his "golden decade." And when the folks at Bear Family say "every known recording," they mean it. The first treasure trove is the material recorded by the Teen Kings in Odessa, Texas, which was the first version of "Ooby Dooby," backed with "Tryin' to Get to You." There is also the Sun version, of course, with the backing side of "Go! Go! Go!" and, of all things, the issue of "Tryin' to Get to You" released by Orbison's former label boss at Je-Wel, Weldon Rogers (only it was Orbison's own take he was trying to pass off as his own!). There are oodles of unissued alternates takes, unreleased demos -- including Orbison's original versions of songs written for Buddy Holly ("An Empty Cup") and the Every Brothers ("Claudette" as well as "Love Hurts"). There is an entire CD dedicated to the complete recordings of the material recorded by the Teen Kings -- a first for any Orbison collection. In addition, the latter third of the last disc offers all of Orbison's Coca Cola commercials as a cap off (no pun intended) to the golden decade.
Reissue producers Howard Cockburn, Richard Weize, and John Beecher (for the Teen Kings material) looked under every rock and found tracks believed lost or erased from the period -- including the Wink Westerners material (most likely the Teen Kings under another name) -- and have assembled the most complete Roy Orbison collection of the period ever. This one is definitive. In addition is an authoritative -- and most likely definitive -- musico-biographical essay by Colin Escott bound in hardcover (the cover for book and set are deep blue, of course), with over 100 photographs of Orbison posed, candid, in session, and reproductions of various artifacts from his career, including the jackets to his singles and albums and even his high-school drawings.
This set completely leaves the travesty that is the Columbia box released in 1988 in the dust. Not only was it ugly, its sound was turgid even for the period. This Orbison box has pristine sound in most cases, and where it doesn't, it is certainly far superior to any other collection on the market -- foreign or domestic, featuring these tunes -- and far better than any of the semi-legal pirates.
Containing 151 tracks painstakingly sequenced to give an authoritative picture of one of the rock and pop era's most complex and profoundly influential figures, the Bear Family set tells Orbison's story in bits and pieces, like patches on a quilt, not in chronological order necessarily -- the Teen Kings material, for instance, does not appear in full until disc three -- but more in terms of his development as a singer and writer of songs. The material he wrote with Joe Melson, which included "Only the Lonely," "Blue Angel," and "Running Scared," is featured to stand alone for its particular contribution to the Orbison legacy. While it's true that earlier Orbison/Melson collaborations are featured separately from this material on the set, it is because they were either A: recorded earlier as demos rather than as singles, or B: they aesthetically fit together better with other material from a particular year -- whether the material was with the Wink Westerners, the Teen Kings, or with Melson.
There are certainly arguments against this approach of not issuing material strictly chronologically, though most of it is, but in this writer's opinion, it beats to hell all of the arguments that to have every version of "Ooby Dooby" all stacked on top of one another was the best way to portray either a given session or Orbison's development as some labels have done; that is asinine and a complete burden for the listener (anyone remember the Verve Charlie Parker box with 17 takes of "Ornithology" all in a row?). Orbison, as both singer and songwriter, was a storyteller, a massive one, and what better way to document his legacy than to present it as an unfolding story with twists and turns in the plot along the way. In fact, the argument could be made for looking at creating archival sets in this manner if the artist warrants it. What the producers of the Bear Family set have done is instead issue tracks together from a particular year, where few takes were done. For instance, on the first disc there are two versions each of "Ooby Dooby" by the Teen Kings and the Sun A-side "Tryin' to Get to You" -- same thing on the B-sides -- and "Claudette" the demo version given to the Everlys and the single Orbison recorded himself. None of the tunes stacked on top of one another. The reason is simple: The Sun and Teen Kings sessions were identical material recorded the same year and were similar in approach but not in sound.
As for the Teen Kings material, it is revelatory in how much a solid rockabilly band they were, and they would try anything once, including "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and "Bo Diddley"! By the time the set reaches the "modern" period of Orbison's sound, when his voice had developed from a thin reedy frail lilt to a full-blown operatic force of nature on discs four, five, and six (where many of the more familiar Orbison tunes will be found, including the Melson material, "Crying," "The Great Pretender," "Dream Baby," "In Dreams," a second, very different version of "Blue Bayou," "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Pretty Paper," "Darkness," and others), the sound quality of the material is just stunning. It's never been heard like this before, probably not even on the original masters. All of the drama and dynamic in Orbison's music comes through as if the moon were opening the clouds and shining through. In the lesser-known songs, "Party Heart," "The Crowd," "Leah," "Sleepy Hollow," "Yes," the Orbison version of "Love Hurts," and others, the full story emerges and we see the singer who believed in his voice but not himself emerge as a believer in both things. Orbison wanted big music for his voice, the bigger the mix the more he was able to push his limit, and this is true to a song across the entire collection.
Finally, on the last disc, Bear Family's producers opted to place either alternate or re-recorded and released versions of tunes such as "Gigolette," "Born on the Wind," "It's Over" (usually for the overseas market), and many more, with numerous alternate takes of "Double Date" (four), "Paper Boy" (five), and "With the Bug" (five). These are all minor tunes in the Orbison canon, but they do reveal his working process if not his best work. Finally, the awesome Coca Cola adverts -- which will have you laughing your ass off -- tell the rest of Bear Family's version of the story.
The only argument with this set is that the MGM material through 1968 wasn't included because there are still so many pieces of Orbison's expansive vision from that time that remain in the vault -- for instance, there are reportedly three completely different versions of "Southbound Jericho Parkway." The only CD that ever collected that material was a shoddy, cash-in attempt based on the resurgence of Orbison's fame after David Lynch used his music in Blue Velvet. It's easy to see Bear Family's point in that from 1955 to 1965, Roy Orbison couldn't miss charting, even if it was near the bottom of the rack. After 1965, with the dawn of the Beatles' Revolver, music would change forever, and for a time, at least, Roy Orbison would be a forgotten man. Thankfully, as Colin Escott states in his wonderful notes, "that while many of his peers were trying to stage comebacks, Roy died in the middle of one." The box tells the story of the glory years, the years that created the man, the myth, and the legend. Bravo, Bear Family, you've done it again.