In the fall of 1964 Roy Orbison was at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with “Pretty Woman,” a gem of a hit punctuated by a seductive growl that rivaled Tony the Tiger and the MGM lion. In addition to that multi-million-seller, Orbison recorded a series of smashes for Monument Records (his first major deal was with Sun Records), from “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” and “Running Scared” to the oft-covered “Crying” and many others. After the success of “Pretty Woman,” he secured a lucrative deal with (perhaps a bit ironically) MGM Records. Rather than the roaring success they should have been, however, Orbison’s MGM years were fraught with disappointment and tragedy.
In 1966, his first wife Claudette was killed in a motorcycle accident. Two years later, Orbison was touring in England when he learned that his two eldest sons had died in a fire that also destroyed his home north of Nashville (a third son with Claudette survived). In 1969, 32-year-old Orbison married German-born teenager Barbara Wellhoener-Jakobs, whom he had met while on tour in England. The couple would have two sons, Roy Kelton Orbison Jr. and Alexander Lee Orbison.
The LPs Orbison recorded for MGM have now been collected in a spectacularly entertaining package titled The MGM Years 1965-1973. Released on December 4th, the 13-disc set represents an era of Orbison’s music in which he experimented with everything from country standards to psychedelia. In spite of a dearth of hit singles, the albums contain some of Orbison’s most passionately delivered vocals — even more impressive when one considers the hardships he faced while continuing to tour the world.
“If the moniker of the ‘Hardest Working Man in Show Business’ wasn’t already taken, I would definitely hand it to him,” the singer’s youngest son Alex Orbison tells Rolling Stone Country. “If you took the recording logs and… the touring logs and overlaid them, he would sometimes record up to Christmas Eve, take Christmas Day off and then the 27th to the 30th would be more sessions then he’d play the New Year’s show. It was really amazing to me to see how hard he was working. I already have a lot of respect for my dad, obviously, but seeing it in those terms was astounding to me.”
Orbison’s familiar voice on the MGM material remains commanding and at turns is bathed in an electrically charged darkness and melancholy, which is understandable considering his personal trials at the time. Even when the material seems otherwise mundane, it’s impossible to deny the thrill that still exists in hearing his otherworldly vocals nearly two decades after his passing.
That’s especially true of One of the Lonely Ones, a planned 1969 LP that has also been released for the first time ever. The early 1969 sessions for the album, which began as Orbison was coming out a period of grief and seclusion, represent some of the most haunting, beautiful material he ever recorded. The LP’s emotional highpoint is a breathtakingly gorgeous rendition of the 70-year-old Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which will especially resonate with Orbison’s British fan base as LFC (Liverpool Football Club) and other European teams commonly play a version of the song before their matches.
From his early days, country music’s influence on Orbison was evident. Although he only achieved one Top Ten country hit in his lifetime (a 1980 Grammy-winning duet with Emmylou Harris, “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again”), Orbison’s MGM tenure included two LPs that were tributes to a pair of titanic country songwriters, Hank Williams and Don Gibson. The album celebrating the latter artist was released in 1967 and included Orbison’s versions of such iconic hits as “Sweet Dreams” and “Blue Blue Day.” Having previously cut several of Gibson’s songs, Orbison had a two-fold purpose for the full LP: it served as a tribute to one of his favorite writers and also took the pressure off Orbison to write songs for his next project. The disc of Williams tunes, released in 1970 and aptly titled Hank Williams the Roy Orbison Way, presented the songs of the Hillbilly Shakespeare in the inimitable style of the man who was called rock & roll’s answer to opera’s Enrico Caruso.
In spite of Orbison’s tendencies toward shyness and the brooding, mysterious nature of some of his best-loved material, his son says the singer easily connected with people he would encounter throughout the world and never hesitated to spend a few precious moments with them.
“Whether it was Tom Petty or Jeff Lynne, or somebody who wanted to get an autograph in the Melbourne airport, my dad — even if he was jet-lagged or tired — would stop and give a moment of time. No matter who it was, my dad was just kind and gentle with everyone,” Alex says. “I’ve been waiting for someone to show up and say, ‘Your dad was a jerk to me,’ but that never has happened. He just loved life. He’d talk for a second and find common ground then start cracking jokes.”
Orbison’s recorded output at MGM stretched from 1965 to 1973, after which he signed with Mercury. Later, he briefly returned to Monument, then recorded his final album of original material released in his lifetime for Asylum Records in 1979. In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame during a resurgence in his popularity, thanks to his partnership in the Traveling Wilburys with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and George Harrison. Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, who produced those sessions, also helmed Orbison’s last original solo LP Mystery Girl, which became a posthumous Top Five hit.
Adding to the legendary Orbison mystique — and certainly attesting to his extraordinary lasting influence — was the wildly popular A Black and White Night Live, a concert event recorded in 1987 featuring appearances from Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang and more. That same year, Orbison and lang had a minor country hit with their duet of his classic “Crying,” which won them a Grammy and later became an even bigger hit in the U.K.
Orbison died of a heart attack on December 6th, 1988. He was 52 years old. For the next two decades, Barbara Orbison and his surviving sons, Wesley, Roy and Alex, continued to work tirelessly to maintain the superstar performer’s legacy. On December 6th, 2011, Barbara died of cancer at 61, 23 years to the day of her husband’s death. “She started this project, literally, over 10 to 15 years ago,” Alex says of Barbara Orbison’s effort to get the MGM catalog of recordings re-released. “She was really looking forward to it. The fact that we were able to get it together as brothers was just cool. She was such a classic personality. It’s such an abstract world to be here without her.”
Having worked on a documentary film for the deluxe edition of Mystery Girl, Alex says he’s gearing up for a full-length Orbison documentary. In addition, he’s looking into an updated greatest hits collection that would include some of the previously-ignored MGM material, as well as an updated re-release of the Black and White Night special, which Alex calls “the Rocky Horror Picture Show of concerts,” because of its continued popularity.
“One thing I’ve learned about with Orbison,” Alex says, “is there’s always more on the way.”