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Roy Orbison: A 'Monument' To A Pop Legend

Roy Orbison.
Sony Music
Roy Orbison.

Sony Legacy has collected all of the singles Roy Orbison recorded for Monument Records and released them as Roy Orbison: The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964).

When Fred Foster signed Roy Orbison in 1959, his label Monument had already had a smash hit with Billy Grammer's "Gotta Travel On." At first, it seemed he wasn't sure what to do with Orbison: He tried a rock 'n' roll novelty, "With the Bug," which flopped, not least because the backup band — the cream of Nashville sidemen, including Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland on guitar, Floyd Cramer on piano and Buddy Harmon on drums — sounds so uncomfortable.

Nashville, though, was changing, and rock 'n' roll wasn't part of the plan. Pop music was.

Orbison had written his own material so far, and in Nashville, he took on partners, including Joe Melson, a friend from Texas. "Uptown" was their first collaboration, but it was their next one — "Only the Lonely" — which established Orbison's career.

With Melson joining the Anita Kerr singers for the "dum dum dum dooby-doo-wah," Orbison began to explore what his voice could do. It wasn't very powerful yet, and for the recording he stood behind an improvised isolation booth made from the musicians' coats. The stark, miserable lyric hit home with teenagers, and shot to No. 2 on the pop charts. An album, Lonely and Blue, was quickly recorded, and legend has it that when Fred Foster saw the cover, showing Orbison leaning his head on his arms while seated in the front seat of a car, he was shocked at how close together the singer's eyes were. "Get some dark glasses on him," he said. An image was born, although Orbison claimed it was due to a mistake in choosing glasses to wear onstage one night.

It was a time of extreme teen pop, with songs of death and alienation cloaked in strings and backup vocals. Roy Orbison led the way with "Running Scared."

"Running Scared" was one of the most radical pop records yet: Orbison's voice changed register over the bolero rhythm, but there was no chorus, and all the release comes at the end. It was his first No. 1 record. And, as if to tempt fate, he followed this with "Crying," another extreme performance.

Roy Orbison: The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964).
/ Sony Music
Sony Music
Roy Orbison: The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964).

"Crying" winds up in the stratosphere, with Orbison's falsetto getting a workout. He was beginning to use it a lot, as in "Leah," an odd bit of exotica.

"Leah" was a hit, and, since Orbison was also popular in England, he was offered a tour there in 1963, after Duane Eddy dropped out. By the time he got there, the opening band, The Beatles, had become the headliner.

"What's a Beatle, anyway?" was Orbison's reaction. John Lennon, who'd overheard him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I am!" But he soon found out that "Please Please Me," the band's current hit, was partially intended as an homage to him.

And, unlike what happened to many pop performers, The Beatles didn't threaten Orbison's hold on the charts. In the height of Beatlemania and the British Invasion, he had time for one more No. 1 record, "Oh, Pretty Woman," one of his greatest performances.

Astonishingly, not long after this triumph, Orbison left Monument for MGM Records, where his career would eventually wither, albeit not forever. When he died in 1988, he had two albums sitting near the top of the charts.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.