Roy Orbison's talent often gets overlooked in the great assessment of American music.
Despite being an influence and inspiration, or an object of amazement, to such talents as Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Bono, k.d. lang, and countless others, I'd be willing to bet that the majority of listeners under the age of 35 probably only know Roy for "Oh, Pretty Woman" and maybe "You Got It," since that was a radio hit in the late 1980s.
Well, maybe "In Dreams" too ... if you've ever seen David Lynch's film "Blue Velvet," it's hard to miss "In Dreams." Anyway, the dude has done some great music and deserves to be heard. So let's talk a little about his stuff.
I'm going to do a quick and dirty overview of some Orbison, and then I want to discuss a couple of the "best of" compilations out there.
Orbison has one of the GREAT voices. Period. Doesn't matter what genre you want to throw him in, his voice rings strong and true. Its full majesty is unveiled in 1960's "Only the Lonely." The power and the urgency and commiseration of the tune are still jaw-droppingly awesome.
Roy wrote a lot of inspiring songs, and a great number of them were ballads. He could do a fun tune, like "Ooby Dooby," but his music tended to slant more toward loneliness and sadness or introspection. Some of his great songs just seemed to drip with emotion, as with his classic (and oft-covered) "Crying."
Though he often said he wasn't any lonelier than anyone else and wasn't any more sad than anyone, he definitely had enough tragedy in his life (his first wife was killed in a motorcycle collision accident, and his oldest sons died in a fire). His humility, his gentle nature and his appreciation of fans really came through in his performances, in his appearances and in his music, which made the music all the more special and attention grabbing.
Heck, take "Oh, Pretty Woman." This wasn't some smooth come on from an operator who knew how to get the ladies. The lyric implores, even as it seemingly cajoles ... "are you lonely just like me?" And he gets the girl! Pretty awesome.
Roy's career had interesting highlights ... despite him really getting his "professional" start in the late 1950s, his star rose in the 1960-1964 span. He even managed to crack the top of the U.S. AND the UK charts at a time when the British Invasion was going strong. No small feat, indeed.
He continued to create music after that, but interest seemed to fade (and some of the material suffered from poor production and uninspiring cover songs). He started to make a comeback in the 1980s, thanks to covers from artists like Linda Ronstadt and Van Halen. His music started popping up in more Hollywood films (including "Blue Velvet") and artists who'd been inspired by him began to shout from the hilltops about his great music and wonderful voice (and many worked on new material with him, or appeared in concert with him).
And then came The Traveling Wilburys.
Talk about a super group. George Harrison. Bob Dylan. Jeff Lynne (of ELO). Tom Petty. Roy Orbison. Whew. That's a lineup that just screams for attention. And the quality of the music itself was pretty damn good. Roy was only involved in the first of the group's two albums (he died shortly after the album was completed), and his involvement was appreciated and praised by his famous bandmates.
Also around this time, and before his death, Orbison worked with Lynne on a new album that was released posthumously. "Mystery Girl" was the name of the album, and it featured several fantastic new tracks ... not the least of which was the radio hit "You Got It." Roy's voice and style shine through, strong and clear, the years clearly having no impact on its beauty. And a good song is always a good song, so that helped.
After Roy's death, there was a lot of attention that came his way. Because of his comeback (solo, Wilburys, soundtracks, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, etc.), more people were paying attention to him than had paid attention since the mid 1960s. He died knowing that he was back in the spotlight, but his early passing also meant that he never got to fully enjoy the critical and commercial rewards that came from the Wilburys and "Mystery Girl."
So let's look at a couple of the compilations that are available. There's a lot of them, and I am by no means an expert on all of them (I could go bankrupt if I tried to collect everything for all the artists I like ... heck, I'd go bankrupt just trying to collect a LITTLE bit of every artist I liked ... too much good stuff out there).
I came to Roy's music in the 1990s, and I wanted to get a really good Roy compilation. I only knew a handful of his tunes, and I liked that handful ... So I was looking for a disc that had them all.
I thought I found that with "The Very Best of Roy Orbison."
Well, it IS Roy Orbison. And he IS singing his best songs. But a lot of these songs are re-recordings. In some instances, this was because Roy was in litigation with former labels over the rights to the songs and the masters themselves.
To skirt those issues, he just remade the songs. There were other instances were the songs were remade because Roy had exposure with new versions (one being a duet with k.d. lang on "Crying," and another being a remake of "In Dreams" after the exposure of "Blue Velvet"). And you get some of the new tracks from "Mystery Girl."
All in all, it's not a bad disc ... But I wanted the original hits. I wanted 1960s Roy singing "Crying" without a partner. I wanted to hear "Only the Lonely" from 1960. I wanted to hear "Oh, Pretty Woman" sung when Roy was at his peak.
If you want all of that, too, then don't pick up "The Very Best of Roy Orbison." Instead, consider getting "The Essential Roy Orbison" or "Playlist: The Very Best of Roy Orbison."
"The Essential Roy Orbison" gives you two discs (or 3 discs, if you get the "3.0" version) of great Orbison material. HOWEVER, there are a couple of remakes featured in this collection because of its attempts to provide a career overview. This isn't too big of an issue, but I wanted the original versions of "Running Scared" and "In Dreams."
That led me to purchasing "Playlist: The Very Best of Roy Orbison." THIS disc is quite a good (and inexpensive) collection of Roy's music. You'll get MOST of the big songs (though it does leave off some songs, like "Blue Angel").
There's been a really good Roy Orbison box set released that delivers a great package of material from across the years, including previously unreleased material. I bought a copy of that box for a friend, and I've heard a lot of great things about it. But that was too extensive of a set for me. At this point in my life, I can settle for the cream of the crop.
So if you're a fan who wants a single disc of the material you are most likely to have heard, go with "Playlist." If you're wanting something more comprehensive that has more of the radio hits and album gems from across his many eras, grab "Playlist" AND "The Essential." Those two collections provide a hell of a body of work, and it is all fantastic. You'll get all the songs you're looking for, between these two releases.
And then go grab the Traveling Wilburys albums. They are fantastic in their own right, and Roy's voice on the first disc is transcendent.
Roy Orbison's body of work is a treasure trove. Dig into it. Let the music flow over you. Let that voice work itself into your soul. You'll be the better for it.