The MGM Years 1965-1973, recently arrived from Roy’s Boys, LLC and Universal Music Enterprises, chronicles over the course of 13 CDs (or 14 LPs) the least well-known period of the late vocal titan’s career. Orbison joined MGM Records riding the crest of the “Oh, Pretty Woman” wave; the composition which he wrote with Bill Dees was a U.S. and U.K. chart-topper at the height of the British Invasion in 1964 for Fred Foster’s Monument Records. Enticed by MGM Records’ promise of a starring role on screen for its sister movie studio and agreeing to record three albums per year, Orbison signed with the label rather than re-up his Monument deal. Orbison’s MGM tenure began auspiciously when his first single “Ride Away” reached No. 1 in Canada and his debut album for the label, There is Only One Roy Orbison, topped the British chart. But the United States was slow to acknowledge the quality of his MGM output. Only three songs – “Ride Away,” “Breakin’ Up is Breakin’ My Heart” and “Twinkle Toes,” made the U.S. Top 40. (Eleven songs from the MGM years went Top 40 worldwide.) With the release of The MGM Years, more than four decades after Orbison departed the label, the recordings he made there can finally be recognized as an essential part of his legendary and still powerful canon.
This sturdy, handsomely slipcased volume boasts Roy’s 11 original studio albums for MGM, the long out-of-print soundtrack to his cinematic star vehicle The Fastest Guitar Alive and a newly-created compilation album called MGM B-Sides & Singles that contains the 12 non-album singles and B-sides that otherwise weren’t included in any album; overall, the box contains 152 tracks. (A thirteenth studio album, One of the Lonely Ones, was originally recorded for release in 1969 but shelved until now; it’s been released on CD and vinyl as a companion volume to the box set.)
“I’ll never be anyone but me,” Roy Orbison asserts on the atmospheric, widescreen production “Ride Away.” It opened There is Only One Roy Orbison, the first album in the box set, and the admission could well describe his MGM period. The superstar vocalist stayed true to himself and his intense, resonant style, only nodding to the day’s trends in pop and rock during his years with the label. The Nashville Sound is all over There is Only One, and so are nods to Roy’s past – whether the arrangement of “Two of a Kind” gently recalling “Running Scared” for a moment, or the singer revisiting his own “Claudette,” recorded in 1958 by The Everly Brothers. Three of the songs, the liner notes reveal, were earlier songs co-written with Joe Melson but unrecorded at Monument. There is Only One Roy Orbison, produced by Wesley Rose and Jim Vienneau, hardly sounds like 1965, but it does sound timeless.
Much as the first album yielded an all-time Orbison classic in its opening track “Ride Away,” sophomore album The Orbison Way (featuring Roy’s own band The Candy Men and the big, impeccable arrangements of Nashville vet Bill McElhiney) accomplished the same with its first song, the achingly vulnerable ballad “Crawling Back.” If anything, The Orbison Way was even more moving than its predecessor, with impassioned and gutsy vocals on dramatic opuses like Buddy Buie’s “Time Changed Everything,” and Bill Dees’ western-tinged, rangy “This is My Land” and “The Loner.” Roy cut loose on the deliciously catchy rocker “Breakin’ Up is Breakin’ My Heart,” even flirted with contentment on the sweetly upbeat “Never Again,” and conjured a traditional country style with Orbison touches (like that familiar martial beat) on “Why Hurt the One Who Loves You.”
MGM Album No. 3, 1966’s The Classic Roy Orbison, might have confused potential buyers with its title more redolent of a greatest-hits collection than an all-new studio album. Yet Orbison, in a herculean feat, managed to write and record his third album of primarily new material in less than one year. As on The Orbison Way, the singer-songwriter seemed to be drawing on his own recent experiences breaking up and then reuniting with his wife Claudette. He and Bill Dees penned nine of the LP’s twelve songs together, including the Wall of Sound-recalling opener “I’ll Never Be Sixteen Again,” the stoicism-in-the-face-of-heartbreak ode “Pantomime” the raucous a-go-go number “Twinkle Toes” (which would become the final U.S. Top 40 single scored by Orbison in his lifetime), “Growing Up,” with its country-meets-“It’s Not Unusual” beat, and “Going Back to Gloria,” in the vintage Orbison mode. Orbison and Dees then each contributed one solo song, while Rusty and Doug Kershaw were called upon for “Never Love Again.” Album sessions concluded on May 16, 1966, and mere weeks later, Claudette shockingly perished in a motorcycle accident. Her death – the first but not the last tragedy he would endure during the MGM years – colored the reception accorded his next album, Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson.
Sessions began for Don Gibson, the first of Orbison’s two MGM songbook albums, on June 1, 1966. On June 6, Claudette died. In August, MGM released “Too Soon to Know,” one of the three songs recorded on June 1, on 45 RPM. As the liner notes in The MGM Years recount, the release seemed like a morbid cash-in with lyrics like “It’s too soon to know if I can forget her/My heart’s been broken in too many pieces/And It’s too soon to know.” Despite the label’s lapse in taste, the song reached No. 3 in the United Kingdom and Orbison, understandably feeling the need to press forward, defended its release. Don Gibson shared with Orbison an affinity for heartrending balladry, and if Gibson’s country classics may have seemed passé in 1967, the singer gave them his considerable (and considerably authentic) all, both before and after his wife’s passing. Bill McElhiney again provided the suitably lush, countrypolitan orchestral charts under the production supervision of Wesley Rose and Jim Vienneau.
The happiest curiosity on the box set is the soundtrack to The Fastest Guitar Alive. (Note the cover artwork by comic book and fantasy legend Frank Frazetta.) Orbison and Dees composed the seven-song score for MGM’s Civil War-era “western musical comedy” starring Roy as Johnny Banner, a Confederate officer with a bullet-shooting guitar (!) planning to heist the U.S. Mint (!!). The soundtrack, which adds three non-film tracks, is largely of a piece with Orbison’s other MGM albums, featuring the same producers (Rose and Vienneau) and arranger (McElhiney). Though the songs aren’t “character” songs in the style of a traditional musical, the lyrics of tracks like “Rollin’ On” specifically reference the film’s situations, and Roy ventured beyond typical pop for such strong tunes as the laconic “River,” the evocative “Pistolero” (with its Spanish guitar and Mariachi-style horns) and the shattering “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home,” which drew attention as an anti-Vietnam War song even though Orbison insisted it wasn’t. The mariachi sound also enlivens the bright “Good Time Party,” and “Medicine Man” takes on a Native American flavor.
What does Roy Orbison have to do with Led Zeppelin? The answer comes via Roy’s 1967 album Cry Softly, Lonely One which introduced his “Communication Breakdown”…the title of which inspired one Jimmy Page, a touring mate of Roy’s, to write his own song by that name! Roy’s original was one of six co-writes with Bill Dees on the LP and one of his most contemporary-sounding productions for MGM to that point. Their “It Takes One (To Know One)” melded a lightly Latin sound with another modern beat, and “That’s a No No” rides a percolating groove. Cry Softly also reunited Roy with his old pal and co-writer Joe Melson, who wrote the lilting, empathetic title track with Don Gant. Featuring Orbison’s falsetto and background vocals redolent of “Only the Lonely,” it became a Top 10 hit in Australia and also charted in the U.S. and Canada. Up-and-comer Mickey Newbury was tapped, too, for the wistful reflection “Here Comes the Rain Baby.” Surprisingly, Cry Softly does not include Don Gibson’s “Just One Time,” recorded on July 18, 1966 during the Sings Don Gibson sessions but issued on international pressings of Cry Softly. The omission leaves the track completely orphaned.
Roy Orbison’s Many Moods, produced by a solo Wesley Rose and arranged by Emory Gordy Jr. and Jim Hall, represents a turning point in Orbison’s MGM career. Drawn from sessions held in both Atlanta and Nashville, it brought Orbison closer to “MOR” territory while retaining his typical musical integrity. With just three Orbison-Dees compositions, Many Moods also found Roy relying even more heavily on “covers” including another pair by Mickey Newbury and four very familiar tunes. He lent his soaring vocals to “Unchained Melody,” “What Now My Love” and a pair of songs from the stage and screen, respectively: “Try to Remember” (from The Fantasticks) and “More” (from Mondo Cane). Orbison and Dees’ songs included the ironically uptempo reflection on a “Heartache,” the majestic, classic-Orbison opus “Walk On” and the sensitive “Yesterday’s Child.” The attractive “I Recommend Her” by Larry Henley, Mark Mathis and Nolan Brown moved Orbison even closer to the pop sound of the day, with its female background vocals and lightly percolating piano.
Orbison endured another unendurable tragedy when, on September 16, 1968, two of his three sons were killed as his Tennessee home burnt to the ground. The singer was on a U.K. tour when he received the horrific news. Once more, Orbison was forced to persevere in the face of a personal tragedy. He was back in the studio for MGM the following February. The move to MOR came one step closer with Many Moods’ follow-up. Hank Williams followed Don Gibson as the subject of an Orbison MGM tribute record with 1970’s Hank Williams Songs the Roy Orbison Way. Don Gant produced and arranged the 11-song album which featured such staples as “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” These country classics were close to Orbison’s heart, as reflected in his altogether confident leads. The opening “Kaw-Liga” is full-blooded, even raunchy rock-and-roll, but much of the album bore a showbiz sheen similar to the sound Elvis Presley was then pursuing. Orbison was changing; even the cover reflected this, with the singer sporting his “bowl” hairstyle for the first time.
On March 25, 1969, Roy Orbison began a new life when he married his wife Barbara. Later that spring, he began cutting the album that became The Big O in the U.K. for the MGM-affiliated London Records label. 1970’s The Big O was his most adventurous release of this period, finding the veteran singer backed by young British band The Art Movement. Roy didn’t contribute any new songs to this album, primarily cut (per his wishes) live in the studio. (All but three songs were cut in London, with the remaining trio recorded later in Nashville.) The Art Movement (who had enjoyed their own U.K. Top 30 hit in 1968 with “Loving Touch”) began a six-year association with Orbison at this time, and their crisp sound is all over The Big O‘s varied covers including John D. Loudermilk’s “Break My Mind,” Buck Ram’s old Platters hit “Only You,” Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and even The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda.” The Art Movement’s rocking instrumental and vocal backing, though still sweetened with orchestrations, lent The Big O a crisp, fresh sound unlike anything else had recorded for MGM at that point. The LP sounds a bit like Orbison having fun as frontman of a crackling British Invasion bar band. He gave an “Oh, Pretty Woman” growl on “Loving Touch” and revived his own Sun-era track “Down the Line,” but MGM in the U.S. rejected the loose LP, leading to a strain in relations with the label. London got a hit out of the album, however, when the bright, brassy, studio-recorded “Penny Arcade” – the lone track sans The Art Movement – made the Top 30. (It appears that The MGM Years has used an alternate, early version of “When I Stop Dreaming” on this disc.)
No new music save one single emerged in 1971, but Orbison returned in 1972 under the aegis of MGM’s new honcho Mike Curb for the simply-titled Roy Orbison Sings. The eleven-track LP was pieced together from sessions with four different producers (the Orbison/Joe Melson team; Don Gant; Wesley Rose; and Curb), and Orbison and Melson wrote four songs with Melson contributing a fifth co-written with Curb. Opening track “God Love You,” directed at Barbara, showcased a contented Orbison as did other cuts such as Bill Dees and Larry Henley’s “For a While” (held over from a previous session) and the ode to harmony and unity, “It Takes All Kinds of People.” But Orbison had not completely abandoned ballads of heartbreak. “Changes” and Gene Thomas’ “Rings of Gold” found him in that familiar arena. Perhaps too familiar; though Orbison was, as usual, at the height of his vocal powers, the country-pop album lacked a distinguishing factor which would have made it stand out on the record racks in a 1972 filled with singer-songwriter and soft rock sounds from Carole King, James Taylor, Bread, Eagles, Carpenters, Elton John, America and so many other younger talents. Orbison’s well-crafted yet essentially retro LP got lost in the shuffle.
The artist closed out his MGM tenure with two more “covers” albums, both of which he co-produced with Joe Melson. Memphis, released in 1972, blended ballads and rockers alike, and featured a big, sound exemplified by the recording of Chuck Berry’s title track with a horn section, multiple guitarists, bassists, piano, keyboards, drums and percussion. Roy sounds upbeat and exuberant on other selections including the Melson co-write “Run, Baby, Run” (popularized by The Newbeats), Melson and Glenn Barber’s “I’m the Man on Susie’s Mind” (which updates Roy’s sound with a light seventies soul beat) and The Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law.” Memphis isn’t the most cohesive of Orbison’s releases, but it’s packed with bravura vocals including a majestically churchy rendition of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Like The Classic Roy Orbison before it, 1973’s Milestones undoubtedly suffered from a title more indicative of a retrospective than a new studio album. The LP found Orbison once again covering numerous familiar songs in his own style, this time with a pop bent – notably The Bee Gees’ “Words,” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Dobie Gray’s Mentor Williams-penned “Drift Away” and Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s dramatic Poseidon Adventure anthem “The Morning After.” Orbison and Melson also contributed one song of their own, the shimmering “Blue Rain (Coming Down).”
Roy Orbison concluded his pact with MGM Records in July 1973, with Milestones seeing release that September. The MGM Years box adds one more treat, however, in the form of the 16-track bonus disc of B-Sides and Singles. Recorded between 1967 and 1973, every track is in stereo save two for which no stereo masters could be located. These non-album tracks frequently found Orbison in an adventurous mood. The epic highlight is “Southbound Jericho Parkway,” the seven-minute, multi-part opus produced by Don Gant and arranged by Tupper Saussy, both of The Neon Philharmonic. A strange and fascinating psychedelic spin on a “death disc,” it’s unlike anything else in the Orbison canon. Almost as original is “So Young,” produced by Mike Curb and featuring his Congregation; the song was heard in the film Zabriskie Point alongside the music of Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.
The MGM Years is beautifully housed in a sturdy slipcase containing every album in a mini-LP jacket with a spine. Each individual CD has an appropriate period label, including two distinctive MGM Records designs and a London Records replica, too. (Note that the songwriting credits are printed on the CD labels rather than in the booklet.) A thick, squarebound 60+-page booklet has a lengthy introductory essay by Alex Orbison as well as copious, detailed album-by-album liner notes. The albums have been tastefully remixed in stereo and remastered from multi-track tapes by Chuck Turner (credited as Reissue Engineer) and Richard Dodd (credited for Reissue Mastering). If you’re looking for the original stereo mixes, however, it’s advisable that you hold onto your past CD editions of these titles. Alex Orbison details some of the mixing/mastering choices in his notes. An essential companion CD to the box set, the (excellent) never-before-released 1969 album One of the Lonely Ones, is also available, and each title in the box has been issued separately on CD and vinyl except for B-Sides and Singles.
If only Roy Orbison had been dispatched to, say, Muscle Shoals or American Studios or FAME, or teamed up with a visionary producer during his period at MGM Records, perhaps his music would have been greeted with greater commercial success, and fans and collectors wouldn’t have had to wait this long for a box like The MGM Years to arrive. While few of these records feel like the kind of artistic stretch that might have prolonged Orbison’s hitmaking career, they nonetheless provide an unquestionable testimony to his mastery as one of pop and rock’s greatest vocalists of all time – not to mention a top-flight songwriter. These enjoyable albums finally have their long-deserved day in the sun on The MGM Years.