Roy Orbison: The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964)

A rock ‘n’ roll legend’s legendary mono singles + a vintage concert film

Roy Orbison’s five year blaze of musical glory on Monument Records is distilled here to the singles that rocketed up the chart over and over again. This 2-CD/1-DVD set collects all twenty singles released in the U.S. on the Monument label, dividing the A- and B-sides between the CDs. Disc one is an intense concentration of hits and valiant misses that digs deeper than the regularly anthologized chestnuts. All of the A’s, save “Lana” and “Paper Boy,” made the pop chart, offering up lesser known sides that include the pained “I’m Hurtin’,” despondent “The Crowd,” blue-collar “Working for the Man,” and a bluesy cover of “Let the Good Times Roll” that features harmonica from Charlie McCoy.

Nashville A-listers McCoy, Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer, Buddy Harmon, Hank Garland and the Anita Kerr Singers were regulars on Orbison’s sessions in RCA’s legendary Studio B. These mono singles, remastered by Vic Anesini, are incredibly fine in both detail and cohesion – much like the great recordings of Blue Note. They’re a real testament to the work of session engineer Bill Porter, who often captured the big productions and Orbison’s incredible dynamic range live-to-tape on only two tracks. Disc two shows that Orbison and his production team didn’t just slap together the flipsides; the B’s were polished productions with full arrangements that often featured strings and backing chorus. Orbison charted three of his B-sides (“Candy Man,” “Mean Woman Blues” and “Leah”) and recorded some great material, including “Love Hurts” and Cindy Walker’s “Shahdaroba,” for the flips.

The set’s DVD features a 25-minute black-and-white film of a 1965 live date recorded for a Dutch television station. Orbison was in Holland to pick up an award for “Oh, Pretty Woman,” his last chart-topper, and nearly his last single on Monument before decamping for MGM. He didn’t know it, but he was entering a twenty-five year Top 10 drought that only ended when his mid-80s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the taping of A Black & White Night and the formation of the Traveling Wilburys resuscitated his recording career. But in 1965 he’d recently delivered “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Goodnight,” both of which are featured in the live performance, and with a new contract in hand, things must have looked rosy.

The video is grainy, but the sound quality is surprisingly good. Orbison is backed by a six-piece band in sharp suits and Beatle boots, and “Pretty Woman” co-writer Bill Dees can be seen playing keyboards and singing background vocals. The performance is tightly contained, with Orbison moving little and hiding his eyes behind trademark sunglasses; it’s as if he’s channeling every bit of his emotion into his superb vocals. Without the instrumental grandeur of strings, a backing chorus or RCA’s Studio B, Orbison still wrings every ounce of emotion from the lyrics, and despite his lack of physical performance, he still grabs you with how good these songs could sound live. Whatever dialog there may have been with the audience has been clipped from this video, and though the crowd is surprisingly sedate, the band still cooks as they play “What’d I Say.”

Disc one, which is available separately, turns out to be a nearly complete greatest hits anthology. Were you to substitute three B-sides for less successful A’s, you’d have all of Orbison’s key chart history at Monument. The track sequencing, on the other hand, is a mystery, as it doesn’t follow either the recording or chart dates, and three singles are inexplicably designated as bonus traks. Splitting the A- and B-sides onto separate discs seems to favor the marketing department’s ability to sell the A-sides separately over giving package buyers an opportunity to listen to the singles in order. The separately is a nit really, given that consumers can easily rearrange the track sequence to their liking.

The four-panel digipack and 36-page booklet includes recording (but not release or chart) dates, chart position, and (where known) recording personnel. Also included are photos, picture sleeve and label reproductions, and short liner notes that provide an overview of Orbison’s time at Monument but no song-by-song rundown. These recordings have been released many times on compilations such as The Big O, The Essential Roy Orbison, The Soul of Rock and Roll and the omnibus Orbison: 1955-1965, but this is the first time that all of the mono mixes have been brought together in digital form. The video is worth watching once or twice, but the original singles are worth keeping forever. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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