Posts Tagged ‘MGM’

Roy Orbison: One of the Lonely Ones

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

RoyOrbison_OneOfTheLonelyOnesMysteriously unreleased 1969 album has several treasures

With an artist of Roy Orbison’s stature, it’s hard to imagine how a fully finished album could simply slip through the cracks of a major label’s release machinery. But such is the case for this 1969 set, which sat in the vaults unheard by the public for nearly fifty years. Released in conjunction with an exhaustive 13-disc box set of Orbison’s MGM albums and singles, one might get the impression that his output was simply too much for the market to handle, but a closer look at this period suggests MGM was losing faith in Orbison’s commercial potential. At the time this album was shelved, 1967’s Cry Softly for the Lonely One had failed to chart, its title single had failed to crack the Top 40, and 1968 found Orbison retreating from the road while he recovered from the death of his two oldest sons.

By early 1969 Orbison was back in the studio, recording the material that would become this unissued album. He paused the sessions for a Spring tour, and reconvened in Summer to finish an album that should have been released in November. And then… nothing. MGM sat on the album, and waited until the next year to release the covers set, Hank Williams the Roy Orbison Way. MGM whiffed again the same year by failing to release The Big O in the US, adding to the picture of a label that no longer believed in its artist. But as both the box set and this newly released album confirm, Orbison’s MGM catalog is filled with excellent, if not always hit single material. In light of the quality, Orbison’s contention that his releases weren’t promoted properly (or, in several cases, actually released) weighs heavily.

One of the Lonely Ones combines catchy original material (co-written with Bill Dees), with covers of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mickey Newbury and Don Gibson. Like many of Orbison’s MGM albums, there are songs that might have been hits, just not in the year they were released. The wounded falsetto of “Laurie” would have done well in 1963-4, but was out of time for 1969. The personal context in which Orbison sang the title track elevates its drama, and with Elvis having charted “If I Can Dream,” one is left to wonder how this would have fared as a single. Same for “Give Up,” which could have found room on the country chart. This is among the better albums Orbison’s recorded for MGM, and a welcome addition to his legacy. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Roy Orbison’s Home Page

Roy Orbison: The MGM Years – 1965-1973

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

RoyOrbison_TheMGMYears1965-1973Deluxe restoration of Roy Orbison’s MGM catalog

Roy Orbison’s titanic career had four distinct phases. His late ‘50s work for Sun set him up for his most commercially successful period at Monument in the early 1960s. And his return to stardom in the 1980s came after a period of retrenchment. In between, from 1965 through 1973, Orbison recorded a dozen albums for MGM, but edged only a few titles into the lower regions of the U.S. Top 40, including 1965’s “Ride Away” and “Breakin’ Up is Breakin’ My Heart,” and 1966’s Johnny Rivers-styled “Twinkle Toes.” Orbison’s late ‘60s and early ‘70s releases fared better in Australia, Canada and the UK, but amid the rising tide of of the British Invasion, folk rock and psychedelia, competing releases from Monument, and a lack of consistent promotion from MGM, the stateside success of these recordings remained limited.

Orbison left Monument on a high note, with the chart-topping success of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” but in moving to MGM he left behind producer Fred Foster, engineer Bill Porter, and RCA’s Nashville studio. Orbison expected that MGM would expand his career into film and television, but other than the B-movie The Fastest Guitar Alive (whose soundtrack is included here) and a few song placements, his multimedia dreams failed to come true. What he did get was an extraordinary degree of artistic freedom that resulted in the production of eleven MGM album releases in nine years, all of which are included here. Also included in the box set is a twelfth album, The Big O, released in the UK by London in 1970, and a collection of non-LP singles and B-sides.

Though not the hit-making machine of his Monument days, Orbison courted commercial success by writing and recording an enormous number of tracks, touring in support of his releases, and staying true to his core strengths as an artist. His first album for MGM, There is Only One Roy Orbison, retained the string accompaniment of his biggest hits, but with songs that don’t reach the emotion-searing crescendos of his Monument material. There’s a country element to many of the productions, with tinkling, slip-note piano and Mexicali-flavored acoustic guitars providing melancholy sorrow in place of heart-breaking drama. Orbison’s vocal on a remake of “Claudette” is nicely engaged, though the backing arrangement has neither the simplicity of his Sun-era demo or the revved-up energy of the Everly Brothers’ B-side. The album doesn’t really hit full stride until the middle of side two, with “Afraid to Sleep,” one of the few non-original titles, but a classic Orbison-styled drama.

His second MGM album, The Orbison Way, mixed orchestral ballads with pop numbers backed by the Candy Men. The orchestral numbers reached greater emotional heights than his previous album, but the singles (“Crawling Back” and “Breakin’ Up is Breakin’ My Heart”) found a lot of new competition on the charts of late 1965, and the album, released early in 1966, failed to make a commercial impression. Whether the style was out of step with the sounds of the time, or MGM failed to provide adequate promotion, the songs are excellent, the arrangements solid, and Orbison deeply invested in his performances. There are several memorable album tracks, including the stalwart “Maybe,” and a soulful electric piano solo by future Atlanta Rhythm Section founder Dean Daughtry on “Go Away.”

His next album, The Classic Roy Orbison, fared even worse commercially, with only the go-go “Twinkle Toes” denting the charts. The arrangements again include orchestration and band numbers, and though not as strong as the previous album, there are some true highlights, including the falsetto-laced “Pantomime,” the double-tracked vocal of “Going Back to Gloria” and the groovy beat of “Just Another Name for Rock and Roll.” The mid-tempo numbers don’t have the gravitas of Orbison’s best material, and the vocals don’t always sound deeply engaged. With his own writing failing to create hits, Orbison turned to an album of Don Gibson covers for 1967’s Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson. It’s a comfortable, countrypolitan album, and Gibson’s songs fit Orbison well. Particularly worth hearing are Orbison’s reshaping of the classics “Sweet Dreams” and “Give Myself a Party.”

A similar songwriting detour for 1970’s Hank Williams the Roy Orbison Way, met with a similar lack of commercial success. The album’s rock-inflected sound was neither fish nor fowl; not rootsy enough to catch the attention of rock audiences, and too pop to find favor with country radio. One could imagine these arrangements being used on a mainstream television variety show. The tracks that work best, like “You Win Again,” find Orbison’s croon meeting Hank Williams’ sorrow half way, though even here, a background wah-wah guitar provides a distractingly dated touch. Orbison’s 1967 foray into film, The Fastest Guitar Alive, didn’t fare much better commercially. The soundtrack’s western-themed, folk-styled arrangements are unusual within the MGM catalog, and remain terrifically listenable. The closing “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” was written to the film’s Civil War theme, but had a resonance with the Vietnam war that made it problematic for a U.S. single release.

Orbison’s operatic tenor, flights into falsetto and orchestrated rock ‘n’ roll grew increasingly nostalgic as the distance to his early-60s commercial prime widened. On the one hand, his releases weren’t climbing the domestic charts, on the other, he demonstrated unflinching artistic integrity in refraining from chasing trends. 1967’s Cry Softly Lonely One is filled with songs that would have been major hits four or five years earlier, but amid the psychedelic explosion of 1967, the three singles, including the superb Joe Melson-written title track, barely cracked the charts. The more reserved Many Moods features terrific displays of Orbison’s singing and an unusual number of covers, including the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” Gilbert Bécaud’s “What Now, My Love?,” the film theme “More,” a pair of Mickey Newbury songs, and a wonderfully melancholy reading of the Fantastiks’ “Try to Remember.”

Cover songs again dominate 1970’s Big O, including an eclectic selection of material from John D. Loudermilk (“Break My Mind”), the Beach Boys (“Help Me, Rhonda”), Motown (“Money”), the Platters (“Only You”), the Louvin Brothers (“When I Stop Dreaming”), Wilson Pickett (“Land of 1000 Dances”) and Orbison’s Sun-era B-side, “Go, Go, Go (Down the Line).” Recorded in the UK with backing by the Art Movement, Orbison’s enthusiasm pulls together this seemingly disparate material with performances that are spirited and charming. MGM passed on a stateside release at the time, making this album particularly unfamiliar to U.S. ears.

1972’s Roy Orbison Sings includes material co-written with Bill Dees, as well as Monument-era foil, Joe Melson. By this point, Orbison’s commercial success had fully evaporated, including his UK and Australian chart action, markets in which London had found success with singles that MGM couldn’t move in the US. Despite the lack of commercial response, Orbison kept investing himself in both his songwriting and recording, and nearing the end of his contract, he was still coming up with a few great tracks on each album. His cover of “Rings of Gold” is heavier than Don Gibson and Dottie West’s hit, and the vocal on Eddy Raven’s “Plain Jane Country (Come to Town)” reaches back to the sound of his Sun singles. 1972’s Memphis has a few nice moments, including a soulful cover of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the original “It Ain’t No Big Thing (But It’s Growing),” and a thoughtful expansion of the classic “Danny Boy.”

Closing out his contract with MGM, 1974’s Milestones feels like the end of a long haul. Ever the professional, Orbison gave the songs his best, highlighted by the original “Blue Rain (Coming Down)” and a cover of the Bee Gees’ “Words.” Capping the box set is a disc of sixteen non-LP singles and B-sides whose quality lends weight to Orbison’s complaint about MGM’s lack of promotional. Most of these A-sides could have been international hits, and even B-sides like “Shy Away” and “Flowers” should be better-known among Orbison’s recorded legacy. Though the albums were sprinkled with treasures, MGM B-Sides & Singles is a solid collection of memorable songs, clever productions and top-notch vocals. And even more so than the albums, the lack of commercial exposure and digital availability will make these single sides fresh to all but the most educated fans’ ears. The seven-minute, five-part “Southbound Jericho Parkway” is worth the price of admission on its own. The masters for this disc are stereo, except “So Good” and “So Young,” which are mono.

This is a monumental box. Each disc is delivered in a mini-LP reproduction of the original cover and screened with a period MGM label. The 64-page booklet features photos, covers, ephemera, and detailed liner and album notes by Alex Orbison. The audio was painstakingly transferred from the original multitrack tapes and mixed with the original albums as guides. The three years of work put into all aspects of this set (as well as the accompanying lost album, One of the Lonely Ones) has made it a true labor of love. Though the material could have been squeezed onto fewer discs, there’s a thrill to unboxing the individual albums and honoring their original configuration; those who opt for vinyl should find themselves fully transported back to the original artifacts. Orbison’s years at MGM may not have been as commercially fruitful as his time with Sun, Monument and Virgin, but the catalog is home to many artistic treasures that will be dear to the singer’s fans. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Roy Orbison’s Home Page

Bill Medley: Bill Medley 100% / Soft and Soulful

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Righteous Brother goes solo in 1968 and 1969

Following his 1968 break with fellow Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield, Bill Medley kicked off a solo career with this pair of releases for MGM. Both albums grazed the bottom of the Billboard 200, and three singles (“I Can’t Make it Alone” and “Brown Eyed Woman” from the first album, “Peace Brother Peace” from the second) charted short of the Top 40. It would be Medley’s last solo chart action for more than a decade, as he’d reteam with Hatfield in 1974 and forgo solo releases for several years afterwards. By the time he re-engaged his solo career in 1981, the music world and his place in it had changed, leaving this pair of albums the best evidence of the solo sound grown from his first run with the Righteous Brothers.

Following the Righteous Brothers’ falling out with Phil Spector (who had produced three Philles albums and four hit singles for them), Medley assumed the producer’s seat for the duo’s last #1, “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration.” In conjuring a convincing imitation of Spector’s Wall of Sound, Medley showed himself to have ambition and talent that was larger than the role of featured vocalist. As he took the producer’s chair for his solo records he leaned heavily on big band arrangements of blues, soul and stage standards that suggested he’d been listening to Ray Charles and other blues and soul singers. He creates a Spectorian crescendo for “The Impossible Dream,” shouts his way through “That’s Life,” sings at the ragged edge of his husky voice on “Run to My Loving Arms,” and chews the scenery with the Neil Diamond-meets-Blood, Sweat & Tears gospel-soul of “Peace Brother Peace.”

Soft and Soulful dials down the volume of 100% to provide more nuanced and soulful vocals, including tender covers of Jerry Butler’s “For Your Precious Love” and Joanie Sommers “Softly,” an intense performance of the title song from the 1969 prison film Riot, “100 Years,” and a version of Burt Bacharach’s “Any Day Now” that winningly slows the tempo of Chuck Jackson’s original and Elvis Presley’s contemporaneous cover. Medley wrote or co-wrote four of the album’s tracks, including the period proclamation of personal freedom “I’m Gonna Die Me.” Real Gone delivers the disc and six-panel booklet (featuring liner notes by Richie Unterberger and reproductions of the back album covers) in a folding cardboard sleeve that includes both front album covers. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

Bill Medley’s Home Page

Herman’s Hermits: Listen People – 1964-1969

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Stellar documentary of endearing British Invasion hit-makers

Listen People 1964-1969 is one of four documentaries released as part of a five-DVD British Invasion box set by Reelin’ in the Years Productions. Like the other three, it’s a terrific collection, spanning twenty-two complete vintage performances, period promotional footage, television and stage performances, and contemporary interviews with Peter Noone, Karl Green (bass), Keith Hopwood (guitar) and Barry Whitwam (drums – sitting in front of his awesome gold-sparkle Slingerland drum set). Noone was – and is – one of the most charming front-men of the British Invasion, and the documentary reveals the band to be much more than a backing unit for their vocalist. Their hits were often the lightest of pop songs, but written, played and sung exceptionally, and the group was a charming live act.

The group’s hit singles were brought to them by producer Mickey Most, who had a golden ear for material and arrangements. Their first single, a 1964 cover of Earl-Jean’s “I’m Into Something Good,” was a worldwide smash and followed by a string of singles, some unreleased in the UK, some unreleased in the US, that kept the group at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic well into 1967. The unusual release strategy left U.S. audiences with a different picture of the group than those in their home country; in particular, “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” “I’m Henry VIII, I Am,” “Listen People,” “Leaning on the Lamp Post,” and “Dandy” were all stateside smashes that went unreleased as singles in the UK.

The documentaries’ interviews reveal the unorthodox story behind the recording and release of the music hall styled “Mrs. Brown,” and recollections of the band’s first NME Poll Winners Concert are born out by a winningly nervous performance. The group looks more comfortable with their up-tempo cover of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World,” with the young Noone in his schoolboy suit playing the part of the song’s protagonist. It’s easy to see why he was the sort of heartthrob who induced Beatlemania hysterics in young girls. An early performance of “Fortune Teller” at the Cavern Club shows the group to have had a grittier R&B side that was mostly unused for their hits. The liner notes and commentary mention a hot version of Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You” that unfortunately didn’t seem to make the final cut of the DVD.

The group’s hits rarely strayed from polite pop, failing to navigate many of the changes wrought by the latter half of the 1960s. Their recordings of songs by P.F. Sloan (“A Must to Avoid”), Ray Davies (“Dandy”) and Graham Gouldman (“No Milk Today”) took them towards folk-rock and more poetically crafted lyrics, but even as their clothes took on the fashions of 1966 and 1967 their singles remained “romantic, boy-next-door stuff.” They continued to record through the psychedelic era, having a Top 40 hit with Donovan’s “Museum” (not included here) and thickening their productions with strings and a hint of country twang on “My Sentimental Friend,” but the heavy sounds emanating from San Francisco and elsewhere spelled the end of their hit-making days.

Herman’s Hermits were a feel good band whose chipper music became anachronistic in the face of Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Their singles weren’t trendsetting (though Noone suggests his over-the-top English accent on “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” freed other British bands to abandon their faked Americana), but they were catchy, sold extremely well, and to this day remain memorable. In addition to the 78-minute documentary, the full individual performances can be viewed via DVD menu options, and bonuses include a 24-minute concert filmed for Australian television, a commentary track, and fifteen minutes of interviews that recollect the Hermits’ 1967 tour with the Who. This is a great documentary for both fans and those who only know a few of the group’s hits. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

Herman’s Hermit’s Home Page
Herman’s Hermit’s UK Home Page
Peter Noone’s Home Page
Reelin’ in the Years’ Home Page