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Roy Orbison

The Soul of Rock and Roll – 2008 (Sony Legacy)

Reviewed by Ken Burke

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CDs by Roy Orbison

Generous helpings of Roy Orbison's vast catalog of rockabilly, classic pop hits, country and flat out rock 'n' roll are supplemented with rare recordings, private jams and previously unreleased demos in this genuinely satisfying 4-CD, 107-song boxed set. In the process, the singer-songwriter's evolution as the ultimate troubadour of heartache is deftly showcased.

Disc one smartly traces Orbison and the Wink Westerner's journey from a hillbilly (Hey! Miss Fanny) and Norman Petty-produced pop act (An Empty Cup and A Broken Date) through his first commercial breakthrough as a Sun Records rockabilly (Ooby Dooby). In later years, Orbison decried his work for Sam Phillips, but the best tracks from this era (Mean Little Mama, Problem Child), portray him as a unique rocker who could growl with seductive authority.

Yet, neither the Sun tracks nor the teen-beat RCA sides (Almost Eighteen), show what the struggling singer-songwriter hoped to do as well as the previously unreleased demos (Love Storm, I Give Up, Defeated). These simple, keenly emoted song blueprints display Orbison's need for a sympathetic studio visionary, which he found in Fred Foster at Monument Records. As the great hits on disc two attest (Only the Lonely, In Dreams, Running Scared, Crying), no one understood the singer's sense of romantic paranoia better. From the start, Foster skillfully augmented his heartbreaking operatic crescendos with teen r&b/pop background vocals with adult contemporary strings and a rock rhythm section. The result was arguably the finest commercial work created by one artist during the pre-Beatles era.

After including the last of the great Monument hits (Mean Woman Blues, It's Over, Oh Pretty Woman), disc three boils down Orbison's less successful, yet sonically appealing, later career quite severely. Although, the Big O's fans have clamored for more, only a smattering of his seldom reissued MGM sides (Ride Away, Too Soon to Know, Fastest Guitar Alive), live tracks (Land of 1000 Dances.), and spare sides for Elektra, Monument and Warner (That Lovin' You Feelin' Again with EmmyLou Harris) are included.

Disc four documents Orbison's remarkable resurgence. Writing again for a Sun reunion project (Coming Home), he parlayed his stint as a member of the Traveling Wilburys (Not Alone Anymore) and k.d. Lang duet partner (Crying) into a final shot at mainstream pop audiences. Singing in a voice that barely acknowledged the passing years, Orbison's last hot run was filled with nearly as much sexual bravado (You Got It, Wild Hearts Run Out of Time) and romantic desperation (I Drove All Night) as his Monument days. It is that feeling he evokes that gives these collected works the ring of a timeless, cathartic truth.

Completists will probably wish that the 1980s re-recordings had been omitted in favor of more Wilbury and MGM tracks. However, the abundance on early demos, previously unreleased live tracks, crystal clear remastered sound, an informative 94-page booklet and bonus postcards transform this riveting collection into that rarest of all things - a classic American boxed set that even casual fans will savor.