Roy Orbison – Roy Rocks

Mar 24, 2021

Liner notes for Roy Orbison, Roy Rocks, Bear Family Records

Originally published in 2006

Historians love to write about how Roy Orbison got started in the music business on the wrong foot, being forced to cut rock and roll until he found his niche with the sort of orchestrated ballads that would cement his place in the hall of fame. While it is true that Orbison himself preferred the softer songs and the pop ballads, and certainly that is where he found his greatest chart success, Roy Orbison’s veins pulsed with the blood of a rocker. Although he always denied it, he was great at rocking and left behind some of the best-loved rockabilly tracks of all time. This collection is perhaps the first of its kind, the first to collect all of Orbison’s best rockin’ material, from the early days at Sun Records and the Norman Petty studios to his short-lived days as an RCA artist in the late 1950s and the few but fertile rockers he cut in his golden days for Monument Records in the early 1960s.

When an artist finds such massive success with a radically different style, as Orbison did with his pop hits in the 1960s, it is easy to write off early efforts with a dismissive wave of the hand. In doing the research for these liner notes I was shocked at how nearly every book or article about Roy Orbison regurgitated the same details about his early rocking period, usually in a few short paragraphs. Had he not gone on to record those massive pop hits, critics would have paid the same attention to his rockabilly sides as they did to the records by Carl Perkins, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, Warren Smith, and other Sun Records greats, who have had every minute detail of their 1950s activities researched and obsessed over. The fact of the matter is that Orbison was another teenager in the mid-1950s who traveled to see Elvis Presley play and got swept up in the fury ofwomen, fame, and attention. Orbison admits that his only goal at that time was “a Cadillac and a diamond ring by the age of twenty-one.” Whether or not he was teen-idol material mattered not, for deep in his soul Orbison felt the calling of wild bop music known as rock and roll.

Much has also been written about how unlikely a star Roy Orbison was. True, back in the 1950s, as today, looks mattered over talent in the pop business, and Orbison was not exactly an attractive man. Born an albino, he suffered from the eyesight problems of albinism, and in fact in the early days (before he wore glasses on stage) many thought he was blind because he had to be led up to the microphone. But he dyed his hair a deep jet black, bought himself the finest hepcat clothes, equipped himself with top-of-the-line equipment. As a teenager he had a Les Paul Black Beauty guitar, the most expensive solidbody Gibson made, and a Ray Butts Echosonic Amp like Scotty Moore, also the most expensive custom-ordered amplifier one could own at the time. He made up his mind that he was going to be a rock and roll star, looks be damned.

In the music business there has always been a great divide between the gifted and the determined, and Orbison was a gifted vocalist and guitarist determined to overcome the handicap of his looks. His determination paid off, and in fact the stubborn Orbison stuck at it through high and low times in his forty-year stint in the music business. How many artists can say they started off with a hit on their first record, then sank so low as to eat rolled-up balls of cornmeal and water (as Orbison did between his Sun days and the pop hits), found top-forty success and made a million dollars, lost their wife to a motorcycle accident and two sons to a house fire, then wound up getting inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and having a top-ten hit just as they died? The story of Roy Orbison is a story of perseverance and dogged determination more than anything else.

West Texas is precisely the sort of place to breed a determined young man. Hot, dusty, and flat—these are the only good things that can be said about a place like Wink, Texas, where Orbison was raised. Born in 1936 to hardworking parents (his dad, Orbie Lee, was a rigger in the oilfields), he was the classic outcast, a subject that later permeated his hits like “Only the Lonely” and “In Dreams.” He had a good head on his shoulders, though, and quickly found that while he wasn’t good at football and hard, menial labor, he excelled at drawing and singing. Perhaps the most telling picture of his early years shows him posed in front of a very large blackboard mural. He had created an elaborate Christmas drawing, which apparently was so well received that the entire school was taken to view his creation. The huge mural dwarfs the diminutive Roy, who stands beaming from ear to ear, his eyes barely visible through his thick coke-bottle glasses. He had found that he could use his talents to gain acceptance and praise, even if he didn’t fit in with the football players and oil riggers.

Orbison’s musical talents surfaced early on as well, and by his teens he was leading a local aggregation called the Wink Westerners, a group that eventually turned into the Teen Kings. The group began by playing all the country and western hits of the day, with Orbison being particularly knocked out by Lefty Frizzell’s voice. As was the norm of the day, the group also played pop standards such as “Moonlight Serenade” and “Stardust.”

All that would change the day that Elvis Presley blew through West Texas like a hurricane, changing everything in his path. The details of exactly where and when Orbison saw Elvis for the first time are murky, but it’s generally accepted that he had heard about the noise Elvis was making in the music world, and in fact his father had told him about seeing a “terrible” Presley show. Orbison made up his mind to see what the fuss was all about and went to see Elvis play, either at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas or at one of the many shows Elvis played across West Texas in 1954 and 1955. It’s hard now to imagine a time when such things were so shocking or life changing, but when Orbison recounted seeing Elvis for the first time, he remembered Elvis spitting out his chewing gum on stage, breaking guitar strings, talking “with the coarse diction of a truck driver,” rolling around on the stage while singing, and causing a near riot in the crowd by turning the ladies on and ticking the men off. Elvis’s music, looks, and attitude represented something that teenagers all over the country could latch onto and call their own.

In no time at all the Wink Westerners were doing their own interpretation of hillbilly bop and looking at getting a piece of the Presley pie. The group made some lineup changes, most notably adding rhythm guitarist Johnny “Peanuts” Wilson, who brought with him a healthy love for the new rock and roll music (and later would cut the classic single “Cast Iron Arm.”) After a spell during which Orbison and drummer Billy Pat Ellis went to North Texas State College in Denton, the whole group moved to Odessa, where they all attended junior college together and changed the band’s name from the Wink Westerners to the Teen Kings.

It wasn’t long before they made their first recording, an acetate demo of a song that Orbison had learned from two students at North Texas State named Wade Moore and Dick Penner. The song was “Ooby Dooby,” and although it was a simple song with nonsense lyrics, Orbison had seen Moore and Penner make crowds go crazy with it. The demo session was intended as an audition for Columbia Records. Columbia saw no future with the band, but A&R man Don Law did give “Ooby Dooby” to Sid King and the Five Strings, who released it on Columbia to little fanfare (the early Orbison demos of “Ooby Dooby” and “Hey Miss Fannie” can be found on the Roy Orbison box set on Bear Family, BCD 16423).

Around this time, Roy and the Teen Kings caught the eye of local impresario Weldon Rogers, who agreed to put out a Teen Kings single as soon as they had something recorded. The group then traveled to the other notable studio in the region, Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where they recut “Ooby Dooby” and a new flip side, “Tryin’ to Get to You,” which they had learned from Elvis’s live shows (one report has Orbison owning a prerelease acetate of Elvis’s version). The two numbers were released on the tiny Je-Wel record label (the name was an acronym that combined the financial backer’s daughter’s name, Jean, and that of Weldon Rogers, who handled the music and promotional side of the label).

The Je-Wel record took off locally, selling hundreds of copies and catapulting the Teen Kings to regional fame. It made so much noise that another local impresario, Cecil Holifield, notified Sam Phillips of Sun Records that the Je-Wel contract was not legally binding, since Orbison and the other boys were under the age of twenty-one. When Holifield and Sam Phillips threatened legal action against Je-Wel Records, the Teen Kings were released from their contract and given instructions to go immediately to Memphis to record for Sun. In the rapidly moving waters of the day, songs could break overnight and just as easily be forgotten. Phillips knew this and brought the group to Memphis as fast as possible to recut “Ooby Dooby” yet again, capturing the momentum that the Je-Wel record had promised.

When the group arrived, Phillips rushed them into the studio and explored their potential as new rockabilly hitmakers. The group rerecorded “Ooby Dooby” a total of four times, but Phillips felt they hadn’t gotten a good version and in fact wound up calling Weldon Rogers seeking to lease the Je-Wel master (after threatening legal action against him only a month earlier!). Weldon offered to sell the Je-Wel master for $1100, but Sam decided to go with the first take the boys had laid down at the Sun Studio instead. For a flip side, the band came up with a new rocker, “Go Go Go,” a scorching rockabilly mover that has become a standard in the rockabilly repertoire, though it is usually called “Down the Line,” the title that Jerry Lee Lewis gave it when he cut it a year later for the flip side of “Breathless.”

One thing that should be pointed out regarding all of the early rockabilly sides by Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings is that Orbison played all the lead guitar parts himself. He was one of the great rockabilly axemen, cutting solos that were as tough sounding and biting as any of his contemporaries. Few realize when they hear that classic intro to “Go Go Go” that it’s Roy himself tearing it up on the guitar!

The band also recorded another couple of takes of “Tryin’ to Get to You” at that first Sun session, but Sam Phillips chose the two rockers (and picked “Go Go Go” as the flip to ensure his own publishing interests) and rushed “Ooby Dooby” out as Sun 242 as quickly as possible. The single did very well, selling up to two hundred thousand copies by some reports, and Roy Orbison became a star for the first time.

Orbison’s tenure at Sun has been rehashed in biographies many times over. According to the artist, he kept trying to get Sam Phillips and his in-house producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement to listen to his ballads, which he felt were his forte. If you believe everything you read, Phillips and Clement forced Orbison to record rock and roll material against his will, while he tried in vain to convince them that he was a ballad singer. According to lore, Orbison eventually gave them a giant “I told you so” by scoring numerous top-ten ballad hits in the early 1960s. Like a lot of music history, it makes for a nice story. But human accounts differ from the recorded material—and also the photographs—from his time at Sun. For one thing, Sam Phillips and Jack Clement were interested in selling records. If ballads were selling in 1956, they would have been pushing Orbison in that direction. But in 1956, rockers were the hot ticket, and all they really cared about was getting another hit record. The “I told you so” part of the story doesn’t really jibe, as pop rockers and ballads were much more marketable in the early 1960s, when Orbison had a string of hits with such material. Had he recorded “Oh Pretty Woman” or “Only the Lonely” in 1956, they would undoubtedly have been flops.

Secondly, Orbison’s account that he wasn’t allowed to record ballad material at Sun simply isn’t true. Out of the twenty-eight song titles he recorded at Sun, almost a dozen are ballads. While only two of them were released at the time (“Sweet and Easy to Love” b/w “Devil Doll,” Sun 265), the fact is that Phillips and Clement suffered from pill-popping attention deficit disorder, and Orbison simply wouldn’t have been allowed the time to record a dozen ballads if they didn’t see some promise in them.

In all aspects of his life and career, Roy Orbison was something of an enigma. Though he hailed from an unlikely place with an even more unlikely image, he ultimately became a rock star and legend.

Lastly, the biggest flaw in this whole written history is that Orbison and the Teen Kings were simply brilliant at rockabilly material. While Orbison was quick to discount it later in life, all one has to do is study the photographs from 1956 and 1957 to see that these boys were having the time of their lives. Dressed to the nines in hepcat finery, jumping all over the stage “like a bunch of idiots” (quoting Orbison), and touring with their fellow Sun luminaries Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others, these teenagers were living the rock and roll dream and enjoying every minute of it.

Perhaps these excuses and explanations were to cover up the pain of the failed releases that followed the success of “Ooby Dooby.” All three follow-ups were undeserved commercial flops. “Rockhouse” b/w “You’re My Baby” was released as Sun 251 in the summer of 1956 and sank without a trace. The only logical explanation is that Sun’s promotional team was focusing their energies on other artists, as this is one of the great two-sided rockabilly 45s of all time. The top side, “Rockhouse,” was a great call-to-arms number that Orbison cowrote with Harold Jenkins (later to become Conway Twitty), and the flip, “You’re My Baby,” was written by Johnny Cash and originally titled “Little Woolly Booger” (Cash called it the worst thing he’d ever written). They are two of the most savage, flat-out rockabilly sides ever waxed. From Orbison’s frantic guitar to the wild drumming, this is a perfect rockabilly record and not deserving of the derision it has suffered from Orbison, Cash, and other historians.

Orbison’s third release on Sun also seems to contradict his assertion that he was never allowed to do ballad material there. “Sweet and Easy to Love” b/w “Devil Doll” were released as Sun 265 in late 1956 and both were balladesque. “Sweet and Easy to Love” is a classic rock-a-ballad, with Orbison’s sweet vocals riding over a thumping rockabilly backing. “Devil Doll” is as syrupy as anything ever got at Sun, and its commercial failure led producer Jack Clement to push Orbison back in the rock and roll direction for his next record.

The last Orbison Sun release, “Chicken Hearted” b/w “I Like Love,” released as Sun 284 in fall 1957, has been characterized even in the Bear Family box set booklet as “a ghastly record.” Orbison hated it because he was forced to record songs that other people had written. But why it gets such a bad rap baffles this author, because even though the lyrics are somewhat cornball, the rocking feel on both sides is superb. Recording with the Sun house band (he had gotten into a dispute with the Teen Kings by this time over label billing and money issues), which included both Roland Janes on guitar and Stan Kesler on bass, this session produced a host of great rockers, including the stunning, unissued tracks “Mean Little Mama” and “Problem Child.”

After Roy left Sun, he had few good things to say about his experience there. But what cannot be denied is that the rockabilly tracks were some of the best ever cut within the confines of 706 Union. Part of what has marred public opinion of these tracks was the dreadful album release Roy Orbison at the Rockhouse, which Sun hastily released in 1961 after Orbison started having hits on Monument Records. Some of the fantastic unissued tracks from his Sun sessions appeared there for the first time, but they were covered in overdubs of piano and saxophone. It wasn’t until the original, undubbed tracks came out in the 1980s that the true power of his rockin’ voice and his raw guitar style were revealed.

An interesting side story to the Sun tracks came to light only recently, when it was learned that Orbison had done a session with the Teen Kings at Norman Petty’s studio some time in 1957, when he was still contractually obligated to Sun. Two tracks were cut: “An Empty Cup (a Broken Date),” which was pitched as a demo to Buddy Holly, who cut it shortly thereafter, and possibly the most savage rocker that Orbison ever performed, “Cat Called Domino,” which he had recorded for Sun a few months earlier with no success in securing a release. Whether or not Orbison recut the song with Norman Petty to pitch to Buddy Holly or someone else is unknown, but what we do know, and are grateful for, is that the original recording survived. This blistering version of “Domino” is the lead-off track on this compilation, with good reason—it’s the hardest Orbison ever rocked in his life.

The next phase of Orbison’s career was probably the hardest for him to suffer through. Barely a year after having a hit record with “Ooby Dooby,” he found himself back in West Texas with virtually no career. The Teen Kings had dissolved and he was stuck at home with a new wife (Claudette) and baby and no way to feed them, much less make the Cadillac payment. If it weren’t for his songwriting skills, that might have been the last anyone ever heard of Roy Orbison. Luckily, he placed “Claudette,” an ode to his young wife, with the Everly Brothers, who released it as the flip side to “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” which became a huge hit.

The association that Orbison had with song publisher Wesley Rose (of the huge publishing empire Acuff-Rose) led him to his next contract, with RCA Records in Nashville. Undoubtedly Orbison hoped that his career would take the same path as Elvis Presley’s, jumping from Sun to RCA to world stardom, but it wasn’t to be. The RCA sides are a curious footnote in his career—a step in the direction that he would eventually hit with, but not yet fully realized. His RCA ballads are unmemorable and sanitized, and the two singles he recorded for RCA sank even faster than his last few Sun singles. The only redeeming memory of the RCA sessions were the three rockers, which were decent in a late-’50s style with backing from the Nashville A-team studio musicians. We’ve included all three of them here, from the rockabillyish “Almost Eighteen” to the pop rockers “With the Bug” and “Double Date.”

With his publishing mentor Wesley Rose’s help, Orbison was then transferred to a new start-up label called Monument, the brainchild of Baltimore record hustler Fred Foster and Nashville A-team bassist Bob Moore. Monument was an upstart new label and dedicated to promoting Orbison, whereas at RCA he had been lost in the shuffle. The new union between Orbison and Monument turned was well timed on several fronts. First, Monument quickly gained strong momentum as their first two releases became moderate hits (“Gotta Travel On” by Billy Grammer and “The Shag (Is Totally Cool)” by Billy Graves). Second, Orbison had recently found a new songwriting partner in Joe Melson, who helped bring about some of the best writing of Roy’s career.

The story that ensues could fill an entire book, and in fact there are already several biographies that detail this period in depth. Orbison began having huge top-ten hits with such classics as “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” “Running Scared,” and “In Dreams.” He had finally found the winning combination that would secure his legend. What most accounts conveniently leave out is that while he always talked about leaving the rockers behind and finding success with the ballads, he was actually still recording great rockers well into the mid-1960s. The backing became more “beat” music and less rockabilly, but Orbison could rock with the best acts of the early 1960s, and in fact he toured with and befriended many of the early British beat bands, including the Beatles.

Included on this collection are some of the finest and most pounding uptempo numbers he recorded for Monument: “Uptown,” “Dance,” “Mean Woman Blues,” “What’d I Say,” and of course the biggest hit of his career, “Oh Pretty Woman.” Shortly after the megasuccess of “Oh Pretty Woman,” Roy signed a long-term contract with MGM Records, which seemed like a good career move at the time. He quickly found himself alone and lost in the forest, however, surrounded by hippies, psychedelia, and hard rock music, and was viewed as a curious relic of an earlier era. Misguided releases such as “Southbound Jericho Parkway” that tried to bring his image into the Charles Manson era were flat-out embarrassing. The hits stopped, and he hit the oldies circuit for the better part of the next twenty years.

After the death of his wife Claudette in a motorcycle accident followed by the death of his two eldest sons in a house fire, it is a miracle that Orbison came out on the other side intact, but that is exactly what happened. As with all things iconic, his image and inimitable sound were bound to make a comeback, and indeed after David Lynch used “In Dreams” to surrealistic effect in the 1986 movie Blue Velvet, Orbison found himself in demand once again. He was invited to join two rock supergroups, the Traveling Wilburys (with George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne) and the Class of ‘55 (with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins). There was an all-star concert tribute on national television. And most unpredictably of all, Orbison even had one last top-ten hit with “You Got It,” which was shipping from the pressing plant just as he suffered a fatal heart attack on December 6, 1988.

In all aspects of his life and career, Roy Orbison was something of an enigma. Though he hailed from an unlikely place with an even more unlikely image, he ultimately became a rock star and legend. Through personal and professional triumphs and tragedies, he nevertheless went out on top. Though he himself would never acknowledge it, Roy Orbison was a great rock and roller.