Pop Culture

Four-CD box set shows how Orbison evolved

Twenty years after he died, Roy Orbison still can touch people with his piercing tenor.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, responsible for evergreen hits like “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Only the Lonely” and “Crying,” won six Grammys and sold millions of CDs before dying of a heart attack in 1988 at age 52. Now the singer is the subject of a new retrospective, a four-CD box set of his 107 recordings. “The Soul of Rock and Roll” was released this week, and contains all of his hits and 12 previously unreleased tracks.

Barbara Orbison, his widow, says the new project tells “the history of Roy Orbison. They let you know how he evolved to become the artist he was.”

Orbison, whose distinctive persona included ever-present sunglasses, dark clothing and an ebony pompadour, had a string of hits in the 1960s. Some of his other hits included “Blue Bayou,” “In Dreams,” “Dream Baby,” “Running Scared” and “Mean Woman Blues.”

“Elvis had sensuality and rebellion, but Roy had the depth of emotion not many others had,” Jen Gunderman, a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University who teaches a course on the history of rock ’n’ roll, said of the singer.

“There was a kind of mystery and fragility about him — his black leather jacket, and he stood still when he performed,” Gunderman said. “There was a vulnerability you didn’t see with others.”

Gunderman credited Orbison with helping to invent the rock ballad.

“He always conveyed sweeping emotion,” Gunderman said of Orbison. “Others had conveyed much emotion in opera, so Roy was called the Pavarotti of rock ’n’ roll.”

She also said his performances in Europe with the Beatles as they were on their way to becoming the Fab Four helped influence a generation of musicians.

“His tour with the Beatles in 1963 had a huge influence on all of the British invasion acts, and not just with his singing, but with his arrangements,” Gunderman said. “He tied together pop and country and rockabilly and British invasion acts in a way that’s really unique.”

Orbison suffered a career decline and personal tragedies after achieving success: His wife Claudette died in a 1966 motorcycle crash and two sons died in a house fire in 1968.

Orbison’s career rebounded in the 1980s. He joined the Eagles on tour, and Van Halen had a hit with his “Oh, Pretty Woman” in 1982. He and k.d. lang did a duet remake of “Crying,” winning a Grammy in 1988. Earlier in the decade, the duet “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again” with Emmylou Harris won a Grammy.

In 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bruce Springsteen, a former opening act for Orbison, was the presenter, saying, “nobody sings like Roy Orbison.” A year later, he performed with the Traveling Wilburys, joining Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison.

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Dozens of Orbison compilation CDs are available online, but none trace his overall career like “The Soul of Rock and Roll.” The 12 previously unreleased tracks include “It’s All Over” from his final concert Dec. 4, 1988, in Cleveland, two days before he died.

Orbison also toured with the Rolling Stones, and the deference that Barbara Orbison said Roy was given reflects how many rock stars felt about him.

“Keith (Richards) said everyone called him ‘Keith’ and they called Mick (Jagger) ‘Mick,’ but they called him Mr. Orbison.”

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