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volume 19
april 2016

Roy Orbison's MGM years revisited


  Songs remastered and recording history rewritten
by René de Bruin
  Twelve years ago René de Bruin wrote an article for our journal about Roy Orbison's MGM catalogue. At that time he expected a speedy arrival of a remastered CD-box. He had to wait till the end of last year. The results, however, surpass his wildest expectations, as a brilliantly remastered LP- and CD-set now rewrites Orbison's recording history for the years between 1965 and 1973.

Waiting a little longer. In 2004 I wrote a lengthy article about the significance of Roy Orbison's MGM-catalogue, the bootlegging of this (underrated) catalogue and its very first re-release on cassette and rumored on CD. The audio-cassettes were indeed released but were hardly noticed by any music-magazine columnists. However these audio-cassettes already showed that the quality of the recordings was better by far than anyone ever would have expected. There were rumors about a release on CD ... but that never did happen ... Again the interest for this period in Roy's career was fading.

However, in 2004 part of the dream appeared to come true when Demon Records, United Kingdom, released (on their Edsel label) a string of six CD's, each carrying two original albums; the final jewel-case was a 2-CD set carrying the last three MGM-albums. It is important to mention that this set presents the albums in the British way. In this time-span releases between USA and UK often differed. Edsel re-released the original British London American albums and this information is crucial for this story. Although the Edsel CD's where a great leap forward in sound quality, they left a lot to be desired, as the "7-vinyl single only sides as well as the alternative "7-single A- and non-album B-sides were missing.

  The wish for completeness remained but once again time went by. Then December 6, 2011 arrived and that day brought the sad news that Barbara Orbison had passed away. She had been busy for many years trying to keep Roy's memory alive by getting more of his music available for fans world-wide. A lot of live-concerts were already made available on-line (as MP3) from Orbison.com, the internet-site of the estate. Now it was up to Wesley, Roy and Alexander — 'Roy's Boys' as they nicknamed themselves — to take over. A first physical release was the re-issue of Roy's 1988 Mystery Girl album as a "de-luxe package" on May 20, 2014. It meant an expanded CD with unheard demo's and one 'new' song, posthumously rerecorded with instrumental guidance by Roy's Boys, and a DVD. With it went a vinyl release containing the same songs as on the CD on two audiophile heavy vinyl records.
  In 2015 rumors were going over the internet that Wesley, Roy and Alexander were working on a remastered version of the entire MGM-catalogue on CD as well as audiophile 180-grams vinyl. Finally we learnt that the date of release was set for December 4, 2015 in the USA. Since that date both boxes are available for online ordering. While I am writing these lines it is unknown to me if there would also be a UK or European release of both sets. A lot of web shops however offer them ... at European prices!

Anything you want, you got it. The story above brings me to its essence; the quality of the music and the way it is restored and remastered as well as the reproducing of the original sleeve work. I once read in a music magazine an interview of an artist — I don't remember the name — who was telling the journalist that he never could hear on the pressed records what they had recorded in the studio. He probably meant that some of the instrumentation used or some recording studio sounds were not reproduced on the final record ... When CD's became more common and of better quality, people sometimes wondered if they were not listening to alternative tracks ("wrong" tracks). That feeling is familiar to yours truly. Fact is that recording/mastering studios continued developing in sound quality but that commercial demand didn't allow the time and money to invest in superb sound quality (except for audiophile record-companies such as MFSL). With the revival of vinyl and more precisely audiophile vinyl (180 grams/200 grams vinyl), and the will to spend money for perfect LP's/CD's, sound quality on CD's and LP's improved drastically.

  When I heard that the MGM masters were going to be remastered by the famous Blackburn studios, I thought "so what?" I had never heard of Blackburn Studios. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and was convinced that I would not hear a clearer sound than I was already used to (almost 30 years of listening experience). I thought I heard it all, from toe-curling budget CD's to Japanese angelic CD's. What I met, while playing the first tones of the LP There is Only One Roy Orbison and the song "Ride Away", was a very refreshing experience that made the hair on my arms stand straight up. I always felt that Roy's MGM recordings were, beside different (I once called them more matured than Monument recordings), sounding somewhat 'empty' and 'canny' or even a bit 'dull'. Sometimes I even noticed a mild distortion in the mike.
  These new recordings, however, are rewriting the history of Roy's MGM/London recordings. This is how and what everybody should have heard back in the 60's/70's. To compare it with something, I need to use figurative language. Beside Roy Orbison I also like photography of nature-topics. One of nature's beautiful moments is when there is a grey, cloudy, rainy day and you feel dull and depressed because of it. Then suddenly the clouds break open and a clear, bright golden beam of sunlight is breaking through, followed by a hard-blue clear sky. Everything is suddenly sparkling and showing bright colors again, a crystal clear vision! That was my first thought when I heard Roy Orbison on the very first LP of the set.
  Of course, I was first focusing upon "THE voice", but later on I became more attentive of the music itself. I'm constantly hearing 'new' sounds, meaning capable to hear those (studio) sounds that remained hidden in the background or were not audible. What strikes me is that it seems that the original recordings and the (multitrack) master tapes must have been from an unexpected quality, and we are talking 1960s, early 1970s here. Nothing has been 'added' to the music, previous re-releases were all clear but never (re-)mastered in the way it is done now. If you think you know the sound of Roy's MGM outlet, think again. This set rewrites the history of it.

One of the Lonely Ones. This new release is also a family project that covers three generations of Orbisons ... It means that the work has not only been done for commercial purposes; it also rewrites everything that is written about and said over Roy's MGM history. The story in the booklet from the CD set, as well as the LP set, is written by Alex Orbison.

The package of the both sets can be considered to be superb. The LP's and the CD's are wrapped in a similar way: a heavy, strong L-shaped box that is holding the sound-carriers, with a top that is sliding over this box. The CD box, sleeves and 64-page booklet are an exact copy, in small size, of the LP-box. That means, for the historians among us, that the USA-stereo record covers are used, off course with some added info about today's license holders /publishers. Inside this book are, beside Alex Orbison's story, additional photographs and recording information.

  Before the release of these massive boxes, a 'new' album was released from Roy's MGM catalogue. New in this case means that 11 of the 12 songs were not previously released — "Say No More" previously appeared on The MGM Singles, 1965-1973. This album was found on the master tapes while doing research for this new box. The album is named after one of the tracks of the album "One of the Lonely Ones". Some of these songs are not completely unknown to me, as they've been played during some Nashville party I think, but the difference in sound is incomparable to what is on this CD/LP. Songs that appear on this album are:
  1. "You'll Never Walk Alone" (Rodgers-Hammerstein)
  2. "Say No More" (King), previously released
  3. "Leaving Makes The Rain Come Down" (Newbury)
  4. "Sweet Memories" (Newbury)
  5. "Laurie" (Orbison-Dees)
  6. "One Of The Lonely Ones" (Orbison-Dees)
  7. "Child Woman, Woman Child" (Orbison-Dees)
  8. "The Defector" (Orbison-Dees-Morrow)
  9. "Give Up" (Orbison-Dees)
  10. "Little Girl (In The Big City)" (Dees)
  11. "After Tonight" (King)
  12. "I Will Always" (Don Gibson)
4 Left: Alex Orbison holding a copy of the LP-box (copyright © orbison.com)

Counting up to 172. All this new information means that I have to update the number of recorded songs in my list from my 2004 story. Back then I was writing about 156 songs. Now I have to raise that number up to 167. If I count the songs that (unfortunately) were not included in this new release ("Zig Zag", "Just One Time", "Cry Softly Lonely One" (alternate "7 version), "Blue Rain (Coming Down)" (alternate "7 version) and ... (I'm walking on thin ice here) the alternate movie version of "Twinkle Toes" (I cannot be sure if a master recording of this version still exists, a bootleg version does); the total number of songs recorded in this period would reach the incredible amount of 172!

  I still can't imagine the pace of work Roy had during these nine years at MGM. Not only recording but also touring, promotional activities, making movies but also writing songs. The contract was for a massive 21 albums but that got cut short because of the personal tragedies Roy endured and the rapid changing of the music-scene. Times where changing very fast!!
  In terms of accuracy, in music quality as well as historical facts and record-images, this box has a historical value. It is the first and most complete attempt to finally put this period of Roy's career in the right perspective. It is often said that Roy's MGM-work was inferior to his previous Monument recordings. Today I feel that remark as unfair. Yes, MGM presents a different style (although enough of the Monument-legacy is seeping through), and yes different songs. Roy (and all people who worked with and for him ) tried to cope with the changing taste and style of music; the British Invasion and personal tragedies. Even so the amount of songs of true Orbison-quality that Roy recorded during his time at MGM is incredible. I also think it is unfair to compare Monument with MGM. While listening to all these songs (as I did intensely these past months, both LP's and CD's) I stay amazed about the richness in sound. Especially the 'small' instruments (like xylophone, acoustic guitar, bells and such) are more upfront making the whole spectrum so much clearer and wider. Still 60's and 70's music, nothing can change that particular feeling, but with a 21st century sound. History can sometimes be rewritten, the proof is here. It's up to you to explore it further!
  Appendix 1: DEMON/EDSEL 2004 UK CD re-issue-program
  1. Roy Orbison 1965-1973 Vol. 1. There Is Only One Roy Orbison & The Orbison Way (Edsel DIAB 8061)
  2. Roy Orbison 1965-1973 Vol. 2. The Classic Roy Orbison & Cry Softly Lonely One (Edsel DIAB 8062) (Including "Just One Time" on Cry Softly Lonely One)
  3. Roy Orbison 1965-1973 Vol. 3. Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson & Hank Williams the Roy Orbison Way (Edsel DIAB 8063)
  4. Roy Orbison 1965-1973 Vol. 4. Roy Orbison's Many Moods & The Big 'O' (Edsel DIAB 8064)
  5. Roy Orbison 1965-1973 Vol. 5. Roy Orbison Sings & Memphis & Milestones (Edsel MEDCD 755; 2-CD-set)
  Appendix 2: ROY'S BOYS/Universal USA LP & CD re-issue-program
Next A. Roy Orbison — The MGM Years 1965-1973:
      Roy's Boys LLC/Universal Music B0023557-02 (CD-set)
  1. There Is Only One Roy Orbison (B0023557-02 JK01)
  2. The Orbison Way (B0023557-02 JK02)
  3. The Classic Roy Orbison (B0023557-02 JK03)
  4. Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson (B0023557-02 JK04)
  5. The Fastest Guitar Alive (B0023557-02 JK05)
  6. Cry Softly Lonely One (B0023557-02 JK06)
  7. Roy Orbison's May Moods (B0023557-02 JK07)
  8. Hank Williams the Orbison Way (B0023557-02 JK08)
  9. The Big O (B0023557-02 JK09)
  10. Roy Orbison Sings (B0023557-02 JK10)
  11. Memphis (B0023557-02 JK11)
  12. Milestones (B0023557-02 JK12)
  13. MGM B-Sides and Singles (B0023557-02 JK13)
Next B. Roy Orbison — The MGM Years 1965-1973:
      Roy' Boys LLC/Universal Music B0023556-01 (00602547213549) (LP-set)
  1. There Is Only One Roy Orbison (00602547213556)
  2. The Orbison Way (00602547232915)
  3. The Classic Roy Orbison (00602547232922)
  4. Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson (00602547232939)
  5. The Fastest Guitar Alive (OST) (00602547458308)
  6. Cry Softly Lonely One (00602547232953)
  7. Roy Orbison's Many Moods (00602547232960)
  8. Hank Williams the Roy Orbison Way (00602547232977)
  9. Big O (00602547232984)
  10. Roy Orbison Sings (00602547233004)
  11. Memphis (00602547233011)
  12. Milestones (00602547233028)
  13. MGM B-Sides and Singles (2-LP set; 00602547233059 (00602547334336 and 00602547334312)
  For inspiration and help the author expresses his gratitude to Josiane de Bruin (for language corrections and patience); Wesley, Roy Kelton jr, Alexander and Emily Orbison (for inspiration and making things visual) and the "Orbison Army" (especially Sara Beal) Nashville. The author can be contacted by mail at René de Bruin. One of the Lonely Ones and the MGM box sets can be ordered at the site www.royorbison.com.
  2016 © René de Bruin / Soundscapes