Roy Orbison The Sun Years
This double-album is, we hope, the definitive account of the early recording career of Roy Orbison.
Essentially, you will hear Roy Orbison in the context of the distinctive, driving Sun Records’ sound, Memphis rockabilly. However, you will also clearly hear the origins of the ballad style with which Roy later came to fame.
In the early 1960s, Roy was the man in black with the massive, faultlessly-crafted hairstyle and dark glasses, standing motionless behind his guitar while performing such super-selling rock ballads as ONLY THE LONELY, CRYING, DREAM BABY and BLUE BAYOU. These were story songs constructed in a simple mournful mould with storming falsetto crescendos. They were good pop songs and they were different. They sold in their millions.
Back in 1956 when Roy first came to Sun Records, he was a rocker. He had developed a powerful guitar style and forceful rockabilly sound that was equally as prominent as his even then unusual high-pitched vocals. It is often forgotten that Roy was, and is, a hell of a guitar player but these Sun recordings make it clear just how good he could be. They also show what a fine rock and roll band the Teen Kings could have become had they not split up in 1957.
This compilation includes all the recordings Roy and the Teen Kings made in 1956 and 1957 as well as the recordings Roy made with Sun’s studio musicians. We have included some alternative takes that have not been issued before and we have also found several demos that Roy made in his emerging rock ballad style. Finally, we have used the recordings that Roy made as session musician and back-up vocalist.
When you listen to this set you will hear a young emerging individualist, determined to make his way in the music business and caught up in the spirit of the times. Today, Roy Orbison has reservations about this music, though he need not have. He was among the best rockabilly singers to emerge from the South in the mid 1950s and, while he only saw limited success on Sun Records, he made some fine and exciting music that has weathered the years amazingly well.
“My aim at Sun Records was always to look for what was different in a singer or player, and what I found in Roy Orbison was that he was a superlative and very stylized lead guitar player. I felt that he had the potential to be one of the really great rockers. I really did. I thought that was his main instinct, even though he had a voice that was somewhat different and undoubtedly did also Iend itself to the ballads that he later became famous for.
Roy had a very definite feel for rock. That was unusual in someone who had a voice of the range he had. That was what I found significant about Roy Orbison.
Roy had with him a very young group of boys from Texas. They came in to us early in 1956 and at that time they were really just musicians by instinct. They had a real good feel, though anything but polished. They were young, but they were the nucleus of a super rock group.
An unusual feature was that Roy’s group included a mandolin player I liked that It gave an overtone a flavor to his music that made it feel and sound a little different.
I don’t think people generally know how good a guitar player Roy was. He used a lot of the bass strings. He would do a lot of combination string stuff, but it was all pushing real good. It was strong. Also, Roy had probably the best ear for a beat of anybody I recorded outside of Jerry Lee Lewis. Roy would take his guitar by himself and if we had a session going he would come in early and pick an awful lot just warming up and getting his fingers working. His timing would amaze me, with him playing lead and filing in with some rhythm licks. I would kid him about it. I said “Roy, what you’re trying to do is to get rid of everybody else and do it all yourself”.
Roy just hated to lay his guitar down. He was always either writing or developing a beat or an approach to what he was doing. He was totally preoccupied with making records at that time.
On stage, Roy did want to show well. It concerned him, and it really shouldn’t have. He was a stand stiller, but on the other hand he could get so much out of his guitar and his band had such a good stage sound at that time that they did real well. Part of it was that Roy was very myopic and he really needed to wear these very thick spectacles. He worried about his looks, but to me he looked fine. I said, “Look Roy, you’re not a beautiful boy — neither am I — but you’re OK”. He was always neatly dressed. He reminded me of Elvis a lot, especially his hair. He wanted every hair in place even when he was in the studio working.
Roy and his boys all moved up to Memphis from Texas after they came to us, and I booked them with Bob Neal on our Stars incorporated package shows. They started out real well but then one day they broke up. It happened really in the studio when they were rehearsing. They had some difficulty among them and the band really broke up then and there. Really, it was nothing other than their being extremely young.
I think Roy’s band was very ambitious. They were influenced by what was coming out of Sun and by other rock music, and I feel that if we had been able to keep the boys together I probably would not have let Roy go.
Roy was a very pleasant guy to work around. I never did quite understand the arrangement that he and the band had as far as the division of the spoils, but I feel maybe he was too kind hearted with that. Roy was a super guy, very much into his music and very much in love with Claudette, his girlfriend — she was the one that Iater was killed in the motorcycle accident.
— he was really devoted to her. Roy brought Claudette in from Texas, and he wrote the song about her while he was with us. Roy was probably one of the more settled people in his way of thinking among the people who came to the studio, young as he was.
I never had an argument with Roy about music. We both seemed to feel the same about whether a take on a song was good or not. He was a very soft-spoken, reticent type of person, very courteous, but I do feel that he would have voiced his opinion if he had not felt the same way about his recordings as I did.
It is my regret that I did not do the promotion on Roy I still had Carl, Johnny and Jerry Lee at that tune and I didn’t get into him in the way I could have done if his band had not broken up when it did, I have to take the blame for not bringing Roy into full fruition Roy continued to work with us after the band split, but it wasn’t the same.
Around that time, Roy went to see the Everly Brothers in concert in west Tennessee. It was a time when I was loaded down with other work, and Roy then met Wesley Rose at Acuft-Rose publishing through the Everlys. Roy was given the opportunity of going to Nashville as a songwriter and he came back to me to talk about it. I told him that I really didn’t want to lose him and I felt we could still make him a success, but at the same time I didn’t want to stand in his way ii he felt he could do better.
If Roy had stayed, I do not feel that we would have gone the route that Monument went with him. He loved ballads, but he loved to rock too and I feel that he still had several years to make fine rock music; And Roy was a perfectionist in the best sense. He was only around us a couple of years, but I do think he could have gone on to be established as a real superstrong 50s rock artist.”
“My first music was country. I grew up with country music in Texas. When I was about six I remember I used to sing Bob Wills’ DUSTY SKIES. Ernest Tubb used to advertise milk in those days, singing off the back of a truck in Fort Worth when I was there. The first stage show I saw was Bill and Joe Callahan and the next one was Lefty Frizzell when I was ten years old. There was a lot of music to be heard back then.
I started playing the guitar and singing when I was six years old and I had my own radio show when I was eight. Then when I was fifteen I had another show and finally when I was eighteen I got this television show on KOSA, Odessa and KMID, Midland. Television was very new to West-Texas. I didn’t see a TV set at all until 1953. At that time there was a contest in Odessa which I won. The prize was a thirty minute spot on TV. Then I suggested to the owner of a furniture store that he sponsor two shows a week. The guy was so successful that he opened the biggest furniture store in West Texas. So, I had this long background behind me before made the big plunge into professional music.
Elvis and Johnny Cash came through Odessa when they were new on Sun Records, and they appeared on my television show to promote their concerts. At that time I was in college and the previous year one of my class-mates, Pat Boone, had started recording. These people were all doing what I wanted to do, but I guess I was just in the wrong place at the right time. Anyway, I wanted to get a diploma in case I didn’t make it in the music business. In the end though I decided that I didn’t want to do anything halfway so I jumped into the music business.
The boys and I went down to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico. I was the first to use it other than Norman who used it to record his own trio. He built it for them. We hired the studio to make Ooby Dooby. That was a song that I heard at North Texas University, I met two guys there, Wade Moore and Dick Penner, who had written the song and were singing it. I took it back to West Texas University with me and it became very popular. I figured that what it was doing locally it might do nationally and sure enough it did. We issued it first on Je-Wel Records locally and soon after that I took it to Columbia in Dallas but they didn’t issue it.
When I called Sam Phillips at Sun it was on the advice of Johnny Cash, I told Sam that Johnny had said that I might be able to get on his label. He said, ‘Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company’ and hung up on me. Anyway, a little later I played my demo for Cecil Hollifield who was our sponsor, and he played it for Sam Phillips on the phone. Sam said, ‘Send it to me. I can’t tell nothing over the phone.’ So, Cecil sent it and Sam called back and said, ‘Can those boys be here in three days?’ Then we dashed off to Memphis and re-recorded Ooby Dooby. The Sun version is a little more intense, has a little more drive.
Sam Philips put me with Bob Neal as booking agent. We played all these unbelievable little towns, Johnny Cash and I, until 1958. We were mostly trying to make stage shows out of one hit record, which was very difficult. So we used to jump around the stage like a bunch of idiots. Well, wait a minute, Johnny Cash didn’t. I never toured with Elvis but he came backstage at a show I played in Memphis when Ooby Dooby was number one. That was at the Overton Park Shell. The rockabilly music and stage shows were all very new then. Often no-one knew quite what we were doing. They could identify a little with Johnny Cash but once you got more progressive than that, it was beyond them. Very frantic, hectic shows.
There were some strange happenings. Once I played the University at Arkansas and the people there said they had a young man who wanted to sing with me, so I said that he should come up. But he played all my numbers — before me. I couldn’t believe it. So I went ahead and sang them all over again anyway. It was Ronnie Hawkins. Later, I sang him the song MARY LOU that he went off and recorded. He made a big hit before I ever made it.
Another time, in Albuquerque, Sonny Burgess was traveling to a show with Johnny Cash because his car had broken down. We had to leave a lot of gear behind and the show was a disaster. Sonny had dyed his hair red, had a red Fender Guitar and red shoes. In the car lot afterwards Sonny said to me, ‘They’ll always remember us in Albuquerque as the Wink Wildcat and the Red Clown’.
Mostly the Sun artists bought clothes from Lansky’s on Beale Street in Memphis. Bright colors and lace shirts. I normally wore white shoes on stage but on one occasion a fellow called Jimmy Williams gave me a pair of gold shoes that were meant for display. I wore them anyway. And I had black peg pants that were very tight at the bottom and a coat in some wild color like green or pink. Actually the turned up collar, the pegged pants and the ducktail were of Mexican origin. My big ambition was to own a new Cadillac before I was twenty one years old. A Cadillac and a diamond ring! That’s what everybody wanted.
At Sun, we all played our own instruments. It was unusual for people to go into a studio to record popular records without back-up musicians and orchestras. You couldn’t go back and overdub. All the records were done on the spot. Another thing was that the studio was a tiny place. When heavy drumming came on the scene you had to sing over everything.
Recording was a process of cancelation. Whatever was loudest came through. Presley, Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, we all developed strong voices through this.
Sam Phillips’ contribution was to get us to sing with soul before the word was invented and to get us to project. If we didn’t do those things, we wouldn’t get recorded. But Sam wanted us to do the same as everyone he had been recording. He would bring out those old thick 78s of Arthur Crudup or he would play MYSTERY TRAIN and say, ‘This is how I want you to sound’. He’d say ‘Sing like that’, meaning we should sing with feeling. We’d try to please him and still stay ourselves you know.
Sam Philips was a very likeable and affable man. But I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. By the time I left Sun I wanted to do the kind of material that I eventually wound up doing a couple of years later. Sam taught me a lot about the business and about contracts — afterwards. That, the terms of my contract, plus the fact that no-one told me I should be collecting composer’s royalties was the main reason I left Sun at the end of two years.
Jack Clement did do some sessions with me where we got into a different style of music, but I remember him also telling me not to be a ballad singer. He told me l’d never make it. Even today Jack still says, ‘Stay away from those ballads Orby’.
CLAUDETTE was one of the new style songs that I wrote at Sun. I was doing a show with the Everly Brothers and just as I was leaving the dressing room they asked me if l had any material. I said I had this one song and I sang it to them. They said they would like to record it so I wrote it out on the back of a cardboard box and they went back to Nashville with it. That was how I get my introduction to Nashville as a songwriter.
After I left Sun, I still went back there with friends and to meet people. Elvis, Cash, Perkins, after our success we all went back to Sun. It was a sort of meeting place. It was our start place, a beginning “