Roy Orbison was one of the few truly great artists to make an impact between Rock & Roll’s first wave and the British Invasion. That doesn’t mean he didn’t make worthwhile records before and after that brief window of roughly five years. In the fifties he wrote hyper swingers like “Ooby Dooby” and “Claudette”, a hit for The Everly Brothers, while with Sun Records before maturing into the more dramatic, near-operatic style that made him pop’s King of Tears. After having the final big hit of his key phase, “Pretty Woman”, which married the hard rhythms of his earliest records with the more melodic and complex riffing of the burgeoning Mersey sound, Orbison never stopped making records, and enjoyed a major resurgence in the late eighties when he joined Jeff Lynne’s stable as a Traveling Wilbury and solo artist.
Sony Legacy’s new collection, The Ultimate Roy Orbison, boasts of being the first compilation to incorporate tracks from all of the artist’s phases, though this isn’t true since Legacy’s four-disc Soul of Rock and Roll box set from 2008 had already done that. The big difference here, besides the fact that Ultimate distills Orbison’s career down to a single disc of 26-tracks, is that it jumbles the chronology. I generally prefer this approach to boring old chronological order, though the eras represented on this set are so vastly separated that it makes for a bit of a jarring listen when, say, the rockabilly “Ooby Dooby” gets sandwiched between the peak-era gut punch “It’s Over” and the Lynne-era “Heartbreak Radio”. With all due irony, it points out how the slick eighties stuff now sounds a bit dated while the fifties and sixties tracks remain as fresh and timeless as ever.
Still, unlike a lot of classic artists who attempted comebacks in the eighties, Roy Orbison never embarrassed himself. “You Got It” may not be as indescribably essential as “Dream Baby” or “Crying”, it’s still a damn good song, and this collection does do a fine job of highlighting the man’s consistent quality control. Plus, even though The Ultimate Collection covers an expansive period, the only missing track that really hurts is the luxurious non-hit “Shahdaroba”. Of course, Roy Orbison would not deserve to be called The King of Tears if he didn’t make us feel a little pain.