The straight-talking monthly column on all things country, Americana, roots and acoustic…
When I first became seriously interested in music as a spotty-faced teenager, it was something of an escape mechanism from the hardship of growing up on a council estate.When I started work as an apprentice printer, I couldn’t wait to go down to the local record shop on Friday lunchtime to peruse the latest releases. I loved the escapism, that listening to the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Dion, Brenda Lee, Bobby Vee, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke and the Drifters, brought to what at the time for me was rather a drab life.
Gradually music consumed my life. Most people live to eat, me; I lived for music. It was what got me through the working week. In the evening, I would tune in to Radio Luxemburg and through the static I would hear those wonderful sounds of mainly American pop hits … more escapism.
It was a few years later that I started writing about music, and as I matured I began to realise that despite being ridiculed by the musical snobs, much of the pop music I had been listening to was an art form. I’ve long believed that exceptional art should be nurtured, cherished and protected for future generations to enjoy. I have been a serious record collector for more than 50 years. I don’t collect certain pressings or rare labels. I collect great music that connects with me in some emotional way. Where, you might ask, is all this leading?
Well, a few weeks ago I received a press release announcing the release of “A LOVE SO BEAUTIFUL: ROY ORBISON WITH THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA”. Roy Orbison sadly passed away in 1988, suffering a heart attack at the age of 52. This album with the Royal Philharmonic (due for release in November), masterminded by the late singer’s three sons, has the original instrumentation stripped away from the Big O’s original recordings and replaced by the lavish Philharmonic orchestration. Roy’s sons Wesley (guitar), Roy Jr. (guitar) and Alex (drums) also provide instrumental backing on selected tracks, along with ten-month-old grandson Roy III (guitar, tambourine).
I’m sure that I’ll be in the minority, but for me this is sacrilege, tantamount to treason. The majority of Roy Orbison’s original recordings of such classics as “Only The Lonely”, “Runnin’ Scared”, “Crying”, “It’s Over”, “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Dream Baby”, were musical works of art of the highest calibre. Messing around with those recordings, however good the intentions might be, goes against the grain for me.
Roy Orbison began his recording career as one of the legendary Sun rockabillies,.and proved to be a more than adequate rock’n’roller, It was a few years later that the Texan finally found his ‘voice’, when he joined Nashville-based Monument Records in 1960. History was made on March 26th of that year, when under the guidance of producers Bob Moore and Fred Foster, he recorded the self-penned “Only The Lonely”. I can vividly remember when I first heard that record, released in the UK on London-American Records.
It was for me, awe-inspiring and life-changing. In little more than two-minutes, it summed up my own teen-angst. That one song established the Roy Orbison persona for good: a brooding rockaballad of failed love with a sweet, haunting melody, enhanced by his Caruso-like vocal trills at the song’s emotional climax. It was a masterpiece of production simplicity; everything about that record neatly fell into place. Something quite magical happened that day. “Only The Lonely” and his subsequent Monument hits also boasted innovative, quasi-symphonic production, with Roy’s voice and guitar backed by surging strings, ominous drum rolls, and heavenly choirs of backup vocalists.
Enhancing the recordings of deceased singers is certainly nothing new in the music business. The first that I was aware of it, was back in the mid-1960s when MGM Records bastardised Hank Williams recordings by adding lush strings. It was at the height of the Nashville Sound, when country singers like Ray Price, Eddy Arnold and Sonny James had achieved phenomenal success by recording with full orchestral arrangements and heavenly choirs.
Naturally enough, the country purists were justifiably up in arms. Around the same time, demo recordings by the late Buddy Holly and Jim Reeves had been doctored in the studios with additional instrumentation, to make them suitable for commercial releases, resulting in numerous posthumous hits. The best-known being Reeves’ “Distant Drums” and Holly’s “Wishing”, both of which became sizeable UK hits.
More recently, Waylon Jennings, who had a close musical relationship with Buddy Holly, had some of his demo recordings enhanced for the excellent “GOIN’ DOWN SLOW: The last Recordings”. This album, released in 2012, featured songs that Waylon recorded at his steel-guitarist Robby Turner’s home studio in 1999, three years before he died. They were mainly self-penned songs, that he recorded with just his guitar accompaniment, planning to return later to complete the recordings with additional musicians.
It was to be more than ten years later when Turner decided it was time to complete the recordings in the way that his former boss would’ve approved. He brought in musicians like Reggie Young and Richie Allbright, who had worked with Jennings on many sessions over the years. Waylon’s vocals upfront and honest, the accompaniment raw and basic; electric and acoustic guitars, steel guitar, harmonica. As ever, Waylon crossed all musical styles, and the results were gratifying – a fitting epitaph to a true legendary music icon.
Late last year, Robby Turner was involved in another ‘new’ Waylon album. “THE LOST NASHVILLE SESSIONS” is a collection of recordings that Ol’ Waylon made for US military recruitment radio programmes in July 1970. These would have been recorded ‘live’ in the studio with the singer’s regular road band, the Waylors, including studio chat promoting the benefits of joining the military. Usually they were made into 15 or 30 minute programmes and transcribed onto vinyl discs to be mailed out to military bases and radio stations across America. Over the years I’ve accumulated quite a few of these, featuring such performers as Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, the Glaser Brothers, Hank Snow and Bill Anderson.
The sound is usually of a high quality and quite different to the commercially recorded versions of the songs. They are an excellent example of how a performer sounded at that time in their career, without all the frills of the recording studio. For the Waylon release, Turner has erased the original accompaniment and added in contemporary instrumentation and background vocals to the raw original tracks. Though this makes the album sound modern and more appealing for today’s listeners, I’m sure that many long-time Waylon fans would’ve preferred to hear the recordings the way they were originally laid down, in Scotty Moore’s Nashville studio some 47 years ago. I know I would.
Perhaps it could have been possible to have made “THE LOST NASHVILLE SESSIONS” a two-disc set; with one disc for the original transcription versions, and the second one featuring the new arrangements.
Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings and Roy Orbison are not the only singers to have their old recordings ‘updated’ for modern music fans. Over the past couple of years, we’ve had the heavily advertised albums by Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic, which almost certainly prompted this new Roy Orbison release (both artists’ recordings are marketed through Sony Music).
In the 1970s, both Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline had their recordings enhanced by new accompaniment being added, leading in 1982 to their voices being paired for electronic duets. Lifelong Reeves fan Larry Jordan, has taken Jim’s recordings to new heights with his controversial 2014 release of “THE NEW RECORDINGS” with musical arrangements that took many of the songs in fresh directions to those envisaged in the original recordings of more than 50 years ago.
Aesthetically, is it right to change the original work of these artists in the way that modern technology allows? Can you imagine the uproar, if Tracy Emin was to add a nose ring to the original painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? Waylon Jennings summed it up succinctly many years ago, when he said: “You start messing with my music hoss, I get mean.”
The argument in favour of modernising old recordings is that it will introduce a new, younger audience to long-forgotten names. I cannot disagree with that point, but to me, the underlying reason remains that it’s all about making more money, regardless of the creativity that went in to making the original recordings.
I can understand why Roy Orbison’s sons would want to hear their father accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I’m sure that if the opportunity had arisen during Roy’s lifetime, that he would have jumped at the chance. My overriding fear is that with the passing of time, there may be confusion between the classic original versions of the hit songs and these later over-dubbed recordings. Those 1960s discs are timeless reminders of the pure artistry of Roy Orbison.
It’s the voice that grabs you and won’t let go. Impossible to duplicate, a soaring, ethereal instrument that swoops and dips with a range few humans ever get within earshot of. Roy Orbison was a musical God, his song-writing skills just as awe-inspiring as his vocal abilities. His legacy endures with a wealth of recorded material without losing sight of Roy Orbison’s glorious voice and magnificent spirit.
For me, these Royal Philharmonic recordings cannot and will not replace that enduring magical spirit created all those years ago.
By Alan Cackett