Roy Orbison’s time at Sun records from 1956-1958 is seen by some critics and music fans alike to be a mostly unsuccessful and undistinguished period in Roy’s 32 year long recording career. The widely accepted view is that it was a period of missed opportunities, some poor choice of material and that Roy was misunderstood and misused by the label and its owner/ producer Sam Phillips. Some critics even feel that he was unconvincing as a rockabilly artist. These perceptions do have some grains of truth and are partially justified. His glittering string of compelling & innovative hits at Monument from 1960-1965 are rightly felt to be his finest work and the Sun period was troubled & inconsistent; however, there is much of interest and great worth among Roy’s Sun recordings. Some songs cut during this period were not released until years later, and were far stronger than some of the eight sides that made up his four Sun Records 45rpm releases.
His first Sun single, 'Ooby Dooby', is deserving of its status as an incendiary rockabilly classic, but it is the only Sun recording of Roy’s that is widely known. It was only a minor hit at the time (US #59), and it would be a further four years until Roy made the charts again, but cluey younger musicians picked up on its vibrancy & Roy’s crackling guitar work at the time of its release. Bob Dylan, in his autobiography ‘Chronicles’, notes the song and describes it as ‘deceptively simple’. Lou Reed mentions it in a 1990’s interview as a big influence when he was first learning to play guitar. In the early 70’s it was energetically covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Dylan, Reed & CCR; quite a roll call of fans for a seemingly throwaway nonsense song.
Beyond ‘Ooby Dooby’, only one song is relatively well know from Roy’s time at Sun, its b-side; 'Go, Go, Go', later to be known as 'Down The Line’ after Jerry Lee Lewis recorded it with that title. Roy's original version is, strangely, for a peerless singer like Roy, a disappointment vocally. The track rocks along well enough with some superb guitar work, but Roy sounds awkward and wrong footed. He seems to start in the wrong key and uses a forced and affected deep voice, perhaps trying extra hard to sound tough to match it with his Sun contemporaries. It has a disconcerting effect and is ultimately unconvincing. The vocal improves as the song progresses, but this track falls short of ‘Ooby Dooby’ and some lesser-known tracks recorded during the Sun Years. Roy’s second Sun single ‘Rockhouse’ is also not a great vocal, Roy sounding a little small, tinny and timid. It is ‘rockabilly by numbers’.
A better choice for a single at some point would have been ‘Mean Little Mama’. It was not released until 1961 when it was part of a compilation LP of Roy’s Sun Recordings that Sam Phillips released to capitalize on Roy’s newly found large scale success post 'Only The Lonely'. On this gem of a track, Roy finds the voice he was perhaps looking for on 'Go, Go, Go'. He snarls and spits out the words throughout; “Well-a-why do you treat me so mean? BAM! BAM! (crack the rhythm section), you’re the meanest thing I’ve ever seen!!”. I believe every word this time and he even growls some of the lines. This is primal, sexy, dangerous rockabilly. It is his finest, toughest moment as a rockabilly singer and I challenge anyone to say he was an unconvincing rockabilly singer after listening to this track up loud.
'Mean Little Mama' also contains a stupendous guitar solo that bristles with hormonal lust and the frustrations of the protagonists’ troubled relationship. Clocking in at 1:56, it is a study in tight, snappy, economic rockabilly with not a note or nuance wasted or extraneous to requirements. A true neglected gem. ‘You’re Gonna Cry’ and ‘Problem Child’ also rock hard, have strong vocals and Roy sounds very much in command. They too would have made strong singles. The alternate take of ‘Problem Child’ even has a ‘go down, girl, down’ refrain on the outro that Roy surely did not intend to mean what it does nowadays, but it certainly gives the take an extra edge.
Roy’s fourth Sun single, the uber strange ‘Chicken Hearted’, has been scorned and seen as an blushing embarrassment by some, Roy included. But this is by no means the case. I contend that it is a landmark recording made with no sense of its importance by all involved in it. It was most likely seen as nonsense throwaway, but it is much more than that. Where else in music at that time or any other has a singer shown so much vulnerability and even boasted of ineptness and cowardice “I’d like to be a bad boy, but I ain’t got the nerve, I’m chicken hearted”. He was no good with the girls either. The song wears a cloak of humour but beneath that it cuts deep. If this track had been more widely heard, it may have spoken to the experiences of many young people and reflected their stifled dreams, fears and frustrations, though no one would have wanted to openly admit it.
The hilarious chicken-wing flapping sax solo perfectly compliments the chicken-ish sentiments of the lyrics and the monolithic stuttering guitar solo is a revelation. Did Neil Young hear this? I’m starting to wonder. This song is uncommonly, unnervingly and blushingly honest. The musical equivalent of a ‘naked in the classroom’ dream, it is revolutionary and the ‘frustrated, hopeless loser’ theme and persona would continue to be present and evolve in Roy’s work in the years to come. It was never expressed as bluntly and matter-of-factly as this though. The song is also uncommon for its extra long musical intro and vocal entry mid-musical verse. Roy turned up late to class as well as being naked and paralysed with fear and embarrassment! Right down to the jangly, jagged rhythm guitar scrapes, it perfectly captures nervy, pimply, awkward adolescence. But alas, the single had little airplay and promotion and it stiffed. It was his final Sun Records single.
Another long neglected but groundbreaking Orbison track from this period is ‘(Cat Called) Domino’. Two versions of the song were cut, one at Sun and the other at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis. The Petty version, unreleased for over 40 years, is superior because the stunning lead guitar playing is mixed much higher. In the Sun version, it is swamped by the tack-on clickety-clack rhythm track. ‘Domino’ was covered in the early 80’s by goth-punk band The Cramps, who perhaps picked up on the sexual ambiguities and the slightly twisted adolescent tale must have appealed to them. In the song, Roy spends the whole time describing Domino, the hot guy that all the girls are after, rather than the girls that he wishes would notice him instead of Domino. It is almost obsessive in its descriptive detail of ‘Domino’ and borders on homo-erotic. Does the protagonist secretly want Domino himself. The feeling is, briefly, well, just maybe, even if the lyrics dispel that notion in the end. Name another geek-rock-cum-homoerotic rockabilly song from that period and I’ll eat my loafers. It also contains probably the first recorded 'surf guitar' riff, along with that clickety-clack surf rhythm track, predating the breakthrough of the Beach Boys, Link Wray, Dick Dale and the surf guitar movement of the early 60’s by several years. It was too soon, and this song, like ‘Mean Little Mama’, ‘Chicken Hearted’ and several others, slipped through the cracks.
This period of Roy’s career is in dire need of re-evaluation. There were obvious mis-steps and some average material and performances during his tenure at Sun, but a few of the Sun cuts are beyond compare. Roy also flagged his future command of melancholy balladry with some lovely work in 'I Never Knew' & 'The Clown' particularly, but it's the lesser known rockabilly numbers I've highlighted that really impress. Greater attention to and appreciation of this period is crucial to the understanding of Roy’s evolution as an artist in the primordial soup of early Rock & Roll.
Essential Orbison Sun era listening (1956-1958): 'Mean Little Mama', '(Cat Called) Domino' (Norman Petty alt. version), 'Problem Child', 'You're Gonna Cry', 'Ooby Dooby', 'I Never Knew', 'It's Too Late', 'The Clown'.