Judging from the inert version of his own “Go! Go! Go!” on disc one of this four-disc, five-hour box set, Roy Orbison wasn’t up to the elementary rhythmic demands of rockabilly. He’d enjoy a minor Sun Records hit in 1956 with “Ooby Dooby” (a piece of graceless nonsense whose title suggests a blind, flightless bird), but his later rockabilly recordings, many produced by Jack Clement and Bill Justis, went nowhere. Sun mastermind Sam Phillips called the Texas singer’s voice “pure gold” but decried his lack of image—”I also knew if anyone got a look at him, he’d be dead inside of a week,” he added. The Soul of Rock and Roll makes sense of the disturbed plushness and multiplying nightmares of Orbison’s career, from 1955’s “Hey! Miss Fannie” to a version of “It’s Over” recorded two days before his 1988 death at 52. Orbison might have lacked Jerry Lee Lewis’s rhythmic savvy (Lewis did “Go! Go! Go!” retitled as “Down the Line,” and it’s sublime) or Charlie Rich’s gravitas, but these discs trace Orbison’s transition from drive-in to penthouse. He sounds like he knew the difference.
The early stuff is instructive: Texas and New Mexico recordings, plus a medley from 1956 that finds him doing fine with “I Was the One” and “That’s All Right.” Still, it’s the second disc, loaded with Nashville-produced Monument recordings, that proves Orbison a shaman too wise to lay a power grab on anybody. He’s made the move from bellhop to top floor by 1959’s “Uptown,” which begins with a piano imitating a ringing telephone. His famed vibrato is damped down; it’s insanity and ambition at 2:06. “Blue Angel” rewrites ’50s schlock, complete with a subtle vocal and backup singers who intone “sha-la-laa-dooby-wah-dum-dum-dum-yeah-yeah.” By 1960’s “I’m Hurtin’,” the Big O sounds almost casual delivering such tortured lines as “You walked away/The pain begins.” The background vocalists have a field day on “Lana” (“Ling-a-ling-a ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma”), which is about teenaged poontang and features a fuzz bass.
This is all such rich, weird stuff that you’re exhausted by disc three and “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Goodnight,” both of which showcase the drumming of late Nashville session cat Buddy Harman. But you persevere through “Pistolero” to get to the final disc, where Jeff Lynne, David Lynch, T-Bone Burnett, and the memory of Andie MacDowell in Wim Wenders’s The End of Violence (Orbison snagged Brian Eno to produce “You May Feel Me Crying,” which shows up in the film) commingle, negating insignificance well enough.