Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roy Orbison is celebrated primarily for his years with the Sun and Monument Records labels, where he recorded such career-defining hits as “Ooby Dooby,” “Only the Lonely,” “In Dreams,” “Crying” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” in the ’50s and early ’60s. But 50 years ago, at the height of Beatlemania, the singer was the object of a fierce bidding war that led to a $1 million move to MGM Records. His eight-year, 12-album tenure there was not as commercially successful as his previous years, but with top 40 and international hits like “Ride Away” and “Breakin’ Up Is Breakin’ My Heart,” it was still creatively vital. And Orbison’s heirs are ensuring that era of his career gets its due.
In December, Roys Boys LLC — the Nashville-based company run by sons Wesley, Roy Jr. and Alex Orbison — will release a pair of projects from the MGM vaults through Universal Music Enterprises. The 153-song MGM Years will feature all of Orbison’s albums plus a rarities compilation, while One of the Lonely Ones is an unreleased 12-track album recorded in 1969 but shelved due to what Alex calls “a logjam of releases” and some financial issues with the label. A copy of that album will be included with the first 500 preordered physical copies of the box set, and with preorders of the digital version.
Alex says the two releases mark the beginning of a campaign to put the MGM catalog, much of which has been long out of print, back into circulation. Universal’s purchase of Polydor Records, which previously had taken over the MGM catalog, made the company the partner for Roys Boys and for worldwide releases of the catalog. “We have creative control and final say on everything,” adds Alex. “In essence, we’re the record company.”
Orbison — who died of a heart attack Dec. 6, 1988 at the age of 52 — signed his deal with MGM (which made front-page news in Billboard on July 1, 1965) just 11 months after “Oh, Pretty Woman” became his second No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But the then-eye-popping sum was only part of the allure, according to Alex. The deal had Orbison entering the film world with songs for The Moonshine Wars and Zabriskie Point, and even acting, with a starring role in 1967’s The Fastest Guitar Alive.
“The distinguishing factor was that MGM was going to give Roy total creative freedom, from the musicians he wanted to the songs he was going to pick,” explains Alex. “For a person as fiercely creative as my dad, that control was really important.”
“Roy was a genius,” says Curb Records founder Mike Curb, who worked with and produced Orbison at MGM. “He could sing as low as you wanted and as high as you wanted. You just sat there in amazement.”
This article first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.