The leg up Roy Orbison had on fellow founding fathers of rock Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly was that he could be all of them at once. His bodacious voice, mad guitar skills and nerd-chic look rocked around the clock. These combined powers were at their zenith in the mid-1950s, the era chronicled on Disc 1 of Columbia/Legacy's boss four-disc set Roy Orbison: The Soul of Rock and Roll.
Let's pick it up at song number eight. "Ooby dooby," Orbison sings in between radical guitar solos, "Dooby dooby dooby dooby / Dooba do wah do wah do wah." A bespectacled kid from West Texas had no business parlaying baby talk into the track all the kids jumped 'n' jived to in the summer of '56, but such was the free-market nature of this new brand of music. The song was cut at Sam Phillips's Sun Records, as were subsequent rockabilly tracks "Cat Called Domino," "Go! Go! Go!" and "Rockhouse." The rest of the disc runs about as fast and loose, just like Jerry Lee Lewis liked it, until a seven-song string of previously unreleased demos — coolly denoted in the liner notes with a sunglasses icon — foreshadows a dynamic vocal singularity that epitomizes the rest of Orbison's career.
Disc 2 is a greatest-hits album unto itself. It replays the ridiculous run Orbison had in the early '60s: operatic ballads like "In Dreams" and "Running Scared," and playful ditties like "Only the Lonely" and "Working for the Man." And that's only a fraction. But just when it couldn't get any better, it got a lot worse. In '66, Orbison's first wife, Claudette, died after being struck by a truck while riding a motorcycle, and two years later, two of his sons perished in a house fire. Orbison himself became a casualty of both a broken heart and rock's psychedelic phase.
The last two discs chronicle the end of his '60s streak and the hit-or-miss '70s and '80s. During this period, Orbison was basically off the grid save for star-produced remakes of old stuff and participation in supergroups the Traveling Wilburys and Class of '55. Not until Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Bonnie Raitt joined him onstage for the 1988 concert film Black & White Night, which yielded Disc 4's Grammy-winning version of "Oh, Pretty Woman," was Orbison's career totally resurrected. And then, later that same year, he died for real.