By Bruce Sylvester
To mark the 75th anniversary of Roy Orbison’s April 23, 1936, birth, we find two commemorative packages providing original monaural versions of his early hits on Monument. Both are titled “The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964)” on the Monument Orbison Legacy imprint. The single-CD package has 20 A-sides such as “Uptown,” “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Pretty Paper,” “Blue Bayou” and his breakthrough, “Only The Lonely.” Geared for die-hard Orbisonians, the more expensive package also includes a disc of 19 B-sides (“Love Hurts,” “Candy Man” and goofy “With The Bug” plus “Mean Woman Blues,” which actually out-charted its flip, “Blue Bayou”) and a nine-song, 25-minute DVD filmed in the Netherlands in 1965 (in black and white, which is apt considering Orbison’s light skin and black hair and clothes). Since the singles were recorded in mono, these packages let us hear them as people did back in the day.
Basically, Orbison and the Monument label did a great deal to put each other on the map. It was a symbiotic relationship in which each embodied the other’s finest — can we say “most monumental”? — moments. The irony is that legendary producers Sam Phillips at Sun and Chet Atkins at RCA had previously been unable to get a handle on his unique talents and musical vision, let alone market him. That task fell to Monument’s producer and owner, Fred Foster. Though Orbison’s tracks are the label’s most famous, Monument also was an early label for Dolly Parton, Tony Joe White and Billy Joe Shaver and scored major successes with a young Kris Kristofferson.
Born in Rutherford County, North Carolina, on July 26, 1931, Foster had moved to Washington, DC, at age 17, where he worked in the Hot Shoppe restaurant chain. On the side, he penned lyrics for a local publisher’s melodies. The McGuire Sisters’ “Picking Sweethearts” was his first recorded song. His earliest studio experience was with Jimmy (“Big Bad John”) Dean. Moving further into the record industry, Foster became a promo man for Mercury and then ABC, jobs that kept him on the road. Near his North Carolina origins, he produced George Hamilton IV’s hit “Rose And A Baby Ruth” (written by The Louvin Brothers’ cousin John D. Loudermilk using the penname Johnny Dee) for Colonial Records. When the song’s success grew too much for Colonial to handle, he got ABC to buy it and sign Hamilton. Similarly, R&B man Lloyd Price was then living in DC and had released wailing “Just Because” on his own label. Foster brought the song and Price himself to ABC, where he subsequently scored with folk-based “Stagger Lee” and teen-oriented “Personality” and “I’m Going To Get Married.”
In 1958, Foster and WTTG DJ Buddy Dean founded Monument. The Washington Monument inspired the name. A sister company, Combine Music, would publish its artists’ new song. The very first release, Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On” (Monument 4000), made number four on “Billboard”’s pop chart. Grammer was a former member of Jimmy Dean’s Wildcats. The trad-folk-based song had been sung by The Weavers. Here it was revised by New England folkie Paul Clayton (who received author credit). Like The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” – which had hit the charts two months earlier – the song showed audiences’ readiness for a folk revival. It also provided funds for Foster to move the label to the Nashville area (where there was an A list of studio musicians) and buy out Buddy Dean.
It’s not certain who brought Orbison to Foster’s attention after RCA dropped him. Bassist Bob Moore (who’d bought a large minority share of Monument) and Orbison’s manager, Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose music publishing, have been credited. His Sept. 1959 label debut, “Paper Boy”/With The Bug” (Monument 407), sank. His second 45, “Uptown,” didn’t chart either though it’s highly respected now. Foster recalled the track’s genesis in the notes to Orbison’s career-encompassing box “The Soul Of Rock And Roll” (Monument Orbison Legacy, 2008; four CDs): “I visualized using the great tenor saxman Boots Randolph to supply the pivotal background fills. Roy asked to use a string section for a greater ‘uptown emphasis.’ This proved to be problematic. We were in Nashville, where you could find plenty of fiddle players but hardly any violin players. Anita Kerr [leader of the backup Anita Kerr Singers] did find four violin players, and she arranged their parts so they sounded like the string section Roy had asked for.”
Then came “Only The Lonely” done with none-too-advanced studio technology. Said Foster, “There were no headphones and no isolation booths for separating various sounds and instruments. The six strings and five backup singers especially were being picked up much too clearly on Roy’s vocal mic, affecting the clarity of the sound of his voice. … There was a metal coat rack along one wall and I asked Bill [engineer Bill Porter] if it would be feasible to put Roy in one corner of the room and push the coat rack in front of him and cover it with coats to block the band from leaking into Roy’s mic. …
“We had only two-track tape machines to work with; there was no stereo yet. There were no overdubs; everything had to be recorded on one take. Luckily, we put Roy’s voice in the middle, and even today it sounds like stereo.”
Like Fred Rose (Wesley Rose’s father) had done for Hank Williams, Foster periodically edited Orbison’s compositions. Alan Clayson’s bio “Only The Lonely” reports that “Pretty Woman” (one of numerous co-writes with Bill Dees) originally had the line “She’s gone and walked away from me, but there are other fish in the sea,” which Foster wisely nixed so the song could better build from doubt and hope to a melodramatic crescendo of success.
Speaking of success, Orbison’s second LP, “Crying,” was Monument’s first to chart. It was the label’s eighth 12-incher, following Grammer’s “Travelin’ On,” a partly trad LP by Clayton, Orbison’s “Lonely And Blue,” discs by lap-steel guitarist Jerry Byrd, pianist Jerry White and Bob Moore (whose instrumental single “Mexico” had broken the top 40) and country stalwart Grandpa Jones. “Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits” (Monument’s tenth LP) remained on the charts for 48 weeks starting September 15, 1962.
But Orbison wasn’t to stay at Monument forever. Wesley Rose eventually insisted on producing his discs (with little chart success) and, when contract renewal time came up, demanded that Monument also provide Orbison with a movie contract even though the label had no film studio. Orbison moved to MGM, where his singles never broke the top twenty and his movie career made little headway.
Fortunately, Monument didn’t depend solely on Orbison. Saxophonist Boots Randolph’s ’63 single “Yakety Sax” is still well regarded. Billy Walker, Jeannie Seely, Henson Cargill and Charlie McCoy scored on the country charts, with Cargill’s 1967 “Skip-A-Rope” making numero uno. Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band broke country’s top ten seven times, with 1977’s “I Wish You Were Someone I Love” at number one. Joe Simon was popular on the label’s subsidiary Sound State 7 (whose roster also included Arthur Alexander, aging Ivory Joe Hunter, the O’Jays and, under the name Allen Orange, Allen Toussaint). Another subsidiary, Rising Sons, scored with Robert Knight’s 1967 R&B crossover hit “Everlasting Love.”
The one that got away was young Dolly Parton after her first two hits: ‘67’s “Dumb Blonde” and “Something Fishy.” Her refrain “Just because I’m a blonde, don’t think I’m dumb, ‘cause this dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool” foreshadowed future Partonisms. Foster (who, she thought, wanted her to sound rockabilly) groomed her for success, getting her on “American Bandstand,” buying her clothes and advising her to stay single until her career was more established – maybe because guys might buy more of her records if they could dream of marrying her.
In her autobiography, “Dolly: My Life And Other Unfinished Business” (a good read), she wrote, “’Dumb Blonde’ made it to the top ten on the country charts. Fred Foster must have felt that my career had found a pretty solid footing. He called me into his office one day and said, ‘If you and Carl [Dean] still want to get married, I think it would be all right now.’ I couldn’t help laughing. ‘Do you remember a year ago when you asked me not to get married? Well, I did anyway.’ Fred laughed too. Carl and I had managed to keep our marriage secret from the entire Nashville community. I didn’t like deceiving people, but I’m glad I put my marriage first.”
Parton has spoken well of Foster, but when Porter Wagoner boosted her career by hiring her as his duet partner, he took her to his label, RCA.
Then Foster landed another future star – Kris Kristofferson, a Phi Beta Kappa and former Rhodes Scholar who’d been pushing a broom at Columbia Records in hopes of getting his songs to established singers. It took awhile for his albums to catch on, but Foster’s Combine Music held the publishing rights to the likes of “Sunday Morning
Coming Down” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” Foster shared writing credits for “Me And Bobby McGee,” which has been covered by Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott among others.
Kristofferson recalled the song’s origins in interviewer Dorothy Horstman’s “Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy”: “I had just gone to work for Combine Music. Fred Foster, the owner, called me and said, ‘I’ve got a title for you: “Me And Bobby McKee.”’ Bobby was a secretary in [songwriter] Boudleaux Bryant’s office, but I thought he said ‘McGee.’ He said, ‘How’s that grab you?’ I said, ‘How’s what grab me?’ He said, ‘The song title. Go write it.’ I thought there was no way I could ever write that, and it took me months of hiding from him, because I can’t write on assignment. But it must have stuck in the back of my head. One day I was driving between Morgan City [Louisiana] and New Orleans. It was raining and the windshield wipers were going. I started coming out with Baton Rouge and the places I was working at the time. I took an old experience with another girl in another country. I had it finished by the time I got to Nashville.”
When Joplin took it to number one, Kristofferson’s debut LP, “Kristofferson,” was re-released with a new cover photo and, of course, a new title: “Me And Bobby McGee.” His subsequent albums “The Silver Tongued Devil And I” (1971) and “Jesus Was A Capricorn” (1973) went gold as did “Jesus”’s single “Why Me.” On the side, Kristofferson produced fellow outlaw songsmith Billy Joe Shaver’s auspicious debut LP, “Old Five And Dimers Like Me” (1973) for Monument.
The label’s album catalog also came to include Ronnie Hawkins, songwriters Cindy Walker and Harlan Howard, Jimmy Driftwood (redoing his composition “Battle Of New Orleans”), former Sun producer Bill Justis, actor Robert Mitchum, comic Ray Stevens, Charles Aznavour, Al Hirt, steel guitar maestro Lloyd Green, Tony Joe White (with “Polk Salad Annie”’s granny-gobbling gator), ‘50s popster Rusty Draper (a Mercury act back in Foster’s days with that label) and (from Foster’s ABC period) Lloyd Price. Orbison returned for one LP, 1977’s “Regeneration.”
But problems beyond music loomed. Foster had made unsound investments in the banking industry, and his financial state fell. Monument and Combine were sold in 1990. Orbison acquired his catalog, while the rest of the master tapes went to CBS (which had for a while been the label’s distributor). The label name went dormant until 1997, when it was brought back as a country imprint.
Foster himself has remained active. Back in ’64, Monument had boosted struggling young Willie Nelson’s career when Orbison recorded his “Pretty Paper.” Nelson returned the favor by having Foster produce his 2006 Grammy nominee “You Don’t Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker” and 2008 Grammy winner “Last Of The Breed,” a collaboration with Merle Haggard and Ray Price. After all, a man’s gotta travel on.