From the mid-’50s through the late-’80s, Roy Orbison made his own unique brand of music. His earliest records were raw, frenzied rockabilly that held up with the best of him. Orbison created a sound, unlike anyone. A sound that was both innocently earthy, and worldwide ethereal at the same time. Not an easy thing to do.
An influence on everyone from the Beatles to the Cramps, Roy stood alone. From his roots in ’50s rock and roll, through those soaring ballads and up to his comeback in the ’80s solo, and as part of the Traveling Wilburys, he was an American original.
Although he shared the same rockabilly roots as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison went on to pioneer an entirely different brand of country/pop-based rock & roll in the early ’60s. Orbison made up for in spades with his quavering operatic voice and melodramatic narratives of unrequited love and yearning. In the process, he established rock & roll archetypes of the underdog and the hopelessly romantic loser. These were not only amplified by peers such as Del Shannon and Gene Pitney, but also influenced future generations of roots rockers such as Bruce Springsteen and Chris Isaak, as well as modern country, stars the Mavericks.
His signature song has lost none of its appeal over these last five decades. Not only was ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ a big hit, it was a big hit by an American artist amidst a huge wave known as the British Invasion. The record sailed to the No. 1 spot in the summer of 1964.
It also stayed there for three weeks, keeping the Beatles at bay, for a moment. It would be his last Top 10 hit until his comeback in 1989 with ‘You Got It’. The song is built around a dynamic riff, simple, catchy melody. The ace vocal from Orbison, adding up to a winning combination. Van Halen took their version just shy of the Top 10 in 1982.
Oh, Pretty Woman in the making
Roy Orbison was writing with his songwriting partner Bill Dees at his house when he told Dees to get started writing by playing anything that came to mind. Orbison’s wife Claudette came in and said she was going to go into town to buy something.
Orbison asked if she needed any money, and Dees cracked, “Pretty woman never needs any money.” Inspired, Orbison started singing, “Pretty woman walking down the street.” Bill Dees recalls in 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh: “He sang it while I was banging my hand down on the table and by the time she returned we had the song. I love the song. From the moment that the rhythm started, I could hear the heels clicking on the pavement, click, click, the pretty woman walking down the street, in a yellow skirt and red shoes. We wrote Oh Pretty Woman on a Friday, the next Friday we recorded it, and the next Friday it was out. It was the fastest thing I ever saw. Actually, the yeah, yeah, yeah in Oh Pretty Woman probably came from The Beatles.”