Oh, Pretty Woman (1964)
“Pretty Woman” is one of Roy Orbison’s few true, flat out rockers. “Only The Lonely,” “Blue Bayou” and “Crying” are classics of both the general Pop category and/or Country. As deliciously beautiful, haunting and aching as they are, those mid- and slow-tempo numbers plainly don’t rock.
“Pretty Woman” starts with a bang and ends on screeching brakes and skid marks. It is constructed with the skill of a Roman aqueduct’s architect, tunneling, soaring across ravines and delivering the refreshing water at every chance – since 1964.
Wait. What’s that I see?
A lone snare drum beats, a bass-heavy guitar hops on board and the double-tracked vocals of Roy Orbison kick in confidently, a man at the top of his game completely at ease with his material. “Pretty Woman” was recorded in Nashville before it became Tennessee’s version of Vegas, plasticized and distorted beyond human recognition. This was the Nashville of Hank, Johnny, Chet, Patsy, Tammy, Conway, Loretta, Dolly, Merle, Waylon and Willie. It was the Nashville that Dylan would sneak off to in 1968. It was the real thing.
The power beat established in the opening of “Pretty Woman” continues in practically every bar of the song, building in some spots, laying back like a tomcat waiting for its moment in others. A lightly tinkling piano skips in and out of the mix, sweet and alluring as the woman walking down the street.
The masculine guitar licks are made up of no-nonsense notes and a raw outlaw sound. Orbison’s steady-Freddy acoustic strumming bolts the arrangement together. In all there were four guitars playing on the original tape although only three were left intact on the final cut.
Lead guitarist Billy Sanford was 24 at the time of the recording and had been commuting between Nashville and Shreve- port, Louisiana, where he played weekly on Louisiana Hayride, a TV show that helped to launch Elvis Presley’s career. He was considered “a kid” even though Orbison and his back up crew, later to be known as the Candy Men, were scarcely a few years older. Sanford laid down his licks for “Pretty Woman” all right and went on to do session work with some of the finest pre-synthetic Nashville smash hits for the likes of Charlie Rich, Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, Tanya Tucker and Elvis.
The leads and fills he tosses into “Pretty Woman” are among the most recognizable in Rock history.
The structural concept of the song is to begin in one octave, rise and then rise again before falling off into a musical change that releases some of the bottled up sexual energy. The device takes full advantage of Orbison’s enormous vocal range – three full octaves. His voice swoops and soars like a swallow in spring in an absolutely spellbinding performance.
Above and beyond, Roy set in reinforced concrete two classic hook-like “moves” vocally. He gives the best male wildcat growl ever recorded, and he garners the award for greatest use of the word “mercy” by a white male in a leading role. Truth be told, he had no competition in either contest. Both are simply brilliant, mixing a little light-hearted sex with that old-time religion.
U2 lead singer Bono declared Orbison to be the greatest singer of all time, the one with the most distinctive voice. In his obituary in Newsweek, David Gates said that (along with Elvis Presley), “Orbison had elevated a form of regional music into something approaching art song.” In his History of Sun Records, Colin Escott tries to grasp the “timlessness and placelessness” of Roy Orbison’s work.
Without a doubt, Roy’s three-minute dramas can’t be placed in time or geography. He is clearly from somewhere south of Baltimore and he is pre-Beatles. Otherwise, his music feels the same way that music by The Band feels, or the way the songs in the enormous catalog of Neil Young feel. Orbison comes across as familiar and exotic at the same time like an uncle who sailed the South Seas with the merchant marine then came home to work at an insurance company.
Orbison’s falsetto, strange even in the all-too-brief era of his prime when male falsetto singing was commonplace, is at once compelling and repulsive. It is a true inner voice, one that the singer uses as an alter ego, a self talking to the self. The listener overhears some very private conversations and it can be unsettling. This is apparent in “Pretty Woman,” which begins:
Pretty woman, walking down the street
Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet
Pretty woman, I can’t believe you
You’re not the truth
No one could look as good as you.
It takes a verse to comprehend that he is not singing to the woman in the song, but thinking these things in his head – he is singing to himself.
Pretty woman, won’t you pardon me
Pretty woman, I couldn’t help but see
That you look lovely as can be
Are you lonely just like me
Here a little flamenco enters in a change that alters the song completely. The tempo changes and we are whisked away to what amounts to another song entirely even as the lyrical punch-line stays the same. A very sharp flourish indeed.
Pretty woman, stop a while
Pretty woman, talk a while
Pretty woman, give your smile to me
Pretty woman, yeah yeah yeah
Pretty woman, look my way
Pretty woman, say you’ll stay with me
New York Times writer Peter Watrous declared once when reviewing an Orbison concert: “He has perfected an odd vision of popular music, one in which eccentricity and imagination beat back all the pressures toward conformity.”
The singing has turned formalistic, the high tenor in Orbison’s vocal chords dancing in like a toreador. Some refer to Orbison as the “Caruso of Rock,” which may be stretching a point but nevertheless there are overtones of opera in his delivery.
‘Cause I need you, I’ll treat you right
Come with me baby, be mine tonight
The interlude ends with a rising vocal execution that dwells on the second syllable of “tonight,” the voice shifting up and up on three different notes spanning an octave. The vocal twist is mightily sublime, among some of the best Rock-N-Roll singing ever recorded.
“Pretty Woman” downshifts as smoothly and effortlessly back to the main musical and lyrical themes of the song.
First the pretty woman walks on by and the singer is crestfallen, but then…
What do I see
Is she walking back to me
Yeah, she’s walking back to me
The internal monologue is complete. The song is sent to bed as abruptly as it begins, on the words “Ooooh Oh pretty woman,” which echo with ringing reverb.
Orbison received only a small serving of the recognition he deserved in life. Since his death in 1988, he has become a superstar. “Pretty Woman” is a song far beyond the normal bounds of Rock-N-Roll, blending as it does four or five genres without shedding a bead of sweat. Mystifyingly, many “writers and critics who prophesy with [their] pen” – as Dylan wrote, relegate Orbison to the back of the Rock-N-Roll bus.
When he opened for the rising-star Beatles in Britain in 1963, although Roy owned the top of the bill, he went on stage first. On one night he did fourteen encores.
Later, he would hook up again with George Harrison, as well as with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, to form The Traveling Wilburys. He was best of friends with Elvis.
Bruce Springsteen inducted him into The Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the year before Orbison’s death.
Fourteen encores? Mercy.
- Co-writer Bill Dees describes “Pretty Woman” this way: “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.”
- In 1964 alone the single of “Pretty Woman” sold 7 million copies. It is estimated total sales have topped 15 million all told.