The Story Behind The Song: How Roy Orbison Wrote ‘(Oh) Pretty Woman’
In the fall of 1964, girls around the world gathered around their dial radios waiting, wishing for “(Oh) Pretty Woman” to play again. They weren’t kept waiting long, as the Rob Orbison song coated the airwaves that autumn, reaching the top of the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. Todayit remains Orbison’s best-known song, selling seven million copies and winning a Grammy in 1991, several years after his death.
In his mid-’60s heyday, Orbison’s popularity rivaled the Beatles’, in part because of the wild success that was “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” Those same girls who’d listened so raptly to their radios were the ones who pushed their ironed blouses longingly against the front of stages where Orbison stood; they were the ones who created mobs outside any hotel where he stayed. Orbison later said his image wasn’t deliberate, but hisdark glasses and clothingmade him seem mysterious.Most important was his great, tumbling voice — one of the most expressive and beloved singing voices of all time.
Though “(Oh) Pretty Woman” doesn’t showcase the otherworldly capabilities of his voice quite as impressively as hits like “Only The Lonely,” the song remains Orbison’s calling card, 21 years after his death. But few know the backstory behind his biggest hit, including that it was written on his 12-string acoustic Epiphone. Orbison is best associated with the Gibson ES-335 that he was so often pictured with on-stage, but “Pretty Woman’s” signature barreling guitar riff was indeed first plucked on his 1962Epiphone Bard 12-string, which Gibson recreated in his honor this year.
Orbison’s guitar choice wasn’t the only thing uncharacteristic about “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” The tune was a light-hearted change of pace for the songwriter, who built his reputation on heartbreakers like “Only The Lonely” and “Crying.” But it was written during acalm spot in an otherwise turbulent relationship, several years before the death of his first wife Claudette, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and his two eldest sons, who died in a house fire in 1968. Orbison himself died of a heart attack in 1988, but not before remarrying to a beautiful teenager named Barbara, whom he’d met while on tour.
Today Barbara Orbison tends the Orbison estate and carefully guards the memory and the song collection of her beloved husband. Of his biggest hit, she has said, “It’s like Bruce Springsteen said; “‘(Oh) Pretty Woman’ is the best girl-watching rock and roll song ever.”
The year was 1963 when Orbison sat down with his friend and fellow Texan Bill Dees— who also helped generate Orbison’s hit “It’s Over.”
In a 2008 interview with NPR’s All Things Considered radio program, Dees recalled the fateful night when he helped Orbison write “(Oh) Pretty Woman.”
“[Roy and his wife] had been separated and divorced actually and had gotten back together,” said Dees.“When they got back together, he was just a changed person.
“The night we wrote ‘Pretty Woman’ ... she came bopping down the stairs and said, ‘Give me some money.’ He said, ‘What do you need money for?’ And she said, ‘Well I have to go to the store.’ And as she walked away they were whispering and kissing bye. And he came back to the table, and I said, ‘Does this sound funny? Pretty woman don’t need no money. He laughed and said, ‘There’s nothing funny about pretty woman.’ He right away started, pretty woman walking down the street. By the time she got back, we had it written.”
Of Orbison laying down the word ‘mercy’ over that barreling guitar riff, Dees said, “He turned to me with the guitar lick, and he said, ‘I feel like I need to say something while they’re playing [that guitar lick. I said, ‘Well, you’re always saying ‘mercy,’ why don’t you say mercy?’ You know, I said, ‘Every time you see a pretty girl you say mercy.’”
Whether “Pretty Woman” brings to mind Orbison’s early stage presence — his smiling eyes hidden behind Ray Ban Wayfarers — or Julia Roberts’ sashaying hips in her tawdry street walker dress, it’s a song that continues to delight generations of people. It’s lived on in covers by everyone from Van Halen to Green Day, and has played in the soundtracks to dozens of TV shows and movies, most memorably Pretty Woman, the Roberts movie that borrowed its title from Orbison’s song.
It’s Epiphone’s hope that Orbison’s limited edition 12-string also helps to keep his memory and his songs alive. The guitar is a faithful reproduction of the 1962 original includes a replica of Roy Orbison’s signature on the back of the headstock, as well as the notation for the first measure of “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” Also included is a hard case with Roy’s signature and “sunglass” icon on it, a certificate of authenticity hand-signed by Barbara Orbison and Roy’s son, Roy Orbison, Jr., a black and white photo of Roy with his original 12-string, a “sunglass” lapel pin and a copy of the “Oh, Pretty Woman” sheet music.
“As a young brilliant guitar player growing up in West Texas, Roy would have never dreamt that he would one day have his own Epiphone signature guitar named after him,” Barbara Orbison has said. “Roy wrote ‘(Oh) Pretty Woman’ on his Epiphone 12-string acoustic guitar. [The song] features one of the most instantly recognizable rock and roll guitar riffs … I hope the next generation of artists will feel inspired to write another great rock and roll song thanks to this guitar.”