179. Roy Orbison – Oh, Pretty Woman (1964)

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The Big O was third-time lucky at number 1, and finally got the girl on the classic Oh, Pretty Woman. The song was inspired by Orbison’s wayward wife Claudette, who was often his muse.

Orbison and co-writer Bill Dees were working one day when she walked in to tell them she was going to Nashville. When Orbison asked if she needed any money, Dees interjected with ‘A pretty woman never needs any money’. As usual Orbison assigned Fred Foster for production, Bill Porter as the engineer, and assembled a top team of musicians, including Elvis Presley collaborator and number 1 artist Floyd Cramer on piano, plus three other guitarists in addition to himself on 12-string.

The second half of 1964’s number 1s are an embarrassment of riches as far as intros go, and Oh, Pretty Woman is among the best. Gone is the doom and gloom of It’s Over, replaced by that brilliant circular riff leading into the first ‘Pretty woman’. Anyone who’s ever been in awe of someone will identify with the lyrics, in which Orbison admires the pretty woman from a distance (I’d like to believe this was in a perfectly innocent way; I refuse to believe Orbison was a stalker). Fans of his work must have assumed this was yet another great track by the balladeer in which the protagonist is doomed to be unlucky in love, but when he sings ‘What do I see?/Is she walkin’ back to me?/Yeah, she’s walkin’ back to me/Oh, oh, pretty woman.’, you almost want to punch the air for him in triumph. I love Orbison’s interjections too, namely ‘Mercy’, and a bit of growling thrown in for good measure. Way to go, Big O!

It was no mean feat for a US act to gain a UK number 1 in 1964, let alone two. Oh, Pretty Woman also went back to the top the following month for another week, toppling Sandie Shaw’s (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me. 

Unfortunately, this was no happy ending for Orbison. That November, he and Claudette divorced over her affair, and although they remarried in December 1965, they were involved in a tragic accident in June 1966. The couple shared a love of motorbikes, and were riding home one day when a pickup truck pulled out. Claudette hit the door and died instantly.

He threw himself into his music, co-writing the music for his debut film appearance, The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967). It had originally been planned as a Western, but became a comedy. Apparently Orbison’s role as a spy proved he wasn’t anywhere near as good an actor as he was a musician, and the film flopped, ending the movie enthusiast’s career in one stroke.

Orbison had done well to withstand changing musical fashions up to this point, but suffered badly with the blossoming of psychedelia. His life was upended once more after a gig in Bournemouth in September 1968, when he was told over the phone that his house had burned down, killing his two eldest sons. He sold the land to Johnny Cash, who planted an orchard where the house was stood.

The following year he married German teenager Barabra Jakobs, and in the 70s they had two sons together, but his musical fortunes did not improve. It was a lost decade, commercially. other than a compilation of greatest hits making it to number 1 in the album charts, and featuring as the opening act for the Eagles on live dates, both in 1976.

The 80s opened promisingly for the Big O when Don McLean unexpectedly went to number 1 with his version of Crying. He and Emmylou Harris won a Grammy in 1981 for their duet That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again, but it was a request from auteur filmmaker David Lynch that really reignited his career. Lynch was refused permission to use the track In Dreams in his disturbing film noir Blue Velvet (1986), but he went ahead anyway. Apparently while making the film he asked for the track to be played repeatedly to add to the disturbing atmosphere of the movie. Orbison was said to be shocked when he watched the film in the cinema, and it was only later that he appreciated his song’s place in it.

1987 was Orbison’s best year for decades. He released an album of re-recordings, won a Grammy with kd Lang for their new version of Crying, and he was initiated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bruce Springsteen, who had referenced his first number 1 in the memorable Thunder Road (‘Roy Orbison’s singing for the lonely’). In 1988 he began working with Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne on a new album. Lynne had just finished producing George Harrison’s Cloud Nine. The trio met up for a meal and an idea formed. They rang Bob Dylan, paid a visit to Tom Petty, and before you know it the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys were formed. That evening they wrote hit single Handle with Care.

Unlike a lot of comebacks by 60s legends, it helped that Orbison’s material was pretty good, particularly You Got It, which was to be the first single from his new album, Mystery Girl. Around this time he complained to Johnny Cash of chest pains, and said he should do something about his health. After years of getting nowhere, the world was at his feet again, and he didn’t want to stop in case his luck ran out yet again.

On 6 December he spent the day flying model aeroplanes with his sons and had dinner at his mother’s house. He died of a heart attack later that day, aged only 52. The world had yet again been robbed of an astounding musical talent, blessed with an incredible voice and an uncanny knack of making misery sound compelling. Oh, Pretty Woman enjoyed a new lease of life thanks to the romantic comedy Pretty Woman in 1990.

Roy himself is kind of doing the same, thanks to the ongoing tour in which he features as a hologram, backed by a full live orchestra. It’s good to know that his songs live on, but whether this is ethical or not is another matter.

Written by: Roy Orbison & Bill Dees

Producer: Fred Foster

Weeks at number 1: 3 (8-21 October, 12-18 November)

Meanwhile…

10-24 October: Great Britain competed in the Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, where they won four gold, 12 silver and two bronze medals. The Games had been scheduled deliberately late in the year to avoid Tokyo’s midsummer heat.

15 October: The 1964 general election took place, and after 13 years of Conservative rule, Labour were back in power with a slim majority of five seats, and Harold Wilson was the new prime minster.

17 October: Wilson announced his cabinet, which included James Callaghan, Denis Healey, Barbara Castle and Roy Jenkins. He also created the Welsh Office and made Jim Griffiths the first Secretary of State for Wales. The Conservatives had become mired in controversy following the Profumo affair, and Douglas-Home seemed decidedly old-fashioned and too posh against Wilson, who played up his working class image with a pipe and seemed hip by comparison, as The Beatles’ fame had helped begin the breaking down of social barriers.

117. Floyd Cramer – On the Rebound (1961)

Floyd-Cramer-Getty-Michael-Ochs-Archives-circa-1961-copy.jpgNumber 1 for a week in May, On the Rebound saw a much-demanded session musician step out into the spotlight and become a star in his own right. Pianist Floyd Cramer was one of the key architects of the ‘Nashville sound’, a sophisticated version of country music that had originated in the mid-50s.

Cramer had been born in Shreveport, Louisiana on 27 October 1933. He grew up in the small town of Huttig, Arkansas, where he taught himself to play the piano after his parents bought him one for his fifth birthday.

After graduating, he returned to Louisiana and found work at radio station KWKH, where he began backing honky tonk stars and even toured with Hank Williams. Despite making his name as a session musician, he actually recorded his first solo single, Dancin’ Diane, in 1953. Two years later, he found himself touring with an up-and-coming singer named Elvis Presley.

1955 proved an important year for Cramer, as he finally moved to Nashville at the instigation of one of the Nashville sound’s figureheads, songwriter and producer Chet Atkins. Over the next few years, Cramer, along with Atkins, Owen Bradley, Harold Bradley, Fred Carter and The Jordanaires, worked with some of American music’s most influential stars, including UK number 1 artists Elvis, Roy Orbison and The Everly Brothers.

Key to Cramer’s success was the ‘slip note’ style of playing he developed, in which he would often hit out-of-key notes before sliding into the right one, which created a kind of slurring sound that fitted perfectly with the country music he was working on. Cramer first used ‘slip note’ at a session for Hank Locklin’s Please Help Me, I’m Falling, when Atkins asked Cramer to copy Don Robertson’s playing on the demo. However, it was Cramer that ran with this style and made it his own.

In 1960 he had a hit with the memorable instrumental Last Date, which peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Ironically, he was kept from the top spot by Presley’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?, on which he had also played. Last Date was later covered by REM, among others.

A year later, the self-penned title track of his new album On the Rebound, also narrowly missed out on topping the US charts, but it did the business in the UK.

I was surprised just how much I enjoyed this track. I was half expecting something along the lines of Russ Conway’s number 1s, Side Saddle and Roulette, but On the Rebound really is a cut above. With instrumentals, you either need a really good central riff, or enough elements to keep the listener interested, and this track does both. It’s laden with hooks, punchy, and sounds pretty modern, thanks to Atkins’ production, with Cramer’s skills impressing over stirring string stabs. There’s been a lot of disappointing number 1s so far in 1961. This is one of the better ones.

Cramer continued to release his own work alongside session performances, often covering the hits of the time. From 1965 to 1974 he annually recorded an album of the year’s hits, titled The Class of… As a fan of The Monkees, I wouldn’t mind hearing Floyd Cramer Plays the Monkees, from 1967, or maybe Floyd Cramer and the Keyboard Kick Band from 10years later, in which Cramer played eight different keyboards. His final chart hit was his own version of the theme to US soap opera Dallas in 1980. Cramer died of lung cancer on New Year’s Eve 1997, aged 64.

Written by: Floyd Cramer

Producer: Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 1 (18-24 May)

111. Johnny Tillotson – Poetry in Motion (1961)

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1961 was an unusual year for number 1s. There was more movement at the summit of the charts than ever before, with a whopping 21 chart-toppers. Many were short-lived, lasting only a week at a time, and it’s tough to work out a trend or scene that may have had an impact. Elvis Presley could still do no wrong, and had four number 1s, more this year than any other artist had managed in 12 months before.

Unusually, Cliff didn’t score any new number 1s this year, but was still a regular in the upper reaches. There was still a place for rock’n’roll, but with many of the greats already gone, the scene was missing some of the initial excitement and danger.

As is often the case, the year got off to a fairly unexciting start, with singer-songwriter Johnny Tillotson’s Poetry in Motion knocking Cliff Richard and The Shadows’ I Love You from the top and enjoying a fortnight at number 1.

Tillotson was born 20 April 1939 in Jacksonville, Florida. Aged only nine, he was sent away to look after his grandmother in Palatka, which seems a lot for a young boy to contend with.

While at high school there he began to be known as a talented singer, and after gaining further notice in national talent contests, Archie Bleyer signed him to Cadence Records. He began releasing self-penned singles in 1958, and a cover of Earth Angel, making slight dints on the charts, but he made his name with Poetry In Motion, written by Mike Anthony and Paul Kaufman. Kaufman later claimed the inspiration came from the parade of schoolgirls he would see pass by his window every afternoon. In this day and age, he’d likely not reveal such info.

Bill Porter, by now the US’s most in-demand sound engineer, supervised the session. Among the musicians involved were saxophonist Boots Randolph, whose 1963 hit Yakety Sax became the much-remembered signature tune on The Benny Hill Show, used every time Benny was chasing or being chased by scantily-clad ladies. Floyd Cramer was on piano, and would feature on the next number 1, Elvis’s Are You Lonesome Tonight?, as well as having a number 1 under his own name with On the Rebound in May.

Randolph’s saxophone is probably the most memorable element of this so-so track, giving the sound some punch and distinction. It’s not a bad tune, but a bit average and unmemorable, other than the solid production. The lyrics aren’t earth-shattering either, and ‘She doesn’t need improvement/She’s much too nice to rearrange’ is as iffy as the inspiration behind the song. The only other noteworthy mention goes to the reference to Love Potion No. 9, which had been a hit in 1959 for the Clovers.

Tillotson became a teen idol after its release, but his father had become terminally ill. This inspired his 1962 song, It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’, which became a big country hit and was later covered by Elvis. He had further hits, and starred in films, including 1966 comedy The Fat Spy with Jayne Mansfield (considered by many as one of the worst films ever made) but his fortunes waned as the 60s drew to a close.

The 90s saw Tillotson regularly touring other countries, but tragedy hit his family when his 22-year-old daughter Kelli was killed in a car crash in 1991. 2010 saw the release of his single Not Enough, which paid tribute to all uniformed US personnel, and saw him gain recognition for the first time in years.

Written by: Mike Anthony & Paul Kaufman

Producer: Archie Bleyer

Weeks at number 1: 2 (12-25 January)

Births:

Actor Simon Russell Beale – 12 January
Madness singer Suggs – 13 January
Footballer Peter Beardsley – 18 January
Designer Wayne Hemingway – 19 January