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)
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.