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Mercy: Behind Roy Orbison's 'Pretty Woman'
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Mercy: Behind Roy Orbison's 'Pretty Woman'


There's a new Roy Orbison retrospective out in time for the holidays, a four-CD set called "The Soul of Rock and Roll." The man who delivered that soul died 20 years ago today. The song that became Roy Orbison's signature, you know the one, "Oh, Pretty Woman," was added to the National Recording Registry earlier this year at the Library of Congress.

Our series about the registry continues today with a portrait of "Oh, Pretty Woman." It's produced by Ben Manilla. Roy Orbison wrote the song for his first wife, Claudette, in 1966. Two years after it hit number one, she died in a motorcycle accident. To tell the story of "Oh, Pretty Woman," we're going to hear from Roy's second wife, Barbara Orbison.

Ms. BARBARA ORBISON: We got married in March of 1969 and stayed married until, you know, Roy died.

SEABROOK: But we start with our other narrator, the man who helped create the song.

(Soundbite of song "Oh, Pretty Woman")

Mr. BILL DEES (Co-writer, "Oh, Pretty Woman"): My name is Bill Dees. I wrote the song "Oh, Pretty Woman" with Roy Orbison. And I've experienced the joy of - I saw it in Billboard magazine, number one in 22 countries at the same time.

(Soundbite of song "Oh, Pretty Woman")

Mr. ROY ORBISON: (Singing) Pretty woman, walking down the street, Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet. Pretty woman, I don't believe you, you're not the truth. No one could look as good as you. Mercy.

Mr. DEES: The night we wrote "Pretty Woman," he said, you don't have to go at work Monday if you don't want to because I was already in over a dime raise, that it was time for them to raise me a dime. He said, buy yourself an electric piano, and I'll take you on the road with me. And he said, I'll pay you what the band's getting.

(Soundbite of song "Claudette")

Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Oh, oh, Claudette. Oh, oh, Claudette.

Mr. DEES: The first hit song that Roy Orbison had was the Everly Brothers' recording of "Claudette," which was about his wife. And they had been separated and divorced actually, and they'd gotten back together.

(Soundbite of song "Claudette")

Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) When I see her tonight, I'm gonna squeeze her to death. Claudette...

Mr. DEES: And then, when they got back together, he was just a changed person. And she came bopping down the stairs and said, hon, give me some money. And why do you need money for, he said. And she said, well, I got to go to the store. And as she walked away, they were like whispering and kissing, bye, you know, away from me. And I stood up at the table.

And he came back to the table, and I said, does this sound funny? Pretty women don't need no money. And he laughed. And he sat down. He said that there's nothing funny about pretty women. And right away, started pretty woman, walking down the street. By the time she got back, we had it written.

(Soundbite of song "Oh, Pretty Woman")

Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Pretty woman, walking down the street. Pretty woman...

Mr. DEES: He turned with a guitar lick, and he said, I feel like I need to say something rather than playing du du du, you know. I said, well, you are always saying mercy. Why don't you say mercy? And, you know, I said, every time you see a pretty girl, you say mercy.

(Soundbite of song "Oh, Pretty Woman")

Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Mercy...

Ms. ORBISON: You have to remember that Roy's career spanned over 40 years, and, you know, his first hit he had in '56 with Ooby Dooby. And it just kept on going on until he even got a Grammy two years after he had passed on in '91 for the song "Oh, Pretty Woman" from the Black and White Night.

(Soundbite of song "Oh, Pretty Woman")

Mrs. ORBISON: It was the most incredible time of my life. I always say he was a better husband than a singer. He was an incredible man to have been married to. You know, it's just great to see that even today, the world still so respects him. And because, you know, he gave everything he had. He always said his voice was a gift from God and all he - to redeem that, he had to, you know, sing publicly in concert. And he always said, I hate the traveling schedule, but once I'm on stage, I really understand what I have to do.

(Soundbite of song "Oh, Pretty Woman")

Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Pretty woman...

Mr. DEES: We toured the world, almost. I went to England twice and crossed Europe once with him. I was shocked when we got off the plane in London, and there was like 10,000 people there at the airport meeting the plane. And I'd just been playing cards with the guy. And I stepped off that plane, and then I thought, oh my, look at this. It was like the Beatles when they came over here.

Ms. ORBISON: The song "Pretty Woman" was like Bruce Springsteen said, it's the best girl-watching rock 'n' roll song ever.

Mr. DEES: I personally think that every male that has ever walked this earth at a certain point in his life is trying to catch the eye of a pretty woman. And I visualize the sailor, you know, on a corner and the gal with red hot heels. I mean, maybe a yellow skirt or something, you know, just a wow-looking gal, really frisky coming down and everybody's going...

(Soundbite of wolf whistle)

Mr. DEES: And then she comes back to you and says, OK, if I've got some time, let's go over there to have a cup of coffee.

(Soundbite of song "Oh, Pretty Woman")

Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) What do I see? Is she walking back to me? Yeah, she's walking back to me. Oh, oh, pretty woman.

SEABROOK: "Oh, Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison, preserved for all-time in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Our feature was produced by Ben Manilla and Media Mechanics. We remember Roy Orbison today on the 20th anniversary of his death. On our website, you can find Bill Dees's own performance of "Oh, Pretty Woman," and you can hear about Barbara Orbison's campaign to get Roy's image on a postage stamp.

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