. . .
Inspired by an off-hand comment Roy Orbison’s co-writer, Bill Dees, made about Oribison’s wife, “Oh, Pretty Woman” is an absolute masterclass in how to pare a song down to the absolute basics. In this case, the basics are a dynamite corkscrew guitar riff, the simplest of drumbeats, and of course, Orbison’s voice, which mostly mitigates the somewhat problematic lyrics.
Pretty woman, won’t you pardon me?
Pretty woman, I couldn’t help but see
Pretty woman, that you look lovely as can be
Are you lonely just like me?
The way his voice breaks on “lonely just like me” is pure genius in terms of vulnerability signaling, and it’s the ongoing conflict between that voice and the aggressive lyrics that keeps “Oh, Pretty Woman” from being fully a period piece. That, and the dynamite corkscrew guitar riff.
According to Wikipedia, there are four guitar players on the song: Orbison, Billy Sanford, Jerry Kennedy, and Wayne Moss, which might seem like overkill, but it also makes the moments where that riff cascades upon itself while building and building incredibly powerful. Also pretty powerful, how they play only half of the riff a couple of times at the beginning before unleashing it in full.
Like I said, “Oh, Pretty Woman” is a pretty simple song. You’ve got your dynamite corkscrew guitar riff, you’ve got your verses, both of which are driven by an unforgiving double-time snare beat by drummer Billy Harman (shadowed by bassist Henry Strzelecki), and then you’ve got an exceptionally long bridge where Harmon lets off the gas, and Orbison does his begging while Floyd Cramer supports him on piano, though it’s unclear whether he’s actually saying these things or just thinking them.
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
‘Cause I need you, I’ll treat you right
Come with me, baby, be mine tonight
It goes on for so long that you might be excused in thinking that the riff is never gonna come back, but c’mon, of course it is, setting up the ending.
Okay, if that’s the way it must be, okay
I guess I’ll go on home, it’s late
There’ll be tomorrow night
But wait! What do I see?
Is she walking back to me?
Yeah, she’s walking back to me
Ohhhhh, pretty woman
The outro of “Oh, Pretty Woman” is one of the best-arranged, most dramatic things anybody has ever recorded. It’s basically just Orbison, Cramer, Strzelecki and Harman bashing away as Orbison is getting resigned to going home alone, but then he sings “But wait!” and everybody but Harman lays out, and as the relentless snare drum pounds away, Orbison asks “what do I seeeeeeeeeeeeeee?”, and there’s a breathless moment as the guitars do just half of the riff not even as loud as the drums, and as Orbison asks “is she walking back to meeeeeeeeeee?” the dynamite corkscrew riff builds and builds and builds as he realizes “yeah, she’s walking back to meeeeeeeeee” until they finally end with a triumphant “ohhhhhh, pretty woman!”
This is utter brilliance, an absolutely fantastic way to end a song.
And it was rewarded: in the summer of 1964, the summer of The Beatles (OK, one of the summers of The Beatles), Oribson released “Oh Pretty Woman” and it topped the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. — and pretty much the rest of the world, to boot — all of those guitars perfectly in synch with the brand-new zeitgeist, making it not just an instant standard, but something that still sounds amazing nearly 60 years later.
“Oh Pretty Woman”
“Oh Pretty Woman” Live in 1964
“Oh Pretty Woman” live in 1965
“Oh, Pretty Woman” live (with Johnny Cash), 1969
“Oh, Pretty Woman” live at Farm Aid, 1985
“Oh, Pretty Woman” live live at the Black and White Night, 1988
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