Friday, September 26, 2014

50 years ago: Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” topped the chart

Oh Pretty Woman

Roy Orbison

Writer(s): Roy Orbison/Bill Dees (see lyrics here)

First Charted: August 29, 1964

Peak: 13 US, 13 CB, 11 HR, 48 AC, 89 CW, 1 CL, 12 UK, 11 CN, 12 AU, 1 DF (Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): 1.0 US, 0.76 UK, 7.0 world (includes US + UK)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 6.0 radio, 103.05 video, 293.43 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Orbison’s “most enduring recording” NRR grew out of a crack Bill Dees made to Roy’s wife, Claudette. She interrupted the pair while they were writing to ask her husband for some money to go to the store. Dees shot back that a “pretty woman never needs any money.” RS500 From that, Roy came up with the idea of a man watching a pretty woman walk by and wondering if she might be lonely like him.

The path from inception to release was, as Dees says, “the fastest thing I ever saw.” KL He says they wrote the song on a Friday, recorded it the next Friday, and by the following Friday it was released. KL The song was marked by “Orbison’s tiger-like growl and the repetitive guitar riff.” JA His singing is “uncharacteristically exuberant” TC on this “perfect country rock boogie sound.” TC Chet Atkins called it the “best commercial record I ever heard.” HL

The flirtatious nature of this “anthem for voyeurs” TC was amusingly ironic, depicting Orbison (or at least the song’s protagonist) “as a trolling stud.” MA The image was far better suited to singer David Lee Roth’s machismo when his hard-rock band, Van Halen, took their 1982 cover of the song to #1 on the album rock chart and #12 on the pop charts. Six years later, Orbison died of a heart attack, but as a testament to the song’s timeliness, a version recorded live in September 1987 hit the adult contemporary and country charts in 1989 – twenty five years after the original.

Rap group 2 Live Crew recorded a parody under the title “Pretty Woman” and sampled the bassline from the original. WK Orbison’s publisher sued under the claim that the fair use doctrine did not allow for copyrighted material to be reused for profit. WK In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in what is now considered a seminal fair use decision, WK that parody qualified as fair use.


  • DMDB Encyclopedia entry for Roy Orbison
  • TC Toby Creswell (2005). 1001 Songs: The Great Songs of All Time. Thunder’s Mouth Press: New York, NY. Page 694.
  • HL Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh (1998). Behind the Song: The Stories of 100 Great Pop & Rock Classics. London, England: Blandford Books. Page 16.
  • JA David A. Jasen (2002). A Century of American Popular Music: 2000 Best-Loved and Remembered Songs (1899-1999). Routledge: Taylor & Francis, Inc. Page 150.
  • KL Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh (2005). 1000 UK Number One Hits: The Stories Behind Every Number One Single Since 1952. London, Great Britain: Omnibus Press. Page 103.
  • MA Dave Marsh (1989). The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. New York, NY; New American Library. Page 32.
  • NRR National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress The Full National Recording Registry
  • RS500 Rolling Stone (2011). “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
  • WK

First posted 8/29/2011; updated 11/12/2022.

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