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“Mercy!”- How A Pretty Woman Was Shaped

A song can come from anywhere. From the height of emotion or experience, or simply from the daily mundane. Keith Richards is convinced that writers are simply conduits; the songs already exist on another plane and are waiting for the right vessel to channel through. Whatever the answer, the human mind is capable of picking apart any experience, re-projecting it into a greater idea. Take for example, a routine trip to the grocery store; Roy Orbison did. A passing instant for him did the rest of us a favor and stood still, long enough for him to work it up into a string of notes and words. “Oh, Pretty Woman” has grown to become one of the most recognizable songs in pop music history.

Roy Orbison had been enjoying a rebirth in the pop music field. Originally a recording artist for Sun Records, his star faded with the rockabilly craze of the late 50s, only to be reborn more brilliantly in the early 60s with a string of pop and country chart-toppers. By 1963, he had reestablished himself as a distinctive voice of the time. He needed another hit, and it came like a sucker punch. While sitting with his co-writer and friend Bill Dees, his wife walked in the room. On her way out the door to go to the store, she asked for some money, to which Bill jokingly replied, “…Pretty woman don’t need no money.” Orbison had the first line:

“Pretty woman walking down the street…”

He sang it as Dees pounded out a rhythm on the table. By the time his wife, Claudette, got back, she had been immortalized. The picture is painted without flaw: a girl is walking down the street, dressed to kill, however that may be, attracting the attention of the young singer. He watches her walk away, wondering if he could ever have a chance with her. They catch glances but she’s already down the street; suddenly she stops. She turns tail and is walking back to him, the answer to his prayer! Boy-gets-girl, the end, but so much more. From the opening snare hit, you’re hooked, the jangly guitar riff; you can hear her heels clacking down the sidewalk, see her hips sway beneath her airy summer dress. Roy comes in with his plaintive cry…

“Pretty woman stop awhile, pretty woman talk a while..”

Bruce Springsteen described it best when he called it the “best girl-watching rock and roll song ever”. It was written on a Friday, recorded the next Friday and released the following Friday. From the kitchen table to the top of the charts in double-time. It went to #1 on both the American and UK pop charts in the fall of 1964, spending a total of 18 weeks in the slot. Roy was the first American artist to have a #1 record in the UK, and he was able to do it more than once.

This was his final smash, though he continued touring through the 60s and into the 70s. He made one final comeback in 1988 with The Traveling Wilburys, a super-group composed of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison and Roy. Just as his star began burning brighter than ever, he passed away from a heart attack. His legacy is lush, and his catalogue has been covered the world over. Although he has a number of memorable hits, the first song that comes to anyone’s mind at the first mention of Roy Orbison will always be “Oh, Pretty Woman”.

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

Pretty woman, won’t you pardon me

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Pretty woman, I couldn’t help see
Pretty woman
That you look lovely as can be
Are you lonely just like me

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

Pretty woman, don’t walk on by
Pretty woman, don’t make me cry
Pretty woman, don’t walk away, hey…okay
If that’s the way it must be, okay
I guess I’ll go on home, it’s late
There’ll be tomorrow nigh, but wait
What do I see
Is she walking back to me
Yeah, she’s walking back to me
Oh, oh, Pretty woman


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