Welcome to “Original Rock Legends!” To celebrate Geva’s final show this season, the hit musical Million Dollar Quartet directed by Hunter Foster, I’m taking you through a musical journey, uncovering the history behind the songs featured in Million Dollar Quartet.
This week, we’re exploring rock music legends who are not part of the Million Dollar Quartet, but whose music is included in the musical Million Dollar Quartet to honor their profound impact on early rock ‘n’ roll:
“Oh, Pretty Woman”-1964
“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…”
It’s true that Roy Orbison was performing in the late 1950s, and that at the time the Million Dollar Quartet met in December 1956, he had just signed with Sun Records nine months before. However, Orbison didn’t really hit the big time until the 1960s, after he had signed with Monument Records. By bringing up Orbison’s hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” in the middle of Million Dollar Quartet, the musical’s book writers, Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, are conveying Sun Records’ lasting effect on future waves of rock ‘n’ roll greats.
Although Sun Records ended up becoming a vital stepping-stone in his career, Orbison’s relationship with Sam Phillips had a rocky start. The young musician was performing on KOSA-TV with Johnny Cash around 1955, and asked Cash how he and his Teen Kings bandmates might get a record released. Cash helpfully gave Sam Phillips’ phone number to Orbison, but when Orbison tried to call Sun Records, Phillips hung up on him, saying, “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company.” Later, Orbison had more luck getting through to Phillips, after Cecil “Poppa” Hollifield advocated for him by playing the Teen Kings’ 1956 single “Trying to Get to You” and “Ooby Dooby” (recorded by the young Je-Wel label) over the phone for Phillips. Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings began recording at Sun in March 1956, and when the Teen Kings split that December, Orbison continued recording with Sun studio musicians until he left Sun in 1958.
Six years and two new recording deals later, Orbison and Bill Dees co-wrote “Pretty Woman” in 1964, in an evening Dees perfectly encapsulated in a 2008 NPR interview:
They were in the singer’s home, Dees said, when Orbison’s wife “came bopping down the stairs and said ‘give me some money’ ” so that she could go shopping. Orbison did, and “as she walked away they were … whispering and kissing goodbye,” Dees said. When Orbison came back in the room, “I said ‘does this sound funny? Pretty woman, don’t need no money.'”
Orbison “laughed and said ‘there’s nothing funny about a pretty woman” and they started crafting the song’s classic lyrics and tune.
“By the time she came back, we had it written,” Dees said.
As they worked, Orbison said “I feel like I need to say something” as the song’s classic guitar lick plays. “You’re always saying ‘mercy,’ ” Dees told him. “Why don’t you say ‘mercy?’ Every time you see a pretty girl you say mercy.”
And that’s how the classic song was made.
“Oh, Pretty Woman” reached #1 on the charts, and was part of an incredible five-year run at Monument in which Orbison produced nineteen Top Forty hits, including nine Top Ten hits. Today, Orbison is remembered not only for his great music, but also for his ability to stay afloat in the rock ‘n’ roll scene even after the “British Invasion” marked the end of most ‘50s musicians’ careers.
Let’s listen to Roy Orbison performing “Oh, Pretty Woman”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMXX4uUarEg
And that concludes “Original Rock Legends,” Geva Journal’s official series on the legendary musicians who defined rock ‘n’ roll. Thanks for tuning in! And if you haven’t seen Million Dollar Quartet at Geva yet…what are you waiting for? The show closes on June 25th, and you don’t wanna miss this! Rock on, and see you at Geva!