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118) Roy Orbison – “Oh, Pretty Woman”

After “Only the Lonely” netted Roy Orbison his first hit in 1960, nearly all of his subsequent singles followed the same template: rock and roll arias of rejection and loneliness showing off his epic range and vibrato.  But unlike contemporaries who continued to churn out rehashed versions of their Big Hit to diminishing returns, Orbison’s formula never grew stale, both because of the consistently high quality of the material and because he was the sole occupant of his niche.  No one else in the charts had a voice with the power and the pathos of Orbison’s; no one else could blend classical structure with pop without sounding gimmicky or pretentious.

Yet “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Orbison’s biggest hit, appears at first blush to be a far cry from heartrending ballads like “Crying” and “It’s Over.”  The ornate orchestral instrumentation of his previous hits has been subbed with a straightforward rock and roll set-up reminiscent of his days at Sun Studios.  The tempo is upbeat, and Orbison, for once, seems to be having fun.  (If you remember one thing about the song, it’s the loping guitar riff.  If you remember a second thing, it’s the endearingly cartoony growl after “No one could look as good as you.”)  But strip away the snappy drums and the tongue-in-cheek machismo, and what’s left behind is a clearly-identifiable product of the saddest voice in pop.

Thematically, “Oh, Pretty Woman” is “Running Scared” played as romantic comedy: boy falls for girl, boy appears to have lost girl, girl surprises boy by coming back for him.  (It’s a scenario that would have personal resonance for Orbison: he and his wife Claudette divorced as a result of her infidelity, then remarried the following year.)  The lyrics are littered with references to being rejected and ignored.  “Are you lonely just like me?” Orbison asks, before begging, “Pretty woman, don’t make me cry/Pretty woman, don’t walk away.”  Finally, he resigns himself to his status as the man who too sensitive to be loved: “If that’s the way it must be, OK/I guess I’ll go on home, it’s late.”

Contrasting an upbeat melody with secretly morose lyrics has become a tired cliché in the wake of lesser artists using it as shorthand for depth. But the juxtaposition works in “Oh, Pretty Woman,” largely because Orbison is so convincing in the persona of the lovesick loner with the painfully sincere voice.  And because it strikes at the ambiguity lurking beneath all the best love songs: how thin the line dividing love and loss, how arbitrary the distinction between acceptance and rejection. 8

Hit #1 on September 26, 1964; total of 3 weeks at #1
118 of 989 #1’s reviewed; 11.93% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 08, 1964

52) Roy Orbison – “Running Scared”

 

In retrospect, Roy Orbison was an unlikely pop star.  He was a failed rockabilly singer with a voice that verged closer to Tosca than teen idol.  His self-penned songs, only occasionally in verse-chorus format, borrowed from classical music, theater and ballroom dance.  His style was more sophisticated and adult than songs typically targeted to the teenage audience, while at the same time too rock and roll to reach parents more comfortable with Lawrence Welk and Bert Kaempfert.  Add on homely looks and you have a musician unmarketable in today’s musical landscape, except perhaps as a contestant on a reality TV singing program.  Of course, the formative years of rock were as concerned about marketability as well – which is why Fats Domino and Little Richard songs only achieved pop chart success after being covered by blandly handsome white teenagers. Still, 1961 predated video killing the radio star, and sometimes talent did beat all else.

Although Elvis had flirted with Old World aesthetics in his post-Army singles, these embellishments were always self-conscious.  By remaking Neapolitan ballads and bounding across octaves, Presley sought to legitimize his position as rock singer through cross-generational appeal.  Orbison, on the other hand, couldn’t do straight rock and roll.  Like Elvis, he was an alumnus of Sun Records, but one who left frustrated and without prospects as a performer.  It was only after carving out a dramatic and hypermelodic niche that Orbison was able to conquer the pop charts.  “Running Scared,” the follow-up to his breakout “Only the Lonely,” sounds bombastic on paper: a rock bolero with no chorus that continuously builds into a crescendo with no release.  But Orbison approaches it with restraint and humility, which lends the song a sincerity lacking in more overblown pop melodramas.  The lyrics are simple as well – will the girl choose him or me? – and balance out Orbison’s powerful voice and the mounting musical tension.   While “Crying” and “In Dreams” have deservedly become the better-known classics (as has the version of “Love Hurts” on this record’s B-side), “Running Scared” is a fine introduction to Orbison as poperatic legend. 7

Hit #1 on June 5, 1961; total of 1 week at #1
52 of 969 #1’s; 5.37% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 07, 1961