Bill Dees, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ Co-Writer, Dead at 73
Bill Dees, who co-wrote a string of hits with the legendary Roy Orbison including his signature tune ‘Oh, Pretty Woman,’ died last Wednesday, Oct. 24, at his home in Mountain Home, Arkansas at the age of 73. He was reportedly suffering from an inoperable brain tumor. Van Halen famously covered ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ on their 1982 album ‘Diver Down.’
Born in Electra, Texas on January 24, 1939, Dees was brought up on hard work as the son of a man who worked a sand and gravel land lease. According to his web site bio, his mother encouraged his early interest in music by teaching him to play ukelele and piano, and she taught him and all of his brothers to sing, which they excelled at so much that they landed a regular spot on a radio show out of Amarillo.
By high school Dees was playing in a group called the Five Bops, who scored a regional hit in 1957 with a song called ‘Jitterbuggin’.’ The band opened for Roy Orbison, who was a regional star but had yet to break nationally, and Dees and Orbison struck up a friendship that would endure for decades. After a string of failed bands and recordings, Dees moved to Nashville in 1964, and the pair began to write together regularly, penning 67 songs together over the course of the next few years including ‘It’s Over’ and ‘Borne on the Wind.’
But it was ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ that would create their true legacy as a songwriting team. The song began easily enough in a routine writing session at Dees’ house. His wife Claudette came into the room to say she was going to town, and when Orbison asked if she needed any money, Dees quipped, “Pretty woman never needs any money.” The pair wrote the song in the time it took for her to return from the store, recorded it within a week, and released it the week after that.
The song went on to top the charts both in America and England, and Dees joined Orbison’s road band, performing a whirlwind series of shows including gigs with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also played the Ed Sullivan Show, the largest showcase of its kind in television history.
Dees retired from the road after a few years, and after he subsequently moved to Arkansas, his writing partnership with Orbison fell by the wayside, though they remained friends until Orbison’s death. Dees remained involved in music over the ensuing decades, scoring cuts by artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Glen Campbell, and even reuniting with Orbison to write a song titled ‘Windsurfer’ that appeared on the singer’s 1989 ‘Mystery Girl’ album. In 1989 Dees was involved in a lawsuit after the rap group 2 Live Crew recorded a raunchy version of ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ without permission, though the court sided with the rappers.
In 2002 Dees released his first solo album, ‘Saturday Night at the Movies,’ in which he explored songs from his collaboration with Orbison. He released two more albums prior to his death, but ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ remained far and away his greatest achievement. The song has been included in the Library of Congress archives. In an interview with NPR, Dees said the song’s universal appeal is simple: “Personally, I think that every male that has ever walked this earth, at a certain point in his life is trying to catch the eye of a pretty woman.”
Watch Bill Dees Perform ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’
Watch Roy Orbison Perform ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’
Watch Van Halen Perform ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’