If you wanted to assemble a time-lapse movie of rock ‘n’ roll’s development, you could begin by illustrating the way riffs have often defined rock’s great songs and performances. Elmore James kicked off “Dust My Broom” with an indelible guitar lick, and Chuck Berry opened his 1958 “Johnny B. Goode” with a riff that became a verb in rock’s grammar. This week, Nashville’s Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum presents its first-ever Iconic Riff Award to Roy Orbison, who created one of rock’s archetypal riffs for his 1964 single “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Only six years had elapsed since Berry released “Johnny B. Goode,” but riffs had come a long way — Orbison’s song presaged an era of profound change in rock while harking back to the past.
Cut on Aug. 1, 1964, at producer Fred Foster’s studio in Nashville, “Oh, Pretty Woman” originated during a Music City songwriting session. Orbison and tunesmith Bill Dees were throwing around ideas as Orbison’s then wife, Claudette, readied herself to go shopping.
“Roy said, ‘Do you need any money?’, and she said, ‘I’m fine,’ ” Foster tells the Scene. “She leaves, and Bill Dees looked at Roy and said, ‘Man, don’t you know pretty women don’t need money?’ ”
A fusion of riff and song form, “Oh, Pretty Woman” exemplifies rock modernism in the early Beatles era. It’s an electric-guitar record that integrates a riff that seems, in retrospect, much like a Beatles lick. Yet “Oh, Pretty Woman” was recorded before The Beatles’ 1964 “I Feel Fine” and “What You’re Doing,” which feature guitar riffs that comment on the main action.
In “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Orbison’s riff is the main action, and Foster says part of its power derives from the ingenuity of the record’s musicians. Present that day were guitarists Wayne Moss, Jerry Kennedy and Billy Sanford, along with Orbison himself, who played his Epiphone Bard acoustic 12-string into a microphone set off to one side.
As Foster says, “I wasn’t looking for a 12-string sound — I was looking for an electric sound. When they were running it down for real, Jerry Kennedy said, ‘Man, this is so powerful. What would it be like if you opened up with one guitar, and when it repeats, add a guitar? When it repeats again, add another guitar?’ ”
The result was a record that expresses Orbison and Dees’ concept of an endlessly receding female image. If the riff is both cool and hot, the structure of the song is simultaneously loose and tight.
“It was unusual for all of us,” Kennedy says. “You’re talking about something that was an integral part of a song, and it was Roy Orbison. All of a sudden, he wants this thing to happen and occur throughout the record. Usually, it’s verse-chorus-instrumental, verse-chorus. I loved it when we were fooling with it.”
Playing a Fender Jazzmaster on the session, Moss suggested a slight edit of Orbison’s riff. “He said, ‘Roy, I think if you change the last note on this run, it’ll be much better,’ ” Foster remembers. “Roy agreed, and they started running it down.” To add weight to the guitars, Foster deliberately buried Boots Randolph and Charlie McCoy’s saxophones deep in the mix.
Moss thinks the song’s riff derives from an impeccable rock ‘n’ roll lineage. “The lick originated with Little Richard’s lick in ‘Lucille,’ and evolved,” he says. “It has an F-sharp note in it that wasn’t in Little Richard’s song.” Like “Oh, Pretty Woman” itself, the riff is futuristic but oddly familiar, and seems to predict the guitar lick in The Beatles’ 1965 “Day Tripper.”
Orbison’s riff reminds us that the singer, who died in 1988, was also an accomplished guitarist. “He was a very modern guitar player who started off his career playing rhythm and lead,” says Orbison’s youngest son, Alex, who will accept the Iconic Riff Award with his two brothers. “He was similar to someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan, a hot Texas guitar player.”
For Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum head Joe Chambers, presenting the Iconic Riff Award to Orbison pays tribute to Orbison and Foster’s ability to make “Oh, Pretty Woman” an instantly gratifying record. “It gets your blood going from the very beginning,” he says. “It’s one of those things, you hear it once and you remember it.”