Bill Dees: Songwriter for Roy Orbison


Bill Dees was a compulsive songwriter: in 1990 I was in a cab with him in Liverpool and when it was held up in traffic he started improvising a new song, "Hurry Up". "Are you a real songwriter,? asked the cab driver. "Sure," said Bill and launched into "Oh Pretty Woman", the No 1 hit he had written with Roy Orbison.

He was our house guest for three days and during that time he must have sung over 100 snatches of new songs, which he would assiduously repeat into a cassette recorder. If he was not singing, he was reading Biblical texts and telling us how we could be saved. He was a nice guy but he was exhausting and we needed a week to recover.

Bill Dees had been born in Electra, Texas in 1939. The family moved to Borger, Texas when he was four and his father ran a sand and gravel plant. His mother taught him ukulele and piano and he would harmonise with his brothers at parties. They appeared on radio in Amarillo and then he sang and played guitar in the Five Bops. In 1957, they had a regional hit with "Jitterbuggin'", recorded at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico. An early song was "Borne On The Wind" about a man who was drowned while trying to save his children: this was later reworked by Roy Orbison for a hit single.

When he met Orbison, Orbison commented on his hardened hands, which came through working for his father. He said that Dees didn't have to work that hard, that they could write together, and their first success was with the revised "Borne On The Wind" early in 1964.

This prompted Dees who was already married with four children to move to Nashville. He took any work he could and was writing all the time. Orbison recorded over 60 of their compositions and he also sang "Sleepy Hollow", one of Dees' songs that didn't require editing. Dees recalled, "Roy heard a song I had written called 'It's Over At Last' and he wanted to use [sings] 'It's over, it's over, it's over'. Taking that, we wrote a new song, 'It's Over' and he wrote most of that. He was brilliant when he got started because he knew exactly where he wanted to go. I was always going off at tangents."

During one of their writing sessions in 1964, Roy's wife Claudette was going into town and asked him for some money. Dees joked, "Pretty woman never needs any money" and by the time, she had returned home they had "Oh Pretty Woman". "There is one of my favourite phrases in 'Oh Pretty Woman'," says Dees. "Whenever I saw a pretty woman or had a good meal, I would say 'Mercy', and Roy included that on the record." Dees sang harmony on the single and on the B-side, "Yo Te Amo Maria", Orbison let him sing lead on the chorus as he thought it sounded better.

At the time Dees was working at a warehouse. Orbison told him to get an electric keyboard and join the band. A few days later, Dees was backing Orbison on "Oh Pretty Woman" on The Ed Sullivan Show, and soon the song was No 1 in over 20 countries.

Roy Orbison moved to MGM Records hoping it would lead to movie roles. He was a wooden actor in the western The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967) but the score, all the work of Orbison and Dees, included "There Won't Be Many Coming Home", which had contemporary relevance to Vietnam. "We wrote that for the movie," said Dees, "but the statement was about war in general. We knew that 'If they all come back but one, he was still some mother's son' was a heavy thought. In other words, we are all of the Family of Love and we don't have to kill each other if we don't want to."

After arguments, Dees and Orbison drifted apart; Dees wrote with Mark Mathis and Larry Henley of the Newbeats and with Wes Holm. He wrote no hits with them but his songs were recorded by Dinah Shore and Loretta Lynn. "Johnny Cash recorded 'Best Friend'," he said, "but he changed the melody so it sounded like 'Chim-Chim-Cheree'. I've no idea why."

In 1982 Van Halen revived "Oh Pretty Woman" successfully and Dees began writing with Roy Orbison again. Orbison died in 1988 and their song "Windsurfer" was on his final album, Mystery Girl (1989). The following year, "Oh Pretty Woman" had yet another lease of life when it was used in the film Pretty Woman starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Dees made UK appearances in 1990, proving to be a bear of a man with a warm, Burl Ives vibe. Every autograph to an attractive female was prefaced with the words, "Oh pretty woman" and I had to stop him bringing one back to our house.

In 1992 Dees moved to the Ozarks and devoted his time to songwriting and proselytsing. He released three CDs in his later years – Saturday Night At The Movies (2002), which included the superb and previously unissued Orbison/Dees ballad "So This Is Love", Castin' My Spell On You (2006) and Where Does The Time Go (2008). He remarried in 2003 and he wrote many songs with Jack Pribek before dying from a brain tumour.

Spencer Leigh

William Dees, songwriter: born Borger, Texas 24 January 1939; twice married (four children); died Mountain Home, Arkansas 24 October 2012.