Bill Dees’ Bio
According to my faith, as big as you can dream
Bill Dees was born in Electra, Texas on January 24, 1939 to Dorine and Beecher Dees.
Beecher was a sand and gravel man. He provided for Dorine and the three boys, Val, Bill and Mike, by working a land lease seven days a week. The family moved to the panhandle area around Borger in 1943. Beecher found a good deposit in Fritch and eventually supplied all of the sand and gravel for the Sanford Dam on the Canadian River that forms Lake Meredith and is the main water supply for North Texas.
Borger was the quintessential boomtown. Bill remembers it as being “hot and smelling of oil refineries”. It was in this “work hard, play hard, when you get the chance” atmosphere that the music bug first bit Bill. Beecher and Dorine would sometimes host house parties attended by the local townspeople and area roughnecks. There was always a barrelhouse piano player at these affairs and Bill, supposed to be in bed, would hide in the shadows studying the piano man’s every move.
Dorine was the one who really got the music rolling though. She started teaching Bill the ukulele and piano at five years old and all three brothers the art of singing harmony.
The boys excelled and landed a regular spot on an RC Cola sponsored radio show out of Amarillo. When Bill was in the third grade, he won a gold watch at the county fair for singing his rendition of “I’m A Lonely Little Petunia In An Onion Patch”.
At Phillips High School, a music teacher, Mrs. Hubbard, recognized Bill’s talent and got him together with four other students, Bill Baker, Eugene Richmond, Melvin Webb and H.F. Ritchie, forming the Five Bops.
The Five Bops enjoyed local success, playing high school dances and clubs. Word spread and in 1957, renowned producer, Norman Petty, invited them out to Clovis to record. They cut two songs at the session, H.F. Ritchie’s “Jitterbuggin’” and Bill’s “Unforgotten Love”. Dees described Petty, who played organ on the latter as being, “serene and laid back”.
“Jitterbuggin’” became a regional hit and, on the strength of airplay in Amarillo, the boys were offered the chance to open for Roy Orbison at a couple of shows in Wichita Falls and Amarillo. Orbison, who had yet to reach anything like household name status, was a known entity in that part of Texas and Bill was certainly a fan.
The next year, the two crossed paths again. The Bops were now going by the name The Whirlwinds and went to an Odessa, Texas radio station to cut another record. Upon pulling into the parking lot, the boys spied an orchid colored Cadillac. It turned out that the regular recording engineer was sick and Roy Orbison was there to fill in for him. They cut two songs that night, H.F.’s “Angel Love” and Bill’s “The Mountain”.
The bands harmony and songwriting ability impressed Orbison. After the session, he invited the boys to a late night, truck stop breakfast. At one point, both Orbison and Dees were reaching, at the same time, for sugar to put in their coffee. Roy noticed Bill’s work hardened hands (from spending many hours swinging a sledgehammer for Beecher at the sand and gravel plant). Roy, always impressed by a strong work ethic said, “Do you really work that hard?” To which Bill replied with innocent honesty, “doesn’t everybody?”
Looking back at that night Bill said; “I don’t really know how to explain it but, in that one moment, that one little thing, I knew we had made an instant connection.”
The record from the session was never released and soon, the band fell apart. Bill continued to write and play what gigs he could find. Harmonica man Dan Woods recalls that he and Bill would set up “most anywhere” for an impromptu performance. Dan also remembers that some of the things that Bill would play were early versions of songs that later resurfaced, completed or re-worked including, “Borne On The Wind”, a song inspired by a true story of a man who drowned while trying to save his two children.
In 1962, Roy Orbison played a show in Borger. Bill, who was now married and faced with supporting a family, was in between jobs. He found out that there was a party after the show and, the rumor was that Roy would attend. Bill crashed the party, re-introduced himself to Orbison who, as it turned out remembered Dees, and asked him if he was still writing. Bill sang what he had on “Borne On The Wind” and Roy must have liked what he heard because a couple of weeks later, Bill got the call to come to Nashville and write with Orbison.
The session was productive, if not immediately lucrative and yielded, most notably, a finished “Borne On The Wind”. At this time, Orbison was still co-writing a string of hits with Joe Melson.
The next year, Orbison produced Bill as a singer, with the Bob Moore Orchestra, on three tracks, “Blackie Daulton”, “Summer Love” and “This Is Your Song”, recorded at the RCA Victor studio in Nashville. The sides were never officially released. Bill went back to Texas and, after working a series of odd jobs, trying to make ends meet, in early 1964 made the decision to move to Nashville.
Now, some people might think that the idea of moving to a strange city, with no solid prospects, in the dead of winter, with a wife and four kids would be a huge risk. However, Bill has always operated on faith and, he was chasing a dream so, he packed up a 1955 Pontiac, given to him by the aforementioned Dan Woods, and headed for Music City with the family in tow. What he didn’t know, at the time was, that Orbison had just cut “Borne On The Wind” and, though it wasn’t released in the States, it was on its way to #4 in the U.K.
Dees knew that he was going to pursue working with Orbison in some fashion but he was bound and determined to find gainful employment, establish a foothold, before he looked Roy up. He got a job running a tow motor in a warehouse and, a second job as piano man in the house band at The Palms nightclub on Dickerson Road.
Roy was surprised to see him when Bill came knocking on his door but, the two quickly settled in to a productive writing partnership. Over the next few years Orbison/Dees was the credit on 67 songs that Roy cut (he also released a few that Bill wrote on his own; “Sleepy Hollow” is one of the better known).
“It’s Over” was released in April, 1964 and went top ten in the U.S. and to #1 in Britain. Bill recalls hearing the song on a transistor radio several times a day while driving the tow motor. The song firmly established Orbison and Dees as a songwriting team. The method was similar to what they did on “Borne On The Wind”. Bill came in with a song he had been working on, Roy dissected it, and together they re-invented it.
“It’s Over” continued the use of unusually sophisticated melody and chord structure that the pair had delved into with “Borne On The Wind”. Bill would often play a baritone ukulele and Roy would play guitar in the writing sessions. Bill says that using the uke enabled him to find different chord sequences than he would play on guitar.
Fred Foster, the founder of Roy’s label, Monument Records, and a brilliant recording engineer, pulled off a monster of a session on “It’s Over”. Using the full Bob Moore Orchestra (36 musicians), they did over thirty takes of the song. Bill recalls that he went to see Roy the following morning and found him sitting Indian style, in his pajamas, listening to a two-track reel-to-reel mix of the song, and grinning from ear to ear. He had been up all night listening again and again.
1964 was turning out to be a good year for Bill Dees but, he had no idea how good a year it was going to be. He had a solid hit record under his belt but money was still tight. He was able, however, to get an advance from publisher Acuff-Rose to buy some furniture for the small apartment in which the family was living. Meanwhile, he continued to work and write with Orbison.
The writing was evolving. Orbison had a true foil in Dees for; Dees has a remarkable voice of his own. If Bill had a melodic or phrasing idea, he could demonstrate for Roy, in Roy’s range. Bill, thanks to those early lessons from Dorine and, an uncanny natural ability, could also sing harmony on top of Roy’s lead part. Both were big fans of the Everly Brothers and they were experimenting with that style of two-part harmony but taking it to new places, in terms of both chord structure and range.
Then, one afternoon that summer, the magic happened. The story has been told many times. This is the way Rolling Stone had it in their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” issue.
Orbison said he told Dees to “get started writing by playing anything that comes to mind… My wife came in and wanted to go to town to get something.” Orbison asked if she needed money. Dees cracked, “Pretty woman never needs any money.” The rest was easy.
They wrote the bulk of the song “Oh, Pretty Woman” before Claudette returned from the store. When Fred Foster heard the song, he told the guys that they needed an ending. Dees says, “We wrote most of the song in a matter of minutes, it took us a day-and-a-half to get the, ‘What do I see, she’s walking back to me.’ part.” When, producer Wesley Rose, first heard it, he thought that they should cut the song without drums in order to preserve Orbison’s image as a balladeer. Luckily, that logic didn’t win out.
The record was the right combination. All of the components, the vocal, the drums, the riff, the bridge, the ending and Foster’s mix worked. One key part, that went un-credited, was Bill’s harmony singing. The record which by the way, was a recent addition to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, would not be the same without that part.
Things moved fast and furious. Bill says, “We wrote the song on a Friday, the next Friday we recorded it, and the next Friday it was out.” Roy, getting ready to hit the road, asked Dees, “Are you still working at that warehouse?” Bill was and Roy said, “If you can get your hands on an electric piano, over the weekend, you won’t have to go back to the warehouse on Monday”.
Incredibly, one of the first gigs Bill did with the Candymen was the Ed Sullivan Show. This show, at this time, was a huge deal. Orbison needed a hit record, the British invasion was coming and this one show, was almost a make or break situation. Orbison and the band delivered a flawless performance and the record blew up. At one point, it was #1 in 22 countries at the same time. Bill had gone from being unemployed in the hard country of the Texas Panhandle, to co-writing and singing on both sides of the biggest record in the world (On the flip side, “Yo Te Amo Maria” Orbison and Dees actually switch parts and Dees sings lead on the chorus), in a matter of months. In addition, he was a member of the road band of one of the biggest acts in the business.
Bill toured with Roy for more than a year, going to Europe twice and appearing on shows with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
There were two more Monument singles, “Goodnight” and “(Say) You’re My Girl”, neither came close to matching the chart success of “Oh, Pretty Woman”. In 1965, Roy signed with MGM. Many thought that leaving Monument and the guidance of Fred Foster was reason for Orbison’s sales decline. That may be a bit of a simplistic notion.
All of these Orbison/Dees songs, “Crawling Back”, “Breakin’ Up Is Breakin’ My Heart”, “Twinkle Toes”, “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home”, “Communication Breakdown”, “So Good”, “Born to Be Loved by You”, “Walk On”, and “Heartache” had chart success overseas. Due to reissue packages in recent years, the artistry of this music has come under re-examination and, in retrospect, seen in a favorable light.
Some now consider Roy’s 1967 feature film, “The Fastest Guitar Alive”, universally panned by critics, a camp classic. The soundtrack album was the first record to feature Bill Dees’ name on the cover and collectors seek it today as well.
After these few prolific years, Orbison and Dees moved on. There was no official break-up. They did stop writing together but remained fast friends.
Dees started writing with former member of The Newbeats (“Bread And Butter”), Mark Mathis. They recorded some sides as Becky And The Red Pony (with Mathis’ girlfriend) Nothing ever became of it in a commercial sense. Nashville didn’t have a handle on how to market what Dees and Mathis were creating. Years later, Bill included a trio of songs from this period on the album “Castin’ My Spell On You”. Listening to the pop drama of “The Hurting Game”, the psychedelic, Texas funk blast of “Hey Baby (Where You Goin’), and the surreal cabaret song, “Has Anybody Seen Me Lately” makes you wonder why it didn’t happen for these guys in a big way. Orbison did cut one Dees/Mathis song, “She Won’t Hang Her Love Out On The Line” as well as the only song Bill wrote with another ex-Newbeat Larry Henley “If Only For A While”.
This was during the era of the staff writer. A songwriter would sign an exclusive contract with a publishing company and be paid advances, sometimes a weekly draw, against future royalties. The idea was to have the writer on a continuous cycle of cranking out new material and recording demos. A, give us quantity and we will figure out what’s quality, approach. This was the climate at Acuff-Rose when Bill entered in to his next songwriting partnership with Wes Helm. Bill says; “We had a regular, three hour session scheduled for every Monday afternoon. We were expected to walk in there with three new songs every week and to produce finished demos of them.” Loretta Lynn and Dinah Shore both recorded versions of the Dees/Helm tune, “Me And Old Crazy Bill”. The fact that both versions were in stores at the same time may have kept either from big hit status. The two stars actually performed the song as a duet on the Dinah Shore Show.
After recording one single, “Paper Dolly”-“Fire On My Street” as The Crystal Junkyard, Dees and Helm formed a nightclub act and billed themselves The Brothers. The duo played an extended Nashville engagement, as well as extensive tours of the hotel lounge circuit. Those who witnessed it, recall quite a raucous show. Dees would alternate between his distinct, percussive guitar style and lush ballad or boogie woogie piano as Helm’s rock steady rhythm held the thing together. Sometimes singing close harmony and other times using their voices as instruments and singing in counterpoint; the two sounded like a complete band.
In 1971, Dees moved the family to Ozark, Arkansas. Once again, the move defied conventional wisdom. Out of sight, out of mind was how Music City operated and Dees was taking a risk by taking himself out of the loop. For Bill, the rural setting seemed to be a better environment in which to raise a family.
All along, Dees never gave up the idea of establishing a career as a recording artist in addition to his songwriting pursuits. During the Orbison years, there were a few opportunities that Bill ultimately passed on, not wanting to rock the boat. Some viewed the notion of a possible Bill Dees record as effort to be in direct competition with Orbison. Later on, there were a number of ill-fated deals.
As the 1970s rolled on, the royalties slowed and, Bill supplemented his income by doing live shows with Helm and later, as a solo performer.
In 1982, Van Halen covered “Oh, Pretty Woman” and, interest in the song and Orbison found new energy.
In 1986, David Lynch included Orbison’s “In Dreams” in the movie “Blue Velvet” and Roy was in the midst of a revitalized career. That same year, Roy and Bill reunited in Malibu and once again got down to the business of writing songs together. “Windsurfer”, which appeared on Roy’s “Mystery Girl” album, came from those sessions.
Much has been said about the tragedies that occurred during Roy Orbison’s life and the fact that he died, just as he was again firmly in the spotlight, adds to that legacy. Bill prefers not to talk much about all of that. Instead, he emphasizes that Orbison was “above all a friend, a warm, sincere, mild mannered friend.”
In 1989, 2 Live Crew recorded a parody version of “Oh, Pretty Woman”. Acuff-Rose sued on the basis that the parody was re-use of copyrighted material for the sake of profit. Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. eventually went to the Supreme Court with the high court deciding against the publisher. The case is considered a landmark decision in the area of copyright fair use. When CNN interviewed Dees about the decision, he said, “Nobody likes to lose but, if I’m going to lose, I’m proud to lose on the side of freedom”.
In 1990, was the year that saw the release of the huge blockbuster, Richard Gere, Julia Roberts movie, “Pretty Woman”, that, of course, featured the song “Oh, Pretty Woman”. The movie has become a part of the popular culture and only furthered the status of the song in that regard.
In 1992, Dees moved to the Missouri Ozarks. He feels he has found his home and often greets visitors to the area by enthusiastically saying, “Welcome to paradise.”
It’s hard to believe that it took until 2002 for the first Bill Dees album to be released. The album, “Saturday Night At The Movies” is a collection of songs from the Orbison/Dees repertoire. Three of the songs, “Windsurfer”, “So This Is Love” and the title track were from the final writing sessions between the two.
In 2006, Dees released “Castin’ My Spell On You”. Songs written with Mark Mathis, Wes Helm and even one gem written with Bill’s Mom, Dorine, the ballad “There’s A Song For Us”. In October of 2006, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had a weeklong event celebrating the life and music of Roy Orbison that included “An Evening With Bill Dees”. It was a festive atmosphere that brought Bill some long overdue recognition. A chance to meet many fans and the opportunity to renew ties with the Orbison family.
In 2008, Bill Dees continues to write and play select shows. His third album, “Where Does The Time Go” showcases that still magnificent voice and all new songs.
He continues to live in the Ozarks, his own “Sleepy Hollow”, with his wife of nine years Nancy and an ever-growing menagerie of animals.
The above text contains the facts, as I know them. Some of this stuff has not been documented before, to my knowledge. So, some of it is coming first hand from Bill and, he would be the first to tell you that details like exact dates may be a little fuzzy. If anybody out there has other information, please feel free to contact us through this website.
What follows comes from my own experience with Bill and the opinions are mine:
Bill Dees is a unique talent. Whether he’s writing, singing, playing or performing a live show, he does it differently than anybody else. And, this is in no way contrived; it’s a natural flow.
Songwriting is an elusive craft. It’s easy to get frustrate because, there truly is no method. A lot of songwriters, that are successful, either commercially or artistically, will come to a point where they give it a rest. They either stop writing or slow down. Not Bill Dees; he is writing a song right now. I don’t care if he’s eating lunch, driving down the road or in the middle of a conversation, he’s writing a song.
Every once in a while, I come across an interview with an established star who will go on about an Orbison/Dees song. They talk about Roy and the quality of the songwriting but, I’ve never heard one of them mention Bill. I don’t know why this is but, it’s just flat wrong. I’ve heard tapes of actual songwriting sessions between Bill and Roy. They bounced ideas, lyrics, chords and melodies, back and forth and they wrote that stuff together. And, from my own experience in writing with Bill, I’m here to tell you that he always brings ideas to the table. He’s in on every step of the process and has always worked like that.
As a singer, I hold him in high regard. The range, the tone the phrasing, it’s all exceptional. Lou Whitney and I have produced Bill’s three C.D.s. There are times, in the studio, when Bill gives us take after take and, each one is better than the one before. It’s uncanny, we say; “that’s it, you nailed it.” Bill will listen back and say, “I think I got a better one.” And, he does every time.
Now, Bill will perform at the drop of a hat. He will grab the guitar, sit down at a piano and put on an impromptu show any time he’s asked. He will sing you a new song he’s working on, over the phone. But, if you get a chance to see Bill Dees, in a concert setting, you must check it out. You will be entertained and moved. Thumping on the guitar, stomping his feet, boogie piano, telling stories and it’s never the same thing twice.
Good friend, and a music man-that’s Bill Dees.
Joe Bald Road