Along with fellow American balladeer Roy Orbison, Gene Pitney bucked the trend of groups relegating solo stars to the sidelines as the Sixties progressed. He registered 17 British and 16 US Top 40 hits during the decade, – and, given his enduring popularity in the UK, it was perhaps fitting that he passed away while in the middle of a sellout theatre tour there in 2006.
But Gene, who was born on 17 February 1941 in Hartford, Connecticut, enjoyed his first success in the United States. His songwriting skills brought hits for the Crystals (‘He’s A Rebel’), Bobby Vee (‘Rubber Ball’) and Ricky Nelson (‘Hello Mary Lou’), among others, before he made the US Top 20 in his own right for the first time in 1961 with ‘I Wanna Love My Life Away’ (also his UK Number 26 chart debut).
As well as vocal and songwriting skills, he had something else in his favour – a mastery of the studio, partly gained through the electronics course he took after dropping out of university. This helped him make maximum use of studio techniques and one in particular, double-tracking his voice to add falsetto harmonies, quickly became his trademark.
His first US Top 20 entry came in early 1962 with the title song from the Kirk Douglas film Town Without Pity, which also made Number 32 in the British chart. Next stop was a US Number 4 with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence’. It was scheduled for inclusion in the movie of that name starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart but Gene could not finish recording the song in time. The same duo wrote ‘Only Love Can Break A Heart’, which made US Number 2 later that year; we also include its poignant B-side, ‘If I Didn’t Have A Dime’, penned by the writers of ‘Twist And Shout’.
Roy Orbison chose Gene’s ‘Today’s Teardrops’ to back his ‘Blue Angel’ and was rewarded with a 1960 hit. We include Gene’s version here, featuring the tremulous tenor that made him a legend. There were many more hits, of course, but they became fewer and further between as the decade progressed and groups ruled the roost.
Pop icon Gene, who was raised in a New England village called Rockville, struck up an unlikely friendship with rock stars the Rolling Stones after meeting Mick Jagger and his up-and-coming outfit on the set of TV’s Thank Your Lucky Stars. ‘We were knocked out,’ said Mick, ‘because Gene was so professional.’ Pitney played piano on the first Stones album, while Jagger and Keith Richards wrote him a song, ‘That Girl Belongs To Yesterday’. It hit in early 1964 – the first Jagger/Richards composition to make the US chart, predating the Stones’ own ‘Tell Me’ by half a year. But that’s another story…
Pitney continued to tour the world, and the succession of artists that supported his annual British outings underlined the respect in which he was held: Status Quo and Joe Cocker are just two acts to have benefited from a spell under his wing. The Daily Telegraph was moved to call Gene ‘one of showbusiness’s great survivors’ after witnessing a triumphant concert late in his career at London’s Royal Albert Hall when he had the audience, as ever, eating from the palm of his hand.
He never quite made it to the Billboard chart summit, but it was a different story in Britain where a duet version of ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ with ex-Soft Cell singer Marc Almond took him back to the spotlight as the Eighties ended. The updated song, a Number 5 UK hit in 1967, became the first and only Pitney single to go all the way.
Gene Pitney was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. His citation read, in part: ‘His dramatic tenor, given to piercing climaxes, was among the more remarkable voices of the age. He could deliver a rocker with panache…but he was best at putting across songs with a smouldering emotional core.’ It spotlights ‘Pitney’s brilliant third single, “Every Breath I Take”, written by Gary Goffin and Carole King and produced by Phil Spector in one of the earliest and best examples of his heralded “Wall of Sound.”’ Gene was, the citation concluded, ‘One of the unsung heroes of the rock and roll era.’
This compilation of Pitney’s early work is just the first chapter of a fascinating musical journey from Hartford, Connecticut, via Rockville, to Cardiff, where Gene Pitney took his final bow in April 2006. He received a glowing review for the South Wales Echo, who praised his ‘non-stop enthusiastic performance’ during what proved to be his last concert. He was 65, and it was exactly 45 years since his first hit with ‘I Wanna Love My Life Away’. Remember him this way.