PITNEY (1940 - 2006)
The crooning melodrama for which Gene Pitney is best remembered
suggested a singer who took his art, and his pain, all too seriously.
In fact it was Pitney's stylistic range, versatility and likeable
nature that enabled him to adapt, and so survive the 1960s. When
harder-edged rock took over completely he found a home in country
and western, and then took American music back to the invaders in
Britain. He thrived here, and on the Continent, where he sang and
recorded in Spanish, German and Italian.
He was born Gene Francis Alan Pitney in Hartford, Connecticut,
in 1940, the son of a mill worker. He moved with his family to the
small town of Rockwell and first tried to sing at a school concert.
It ended in complete embarrassment when he found himself petrified
by stagefright. He spent the next few years building his confidence
with his first band, the Genials, teaching himself piano and guitar.
He studied electronic engineering at Hartford University, but gradually
music came to consume more and more of his time. He began performing
locally with the singer Ginny Arnell under the group name Jamie
and Jane, and the pair cut some records. He tried the name Billy
Bryan for one single, "Cradle Of My Arms", recorded for
Blaze Records. The label then suggested he might do better with
the handle Homer Muzzy.
Pitney found a "proper" label, Musicor, dropped out of
education and put his real name on the next single, "(I Wanna)
Love My Life Away", pressed from a studio demo he had recorded
for $30. Thanks to his background in electronics, Pitney, like Buddy
Holly, was an early master of the overdub and the track had enough
body to survive without embellishment on many of the Pitney anthologies
available today. To keep costs down he played every instrument himself
except the bass.
Although still struggling to make his own name known, Pitney was
enjoying real success as a writer, usually of paeans to romantic
agony, for other artists. The Kalin Twins recorded "Loneliness",
after which "Hello Mary Lou", submitted to Rick Nelson,
provided Pitney's first real hit. For a while his talents were employed
chiefly by some of the also-rans of the early rock'n'roll years,
including Steve Lawrence ("Tears From Heaven"), Tommy
Edwards ("Blue Heartaches") and Billy Bland ("Harmony").
Pitney did not trouble the Top 20 under his own name until the
release of "Town Without Pity", written to accompany a
harrowing film starring Kirk Douglas about a rape victim's second
brutalisation under the legal process. An important film that would
inform The Accused (1988), it was a flop before Pitney's song, written
by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, began to pick up airplay. It was
rereleased and was eventually a modest success, while the song won
a Golden Globe award for Best Song in a Motion Picture. Pitney became
the first pop artist to perform at the Academy Awards, which at
last established his name in the US. A second movie theme followed,
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance", which became a second
gold disc, although the song never appeared in the film.
Pitney's canon defies easy classification, but his great vocal
range, and his marrying of rock and remorse, drew comparisons to
Roy Orbison who in 1960 recorded Pitney's "Today's Teardrops".
"Rubber Ball", given its upbeat "bouncy-bouncy"
arrangement by Bobby Vee, still spoke of female manipulation and
Pitney's gluttony for emotional punishment. It reached No 6 in the
US chart and was Vee's second gold record. It was later a hit for
the British artist Marty Wilde. Pitney's songs suited a broad range
of artists and interpretations. In 1962 Phil Spector took the track
"He's A Rebel" and bent it in a completely different direction
for his girl group, the Crystals. It went to No 1, keeping Pitney's
own release and his biggest-selling single "Only Love Can Break
A Heart" in second place. "He's A Rebel", imbued
with Spector's timeless genius, surpassed a million airplays in
the US in 1998.
In 1963 Pitney scored his breakthrough hit, "24 Hours From
Tulsa", a song that provided a beachhead for a successful tour
of the UK and from there a careful cultivation of his continental
fanbase. In 1963-64 Pitney came to Britain for a string of tour
dates and television appearances. He won quick admiration in the
UK, although the British Invasion had by now begun to suffocate
his American peers. He befriended the Rolling Stones after appearing
on Thank Your Lucky Stars, a meeting of minds that helped to persuade
America that they were not so frightening after all. Pitney's next
single was the Jagger/Richards song "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday",
but it was not a hit. He reciprocated with the piano track on the
Stones' "Little By Little". Pitney's "Mecca"
(1963) anticipated the Stone's sitar-soaked "Paint It Black"
and later Beatles work with its Middle Eastern vibe, although for
Pitney the sound was just a novelty in a song about a girl whose
house had become his holy city. He had further Top 10 hits with
"It Hurts To Be In Love" and "I'm Gonna Be Strong",
and began to diversify, recording albums in Spanish and Italian.
The Musicor label was involved with country and western, a genre
not lacking in tears and tantrums, and soon Pitney began to put
out albums recorded with George Jones and Melba Montgomery, and
the singles "I've Got Five Dollars And It's Saturday Night"
and "Louisiana Man". He even performed at the Grand Ole
By 1966 loud guitars and British rock had displaced Pitney in America
but he found new success across the Atlantic. He managed six Top
10 songs in Britain, including two Randy Newman compositions, "Nobody
Needs Your Love" and "Just One Smile". Europe was
thereafter his main breadwinner; he particularly enjoyed appearing
at the song Festival in San Remo in Italy where he married his wife,
Lynne, in 1967. In Italy he had a hit with "Nessuno Mi Può
Giudicare". He returned to the British charts in 1989 with
Marc Almond to revive his 1967 release, "Something's Gotten
Hold Of My Heart". It was the only No 1 he achieved with his
own name, on either side of the Atlantic.
In a profession full of ego and excess, Pitney's story is one of
patience, sober planning, good decisions and a sustained appreciation
of his fans, particularly in Europe. He died suddenly in Cardiff
after a concert performance that won a standing ovation. He is survived
by his wife Lynne, and by their two sons.