Spectropop remembers

GENE 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 Opry, Nashville.

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.

(From The Times)

Gene Francis Alan Pitney, singer-songwriter: born February 17th, 1940 - died April 5th, 2006