April 5, 2006 – Gene Pitney was born February 17, 1940 in Hartford, Connecticut and grew up in Rockville, now part of Vernon, Connecticut. He once recalled how his first solo performance at school degenerated into an embarrassing whimper as Pitney was petrified by the expectant audience. Overcoming his nerves over the next few years, Pitney learned to play the guitar, drums and piano and formed a schoolboy band, Gene & the Genials.
He was nicknamed “the Rockville Rocket”. Pitney was an avid doo wop singer and sang with a group called the Embers. He made records as part of a duo called Jamie and Jane with Ginny Arnell (who in late 1963 had a solo hit, “Dumb Head”), and in 1959 recorded a single as Billy Bryan. By the time he had dropped out of the University of Connecticut, he was performing with Ginny Arnell as the male half of Jamie and Jane, then as singer/songwriter under the name Billy Bryan for Blaze Records and under his own name for Festival Records in 1960.
Pitney broke into the music business as a songwriter in his late teens, getting his first taste of success when Rick Nelson had a hit with “Hello Mary Lou” and “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee in 1961. In 1962, he wrote “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals and became friends with producer Phil Spector. He also wrote for Roy Orbison and Tommy Edwards.
One of the most interesting and difficult-to-categorize singers in ’60s pop, Gene Pitney had a long run of hits, distinguished by his pained, one-of-a-kind melodramatic wail. He was any measure a hugely successful ’60s artist, scoring 16 top forty songs in the USA from 1961 to 1968, and forty such songs in the UK, all the way up to 1974.
Yearning for a hit of his own, in 1961 Pitney went into a small four-track studio on 7th Avenue in New York, and for a cost of thirty dollars, played and overdubbed every instrument and multi-tracked his vocals.
The result was his first hit “(I Wanna) Love My Life Away” (#39, 1961). This attracted the attention of songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David who co-wrote “Only Love Can Break a Heart”, “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” and “24 Hours from Tulsa” for him. Other than Dionne Warwick, he was the best interpreter of Bacharach and David’s early compositions. Another 1961 single, Goffin-King’s “Every Breath I Take,” was produced by Phil Spector, and is one of the very first examples of his pull-out-the-stops Wall Of Sound productions. Pitney didn’t really find his groove, however, until late-1961’s “Town Without Pity,” which became his first Top 20 entry. Pitney’s label, “Musicor Records” was primarily involved in country and western music and Pitney began recording material in that vein.
In 1964, Pitney’s publicist, Andrew Loog Oldham, introduced him to the Rolling Stones, whom he produced. He recorded the Jagger-Richards composition “The Girl Belongs to Yesterday”. Pitney also assisted in the recording of the Stones’ “12 X 5” album. With Phil Spector, Pitney sat in on a 1964 Rolling Stone recording session, during which they recorded “Not Fade Away”, had a brief fling with a teenage Marianne Faithfull, and recorded songs by Randy Newman and Al Kooper, long before those musicians became famous.
Pitney withstood the initial onslaught of the British Invasion fairly well, scoring Top 10 hits in 1964 with “It Hurts To Be In Love” and “I’m Gonna Be Strong.” The same year he began recording albums in foreign languages. In 1965 and 1966, Pitney recorded country albums with George Jones and Melba Montgomery, scoring country hits with “I’ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night” and “Louisiana Mama” with Jones and “Baby Ain’t That Fine” with Montgomery. By 1966 though, his popularity was fading stateside. Ironically, by this time he was a much bigger star in Britain, making the UK Top 10 six times in 1965-66. He could also depend on a faithful international audience throughout Europe, and frequently recorded in Italian and Spanish for overseas markets. In 1966, he became one of the first artists to reach success with Randy Newman compositions, taking “Nobody Needs Your Love” and “Just One Smile” into the British Top 10.
Pitney remained a prolific recording artist, putting out many albums a year in America in the mid-Sixties. Tremendously popular in Italy too, he recorded albums of country tunes in Italian. His last chart hit in America was in 1969 with a song called “Heartbreaker”, but he continued to hit the UK. charts until 1974, and to tour Britain and Europe, avoiding the U.S. oldies revival shows.
In 1970, after spending nearly a decade on the road (eleven months of every year), Gene decided to drastically cut back on his touring commitments. “I had a family at home, two boys starting to grow up, and I was getting a guilt complex about not being there with them. So I decided to make a six-month commitment to touring and spend the rest of the time at home with the family.” He decided to quit the long tours of the US and, without meaning to, increasingly found himself in countries other than America due to his love of exotic travel. “There is nothing more exciting to me than to get on that airplane and know I’m going to get off in a totally different country, in a different part of the world.” His annual tours of Britain, Europe, and Australia became a way of life. With every tour proving a sellout, the plan was an outstanding success.
In 1983, when an agent gently twisted his arm, Gene embarked on his first North American Tour in over a dozen years. It became a huge personal triumph. Gene Pitney was back with a vengeance, even though he’d never been away. Pitney was introduced to a new generation of fans in 1989 when he recorded “Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart” as a duet with Marc Almond. The single gave Pitney his first UK #1…22 years after its first release
During the 1990s, many exciting things have happened to Gene in both the studio and on stage. In 1993, Gene played the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City the day The World Trade Center was bombed. Gene Says, “New Yorkers, being New Yorkers, still gave us a sold-out show. No one stayed away!” The tour of the UK in the same year completely sold out, closing at the beautiful London Palladium. 1994 Gene saw tours in the UK and Australia.
In 1995, Gene worked the crowds at The Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, NJ, and did a two-part, 46-day tour in the UK in May/June and Oct/Nov. During 1996, he performed at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles and then moved onto a twenty-city concert tour of Australia, followed by a quick trip to Catania, Italy.
1997 was another busy year with shows in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, St. Louis, Kansas City, Boston and another twenty-city concert tour of Australia. 1998 saw Pitney continuing to tour as his composition, “He’s A Rebel” received a BMI Award for having surpassed one million airplays in the US. 1999 saw another sell-out tour of Australia and ended with a twenty-four-city concert tour of England.
As the year 2000 rolled around, Gene was living in Connecticut, not far from where he was raised, in a big rambling Dutch Colonial house set in an old apple orchard, with his wife, Lynne, whom he married in 1966. Gene divided his time between touring, mostly overseas and his business interests, which included the Crystal Lake Beach and Boat Club in Connecticut where he worked as a youth.
That same year, Gene filmed a Public Television Special called Gene Pitney on Stage, a 60-minute concert that features Pitney, accompanied by a full orchestra, singing the songs that made him famous. Taped on July 25 at the Fox Theatre at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut, Gene Pitney on Stage is a stirring concert special that proved Pitney’s voice and charisma remained as dynamic as ever.
In 2002 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The music world was shocked to learn of Gene’s death on April 5th, 2006, when his body was discovered just after 10 a.m. at the Hilton Hotel in Cardiff, Wales. The official cause of death was Heart Disease brought on by hardening of the arteries. The 65 year old entertainer had given a standing ovation concert in the Welsh capital the previous day. He is survived by his wife Lynne and three sons, David, Todd and Chris.
On September 20th, 2007, a plaque in memory of Gene Pitney was unveiled in his hometown of Rockville, Connecticut, at the town hall, with members of his family in attendence. In October 2008, an international fan convention was held in Rockville. In 2009, Gene Pitney was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
Read this great interview with Gene Pitney.