The hidden Gene

The music world lost a singular talent when Gene Pitney died on Wednesday. Andy Gill explains why
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The Independent Culture

Although Gene Pitney, who died this week, is likely to be remembered mainly for "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart" and "24 Hours from Tulsa", he was a much more versatile talent than that suggests. When he re-recorded the former in 1989 as a duet with Marc Almond, it went to No 1, presenting Pitney as a cabaret crooner in the vein of Andy Williams and Engelbert Humperdinck, but in his 1960s heyday he was a more singular figure, who deftly straddled the divide between that kind of big-throated pop balladry and the emergent beat-group culture.

Few acts in any era manage to become both a mum's favourite and a teen idol, but Pitney pulled off that trick with his reputation intact, becoming widely admired as an interpreter of high-quality material by the likes of Bacharach and David, Goffin and King, Mann and Weill and Randy Newman.

There is a certain aptness in Pitney having passed away in Britain, as he was always regarded with far greater respect here than in his homeland, where he struggled to sustain a career beyond his early 1960s hits. Indeed, Pitney was one of the few US pop acts of that era whose star didn't wane in the UK in the wake of the Swinging Sixties revolution spearheaded by The Beatles, and he was able to hold his own as the sole American act on British package tours alongside the likes of The Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black, Joe Cocker and The Troggs.

David Bowie, when he was a Mannish Boy, toured the UK with Pitney in late 1964, and it's likely that the American's melodramatic vocal range and mannerisms were elements that the chameleon-like rocker filed away for later use in his Ziggy Stardust persona.

Andrew Loog Oldham, an arbiter of rock cool from the moment he realised the potential of The Rolling Stones, even saw fit to inveigle Pitney on to some early Rolling Stones hits. Pitney played piano on "Little by Little" and maracas on "Not Fade Away". In return, Mick and Keef wrote "That Girl Belongs to Yesterday" for him.

Not that Pitney needed anybody's help in writing hits. Barely out of his teens, he scored his first successes in 1961, writing "Hello Mary Lou" for Ricky Nelson and "Rubber Ball" for Bobby Vee. The following year, he wrote "He's a Rebel" for The Crystals, but by then Pitney was already a singing star in his own right. On his first Top 40 hit, "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away", Pitney played all the instruments himself, and overdubbed his own vocals seven times, an extraordinary feat for such a tyro talent.

The record's success alerted Bacharach and David, who subsequently supplied him with a string of songs, including "Only Love Can Break a Heart" and his signature tune, "24 Hours from Tulsa". Indeed, Pitney is widely regarded as second only to Dionne Warwick as an interpreter of Bacharach and David, his clear tenor and melodramatic delivery particularly effective in bringing story-songs such as "Tulsa" and "Mecca" to vivid life. This facility had earlier secured him a couple of film tie-ins, singing "(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance" and his breakthroughTop 20 hit, "A Town without Pity".

Certainly, only Roy Orbison among his Sixties rock'n'roll peers could rival Pitney's almost operatic singing technique, which required no studio trickery to effect, as he delighted in demonstrating on live dates. When the Mann/ Weill song "I'm Gonna Be Strong" became his biggest UK hit in 1964 - held off the No 1 position by first the Stones and then The Beatles - many were dubious about the authenticity of his wineglass-endangering high-register conclusion, but Pitney would comfortably reproduce it night after night on stage.

He also had a keen ear for songwriting talent, employing the team of Greenaway and Cook for several years, and providing Randy Newman with two of his earliest hits, "Nobody Needs Your Love" and "Just One Smile", in 1966.

As his star had grown in Britain, however, it began to fade in America in the latter half of the decade. The difference between his UK and US chart placings became wider and wider, and a couple of albums of duets with George Jones and Melba Montgomery failed to reposition Pitney in the country-music market. By the mid-Seventies he had cut back his touring schedule to concentrate on his business interests.

After the success of the 1989 duet with Almond, Pitney found himself in demand again, and in the Nineties a string of Gene Pitney hits anthologies were released, a belated acknowledgement of the enduring appeal of this most distinctive of torch singers.

Pitney may not have been able to transform himself into a soul or a country star, but one thing he did know was how to wring every last drop of emotion from a song. His hits were hardly, if ever, covered by other singers, and for good reason: once Gene Pitney had done a song, it was done and dusted, and only a fool would risk comparison.

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