Gene Pitney

Singer of '24 Hours from Tulsa', 'I'm Gonna Be Strong' and 'Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart'
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The Independent Online

Gene Francis Alan Pitney, singer: born Hartford, Connecticut 17 February 1941: married (three sons); died Cardiff 5 April 2006.

"The secret of my success was very simple," said Gene Pitney. "When I found a great song, I grabbed it." Pitney's career bears this out as throughout the 1960s he recorded superlative songs by the top writers of the day, usually from the Brill Building in New York. The best songs were given superlative arrangements, sometimes by Burt Bacharach, but nothing should detract from his interpretations and a vocal range which was comparable to Roy Orbison's.

Pitney was born in 1941 in Hartford, Connecticut, and raised in a New England village called Rockville. He always loved the area and he subsequently bought the beach and yacht club where he had worked as a short order cook.

He sang in the church choir but was a shy boy, not given to performing in public. He nurtured a love for the new rock'n'roll music and his favourite records were "Earth Angel" by the Penguins and "Gee" by the Crows. He wrote his own songs and realised he had the talent to make his own demonstration records. He became known locally as the Rockville Rocket, cutting the doowop record "Runaway Lover" with the Embers and recorded "Classical Rock'n'Roll" as half of Jamie and Gene.

Pitney impressed the New York publisher Aaron Schroeder, and, as a result, the Kalin Twins recorded "Loneliness", Roy Orbison's "Today's Teardrops" and Clyde McPhatter's "Tomorrow is a-Comin' ". In December 1960 he had his first big songwriting success with "Rubber Ball", a novelty hit for Bobby Vee, but, because Schroeder wanted to break the regulations and place his songs with the rival organisations of Ascap and BMI, he told Pitney to pick a pseudonym. He chose his mother's maiden name, Ann Orlowski: "She got a big kick from having her name on that record," Pitney told me,

but I told her that, in case anyone ever came from Ascap, she would have to play "Rubber Ball" to prove she had written it. She had a tremendous ear and could play anything on the piano. It was the funniest thing to see this little grey-haired lady playing and singing "Rubber Ball" with all the "bouncy, bouncy" parts. She was ready for that knock on the door.

"Rubber Ball" was followed by the more substantial "Hello Mary Lou", a major hit for Ricky Nelson. A few weeks later, Pitney enjoyed his first hit single with the multi-tracked "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away", which he had ingeniously made for $30. Later in the year, Pitney had his first US Top Ten entry with the theme from a Kirk Douglas film, Town Without Pity. The Oscar-nominated song, written by Dimitri Tiomkin, worked as both love song and social commentary.

Pitney had further success with "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", although the song was not included on the film. "John Ford directed that film," said Pitney,

and he was dead set against having a pop song on the soundtrack. The producers commissioned Burt Bacharach and Hal David to write it and record it with me and while they were doing that, John Ford edited the film without the song. People are always saying to me, "Why was that song cut out of the movie when I saw it on TV?" and I say, "It was never there."

The hit single was followed by his most successful record in America, the Bacharach and David ballad "Only Love Can Break a Heart", which reached No 2.

Although it was less successful, Pitney recorded the extraordinary "Every Breath I Take", which was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, engineered by Phil Ramone and produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with assistance from Phil Spector:

There were highly opinionated people at that session and, every time I did a take, someone would say, "But what would happen if Gene did it this way?" The reason I went for the falsetto at the end was because I didn't have the strength to go for the note any other way.

The beginnings of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound can be heard on that record. Pitney wrote one of Spector's first hits, the Crystals' "He's a Rebel", ironically the record that kept "Only Love Can Break a Heart" off the top of the US chart.

Inspired by country music, Hal David often wrote narrative songs, sometimes about characters plagued with their consciences, the best example being "24 Hours from Tulsa" in which his guilt-ridden lyrics are complemented by Burt Bacharach's urgent rhythms. Although its sophistication was out of sync with the rest of the chart, it became Pitney's first major UK hit in December 1963:

It was totally against the grain of what was going on. It came out when the British Invasion broke but, once again, it comes from having special material that was written so well.

When Pitney toured the UK, he befriended Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They played him a record they had made of their song "That Girl Belongs to Yesterday", with George Bean. Pitney told them where they were going wrong, changed the melody and recorded it himself. He played piano on the Rolling Stones' "Little by Little". He toured with Marianne Faithfull and, although he was too much of a gentleman to reveal any details of their friendship, he did write and record a love song, "Marianne".

Pitney had a succession of hits in both Britain and America including "It Hurts to Be in Love" (written by Al Kooper), "I Must Be Seeing Things", "Looking Thru the Eyes of Love" and "Backstage". He discovered the talents of Randy Newman with "Just One Smile" and "Nobody Needs Your Love", and he courted controversy with a song about unmarried mothers, "Somewhere in the Country", and a song about a nuclear disaster, "The Last Two People on Earth".

His greatest performance came in 1964 with "I'm Gonna Be Strong", written by the husband-and-wife team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. It had been Pitney's intention to produce a soaring finale like Roy Orbison's "Runnin' Scared":

I have a three-octave range and I knew I had the ability to hit notes like that but I'd never had the opportunity with the songs that were presented to me. I heard the demo in a publisher's office and it was a very straightforward song with the ending just on one note, not going anywhere. I put on one voice and then another one and then another.

A stickler for detail, Pitney took great care when he re-recorded his hits or sang new songs in German, Italian. French and Spanish. He told me,

I remember working so hard to do a whole show in Italian and, even if it wasn't grammatically correct, I felt I could get by. I worked everything out and then found that they didn't want it. They had heard the records in English.

With remarkable productivity, Pitney would record two, three or even four albums a year, catering for a wide range of markets. The titles include Gene Pitney Meets the Fair Young Ladies of Folkland (1963), Gene Pitney Sings World-Wide Winners (1963) and Young and Warm and Wonderful (1966). He found a new audience in the country market by recording with George Jones and Melba Montgomery.

Whilst on tour in the UK in 1967, Pitney was visited by the record producer Ron Richards, who played Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook's song "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart":

Ron came round to my hotel room and said I am not leaving until you say you'll record this. He didn't need to say that as I loved it as soon as I heard it. I recorded in New York when I was

worn out after a long tour and I asked one of the backing singers if he could do the "baby" at the end of the song. That's an anonymous "baby" and, whoever it was, I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

Gene Pitney's career went to seed during the Flower Power era and, although he made some good records, he found it difficult to retain his chart success. His most interesting experiment is his disco record "She's a Heartbreaker", which was made with Charlie Foxx and Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams and sounds like a prototype for Leo Sayer.

Although Pitney had a very happy family life, he resigned himself to a life of touring. He was an exceptionally good performer, always looking immaculate, and he incorporated a 10-minute section into every show where he would read out letters from fans. He loved touring and he was an Anglophile. His only regret was the budget reissues, sold in service stations for £2.99:

Some of them are dreadful as they are mastered from the vinyl. I am always apologising to fans as I sign them.

In 1989 Pitney teamed up with Marc Almond for "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart", which was recorded while he was in the UK:

I recorded it in London one way and was on tour doing it the other way. I didn't meet Marc when we recorded it but we did the video at the Neon Junkyard in Las Vegas together.

It was Pitney's first UK No 1 and both parties were sorry that they never made an album together.

In the 1990s Pitney cut down on touring and recorded new songs in his own Pittfield studio. "I am writing again but I would like some great new songs," he said:

I wish Robbie Williams had called me when he had written "Angels". I loved the songs that Elvis Costello wrote with Burt Bacharach but again I wished they had called me. They are very creative recordings, but I feel I understand Burt's nuances better than Elvis does.

He was back in the UK, halfway through a tour, when he died after giving a concert in Cardiff.

Spencer Leigh