10 April 2006

Gene Pitney (Part One)

Singer . . . Songwriter . . . Performer
God Bless Gene Pitney
Remembering A Rock 'n' Roll Phenomenon
by Donny Jacobs
Dim the lights of Manhattan's Brill Building . . . that hallowed hall of music just lost one of its most distinguished alumni. Gene Pitney, the international Pop star whose career heyday spanned the early to mid-1960s, passed away last week. His incredible string of hits includes "It Hurts To Be In Love," "Town Without Pity," "Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa," "Only Love Can Break A Heart," "Just One Smile," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday," "Looking Through The Eyes Of Love," "She's A Heartbreaker" and "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart" (which became a best-seller for him twice, the second time topping the UK charts). Gene died suddenly while on tour in England, going out like a trooper after giving his loyal British fans one final, fantastic stage show. Born in Rockford, Connecticut in February of 1941, he'd recently celebrated his 65th birthday.

He wasn't a Frankie, a Tommy, a Bobby, Jimmy or Fabian; he didn't sport one of those generic '60s teen magazine names. His handle sounded like something out of a 1930s gangster flick. Gene was good-looking, but hardly the handsomest of Rock's early teen idols. He wrote Pop songs alongside such esteemed colleagues as Neil Sedaka, Carole King, Barry Mann and Jeff Barry, but he wasn't in the same league as a songwriter. Some found his taut tenor singing voice with its razor sharp vibrato rather affected, even effeminate (though few dared say so to his face). That electric, one-of-a-kind voice, however, was his greatest gift. Sturdy as a California redwood, it could scale the same lofty heights; for proof of that, look no further than the spine-tingling falsetto finales he produced on his classic '60s recordings "Every Breath I Take," "Yesterday's Hero" and "I'm Gonna Be Strong".

Gene Pitney turned every song into a major event. Even if you didn't particularly care for the tune he was singing, his exceptional performance compelled you to stop and pay attention. He must have had tons of homosexual fans; if he didn't, he should have! He's one of the few male stars who deserved to be a Gay cult icon. He brought the kind of naked vulnerability and raw drama to heartbreak and broken relationship lyrics that you'd only expect from a Pop or Country diva like Judy Garland or Tammy Wynette. There was nothing unmasculine about his heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism, though. Quite the contrary . . . there was something downright masterful about the way he bared his emotions in song. Gene really was a gangster of sorts, a Gangster of Angst. He was the James Cagney of Brill Building Pop. Even when singing the most tender love ballad, he had a way of bearing down hard on it. His vintage '60s recordings are some of the fiercest things around.

He may not have been one of the all-time great composers, but he was unquestionably a commercial songwriter, a fact underscored by memorable million-sellers he penned for The Crystals ("He's A Rebel"), Rick Nelson ("Hello, Mary Lou") and Bobby Vee ("Rubber Ball"). Gene could easily have composed most or all of his own releases just like Del Shannon, another of Rock 'n' Roll's pioneer singer/songwriters. Instead, he wrote just a handful, which tended to appear on the flipsides of singles. Recording his own tunes exclusively would seem to have made better business sense, but not doing so was the smarter move. The effervescent Pop/Rock ditties he specialized at writing simply weren't challenging enough for an vocalist of his ability. Gene knew in his gut that he was good enough to sing the finest songs the music industry had to offer, so he actively sought them out. His tastes proved to be very discriminating, and his choice of material would later be seen to have helped bring such legendary songwriters as Burt Bacharach, Ellie Greenwich, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Al Kooper and Randy Newman to prominence.

Just as important as the pedigree of the songs he chose was what happened once he applied his impeccable vocal artistry to them. Gene Pitney scored hits, and not just flash-in-the-pan Top Forty novelties, either. His hits had staying power. He understood that each song required its own unique interpretation, performed in a style that was uniquely his own. Gene's interpretive skills were on a par with those of Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney or Dusty Springfield; he always sounded credible. It didn't matter if he was belting out a honky tonk number like "I'm Gonna Listen To Me," a Merseybeat item like "I'm Gonna Find Myself A Girl," a fiery San Remo Song Festival winner like "Nessuno Mi Puo'Giudicare," a Bubblegum trifle like "Playing Games Of Love," a driving Soul rocker like "Baby, You're My Kinda Woman," a gospel-powered R & B ballad like "Cradle Of My Arms," a Habanera Rock tidbit like "Princess In Rags" or a classic showtune like "Tonight" from West Side Story. His vocal never failed to do justice to the genre. The man simply thrived on eclecticism. He'll be remembered as a Rock 'n' Roll singer, there's no question about that; but anyone who even scratches the surface of his recorded legacy will discover that he defies easy classification.

If Connie Francis had a male equivalent in the '60s, it was definitely Gene Pitney. Like the redoubtable Ms. Franconero, he excelled at singing many different styles of music; his foreign-language recordings (particularly in Italian) were exceptionally fine; he moved aggressively to carve a niche for himself in Great Britain and other overseas markets; he took control of his record production at a time when few artists did so; and he had a record label (Musicor) that gave him carte blanche to spread his artistry over dozens of theme albums: Blue Gene, Gene Pitney Meets The Fair Young Ladies Of Folkland, Looking Through The Eyes Of Love and Young, Warm And Wonderful (both collections of Pop standards), Gene Pitney Sings The Golden Hits Of The Platters, Gene Pitney Sings Golden Greats, Gene Pitney Sings Burt Bacharach, The Country Side Of Gene Pitney, Gene Pitney Italiano and Gene Pitney Español. Those finely-crafted LPs and others he completed form a proud body of work. Judging by statements he made to interviewers, Gene was indeed proud of his catalog. He was fully aware of the quality of his material and musicianship, and he wanted to be remembered as more than a footnote in popular music history. He will be, if his millions of international fans have anything to say about it.

The same goes for his Brill Building colleagues. "Gene Pitney was always an inspiration to me," states Pop songwriter Neil Brian Goldberg. "Everything he did was superb! His voice was unique and beautiful, as well as the way he used it. My favorite of his fine recordings was (the first orchestra ballad he cut for Musicor Records) 'Take Me Tonight'." Goldberg believes he was a role model in more ways than one. "Gene was also a devoted family man (who) spoke about his children with love and concern, and he exhibited no low behavior." He offers the most respectful tribute one songwriter can give to another when he says: "I'm glad he was still performing and being remembered and appreciated . . . farewell, Gene. Your music moved me forward." Would that his recordings had moved the entire music industry forward, but that didn't happen. Neither Gene's craftsmanship nor that of his contemporaries became the industry norm, and as the 1960s faded into history, that fact became increasingly clear. Artists who maintained a comparable standard of excellence were few and far between, and that's still the case. Yet, once excellent music has been made, it can always be made again. Exceptional Gene Pitney waxings like "(In The) Cold Light Of Day," "The Boss's Daughter," "Backstage" and "Nobody Needs Your Love" provide the best possible templates. It's up to current and future generations of musicians to use them. Will they? Let's hope so.

What a shock to lose Gene so unexpectedly, and how sad to think we'll never again hear his crisp New England accent or enjoy his good-natured Yankee sense of humor. However, we mustn't grieve too hard for him. Sixty-five years is an average life span for a man, after all, and he filled those years in the best possible way. He lived well. He saw his sons grow up to become fine young men. He found opportunities to showcase his musical talents and took full advantage of them. He kept his career going strong long after American radio had lost interest in his records, and that gave Gene great satisfaction. He reaped numerous awards and rewards in his lifetime, and more will surely come posthumously. He earned the admiration and respect of peers who were (often unjustifiably) more famous than he was. His most amazing feat of all was somehow overcoming the wall of indifference that bars most performers of his era from membership in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame; the year before he was inducted (2001), he assured a skeptical National Public Radio host that he would be. "I'm gettin' in!" he promised. And he did! Sometimes the good guy does come out on top after all.

Drinks are on the house tonight, folks. Belly up to the bar, and l
et's all raise a toast to the memory of Gene Pitney. He was truly a contender. He was a champ! Time after time, he reached for goals and achieved them. We'll never know if immortality was one of his goals, but if so, he achieved that one, too. Gene was immortal long before his life came to a peaceful end in a Cardiff hotel room on April 5. His music will never be forgotten. The staff of the Pop Culture Cantina extends heartfelt condolences to all his loved ones.

Special thanks to Neil Brian Goldberg


Anonymous said...

Gene Pitney was a unique talent who I appreciate more as time goes on. His voice truly was a special gift and his recordings will remain timeless. Gene Pitney was a talented artist who will truly be missed.

skinnyjimmy said...

Hi. great article about this great man. i do have a question about one spesific song " the bosses daughter". my favourite. in the song there's a little instrumental jump, a short tone made by either guitar or something else. you can hear it repeated between the verses. anybody know that type of instrument that might be?

Donny Hampton Jacobs said...

It might be a violin or a steel guitar.

Rocco said...

I go back to listen the great Gene PITNEY over and over again, I never get tired, the songs I listen to more often are "Something´s gotten hold Of My heart" (Either his solo version or his duet with almond, both are great), "Yours Until Tomorrow", "Backstage", "24 Sycamore", "Looking Through The Eyes Of Love", "Only Love can BreaK a hearT".-