24 August 2007

Gene Pitney (Part Three)

I Must Be Seeing Things
The Mexicanized Pop/Rock Sound of
Gene Pitney
by Donny Jacobs

Escucha y mira, mis amigos . . . el gringo Pitney tiene sabor.  Here are fifteen more Latin-flavored gems from the catalog of a 2002 Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee:

Another Page

(Steve Duboff-Artie Kornfeld)
Connie Francis tickled Billboard's Bubbling Under chart with a Country version of "Another Page" around the same time Gene got hold of the song. Neither Country nor Pop fans paid much attention to it. Gary Sherman's swinging tango ranchera arrangement probably would've given Gene a better shot at commercial airplay. Unfortunately, nobody at Musicor Records saw the potential. This gem was fated to languish in perpetual obscurity on his 1966 Just One Smile album.
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan

Yesterday's Hero
(Al Cleveland-Wally Gold-Aaron Schroeder-Carl Spencer) 
While it was neither one of Gene's better song choices nor one of his bigger hits, "Yesterday's Hero" boasts an exciting pasodoble arrangement, solid production values, and a lively vocal reading. In retrospect, it was maybe too blatant an attempt to duplicate the melodramatic appeal of its predecessor on the charts, "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday."
A Schroeder-Gold Production
Arranged by Bert Keyes

Si No Tuviera Diñero/
If I Didn't Have A Dime
(Bert Berns-Phil Medley)
The late composer and producer Bert Berns loved to write and sing tunes with a strong Latin tinge. His 1961 solo single "Nights Of Mexico" amounts to a bad Gene Pitney imitation, albeit a heartfelt one! However, there's nothing bad about his 1962 composition "If I Didn't Have A Dime." It's a lovely tango-tinged B-side that had the good fortune of following its chart-topping A-side ("Only Love Can Break A Heart") into the American Pop charts. Possibly, Berns intended this song for Ben E. King or The Drifters (he produced both acts), but Gene wears it as smartly as if it were a colorful charro costume tailored just for him.
A Schroeder-Gold Production
Arranged by Chuck Sagle

Silver Bracelets
(Jason Darrow-Gloria Shayne)
This is one of those Gypsy fortune teller ballads that proliferated in 20th century popular music. Judging by the theme, you wouldn't necessarily think of it as Latin, but once you detect the record's habanera foundation and thrill to its dramatic pasodoble flourishes, there can be no doubt about it. Haunting and beautiful, "Silver Bracelets" hails from Gene's Young, Warm And Wonderful album.
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan

I'm Gonna Find Myself A Girl
(Raymond Adams-Valerie Avon-Elaine Murtagh)
Remove the lyrics from this song, and you're left with an excellent bullfighter's theme. Penned by the members of a British vocal group known as The Avons, "I'm Gonna Find Myself A Girl" is essentially a retooling of Herb Alpert's 1962 pasodoble hit "The Lonely Bull". However, where Alpert's record was merely melancholy, this one is downright ominous! The rumbling rhythm section hovers down low in bass chord range, lending the melody a dark, brooding feel. During the instrumental bridge, that feel is offset by a soaring string and brass arrangement. Gene reacts vocally to the contrasting moods, making excellent use of his legendary vibrato. This is the single that should've followed up "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday". Instead, it barely got an official release; Musicor Records withdrew it from the market almost immediately. Copies have always been tough to find; fortunately, the label saw fit to include the track on Gene's 1965 album It Hurts To Be In Love.
Arranged by Charles Blackwell
Produced by Gene Pitney

If Mary's There
(Gary Geld-Pete Udell)
This achingly sad tango ranchera comes from the pens of Geld and Udell, whose other notable work includes Brian Hyland's "Sealed With A Kiss", The Carpenters' "Hurting Each Other" and the Broadway musical Purlie Victorious. You'll never find stronger evidence of Gene Pitney's affinity for Mexican-styled Pop music.
Arranged and Produced by
Gene Pitney, Gary Geld and Pete Udell

Me Voy Para El Campo/
Last Chance To Turn Around
(Tony Bruno-Bobby Elgin-Victor Millrose)
With its rippling echo effects, fever pitch vocals, and explosive Gary Chester drum track, "Last Chance To Turn Around" is hotter than a jalapeño pepper! It certainly heated up the international charts in the summer of 1965. Gene pushed the stylistic boundaries of the tango ranchera and got an instant classic for his trouble; his Spanish vocal track is maybe a tad more intense than his English one. Because of its clever lyrical nod to Hubert Selby, Jr's controversial cult novel Last Exit To Brooklyn, this fabulous single has drawn a minor cult following of its own.
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan

Blue Gene
(Chip Taylor)
The title track of Gene's fourth studio album is a clever send-up of his reputation as a desolation-drenched heartbreak balladeer. Brill Building stalwart Chip Taylor, the uncle of actress Angelina Jolie, also counts The Troggs' "Wild Thing", The Hollies' "I Can't Let Go" and Merrilee Rush's "Angel Of The Morning" among his song compositions. Bert Keyes' writhing snake of a rhythm arrangement makes this tantalizing Rock 'n' Roll tango irresistably danceable.
A Schroeder-Gold Production
Arranged by Bert Keyes

Playing Games Of Love
(John Carter-Geoff Stephens)
Released to a disinterested public in the summer of 1969, "Playing Games Of Love" made no commercial impact at all. ¡Qué lástima! If Gene's fans had bothered to buy the 45, they'd have discovered his most exciting pasodoble number yet: A truly Wagnerian production offset by a surprisingly playful vocal. This was the fourth Gene Pitney single to emerge from a series of British recording sessions.
Arranged by Bill Shepherd
Produced by Gerry Bron and Gene Pitney

Lonely Drifter
(Fred Anisfield)
The best-known of Fred Anisfield's faux ranchera compositions, "Lonely Drifter" pulled a moderate chart hit in mid-1967 for Pop/Rock duo Pieces Of Eight. Gene's version came out a year later on the flipside of "Billy, You're My Friend", an overblown orchestral ballad that failed to find much of an audience. The rustic Mexican setting of this energetic mariachi number has more than a little in common with Jay + The Americans' 1964 hit "Come A Little Bit Closer." Appropriately enough, the redoubtable Gary Sherman arranged both recordings.
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan

She's Still There
(Al Kooper-Irwin Levine)
Before Al Kooper founded the supergroup Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1967, he wrote exceptional Brill Building Pop songs like this one from Gene Pitney's I Must Be Seeing Things album. It's yet another exotic tango ranchera, but there's definitely something of a flamenco spirit to be found in the stomping rhythm refrain and the seesawing tension of Gene's vocal reading. "She's Still There" would've made a wicked good single; definitely a missed opportunity!
A Past, Present and Future Production
Arranged by Alan Lorber
Produced by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold

Serenade Of The Bells
(Al Goodhart-Kay Twomey-Al Urbano)
Enchanting is the word for this delicate tango ranchera from the Young, Warm And Wonderful album. First recorded by Jo Stafford, who scored a Top Ten hit with it in 1947, it provides Gene with an opportunity to display his considerable storytelling skills. The story concerns a pair of broken church bells that miraculously begin chiming in anticipation of pending nuptials. The subtle guitar accompaniment on this record (probably played by the great Bucky Pizzarelli) is maravilloso!
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan

Mission Bell
(Jesse Hodges-William Michaels)
Texas Pop singer Donnie Brooks cracked Billboard's Top Ten list with "Mission Bell" in the summer of 1960. Had Gene been a chart contender then, the song could've easily been a hit for him instead; it's similar enough to early Pitney compositions like "Love My Life Away" and "Louisiana Mama" to sound like something he wrote. The tune no doubt languished on his list of potential cover material for quite some time; finally, he got around to cutting it in 1967 for his Golden Greats collection. Jimmy Wisner's arrangement is typically exuberant, as are the soulful femme background voices. Despite its Mexican theme, this catchy number rocks to the Cuban cha-cha-chá.
Arranged by Jimmy "Wiz" Wisner
Produced by George Tobin

I Must Be Seeing Things
(Bobby Brass-Al Kooper-Irwin Levine)
"She's Still There" might've made a better choice for single release, but the title track of Gene's seventh studio album certainly didn't disappoint saleswise: It rose to #31 on the American charts, and vaulted into England's Top Ten listings. The climax of this tango ranchera masterpiece holds forth with one of the operatic high notes Gene was famous for, stretched out over a magnificent mariachi-style trumpet solo. ¡Viva!
A Past, Present and Future Production
Arranged by Alan Lorber
Produced by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold

There's No Livin' Without Your Lovin'
(Jerry Harris-Paul Kaufman)
Not only one of the most heart-rending love songs Gene Pitney ever recorded; not only the most breathtaking arrangement Gary Sherman ever wrote for a Gene Pitney record; not only the finest tango ranchera in a catalog that overflows with superb examples; but one of the finest tunes ever penned by a Brill Building songwriter team. Clearly, "There's No Livin' Without Your Lovin'" was wasted on the flipside of "Looking Through The Eyes Of Love"; Musicor Records should've held it back for release as a follow-up single. It was known to have been one of Gene's personal favorites, and was featured on at least three different Musicor albums: I Must Be Seeing Things, Gene's self-compiled Columbia Record Club retrospective This Is Gene Pitney, and the 1966 various artist compilation The Gene Pitney Show.
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan

Honorable mention goes to Gene's recordings of "Teardrop By Teardrop", "Not Responsible" and "House Without Windows" from his Just For You album; "Half The Laughter, Twice The Tears" and "Keep Tellin' Yourself" from Blue Gene; "Follow The Sun", "The Last Two People On Earth", the Joe Meek composition "Lips Are Redder On You" and the title track from It Hurts To Be In Love; "Born To Lose" and "I Can't Stop Loving You" from the duet album George Jones and Gene Pitney; "Down In The Subway" and "I Lost Tomorrow Yesterday" from I Must Be Seeing Things; "Rags To Riches" and the title track from Looking Through The Eyes Of Love; "I'm Afraid To Go Home" from This Is Gene Pitney; "'Til The End Of Time" from Young, Warm And Wonderful; "Lei Mi Aspetta/She Believes In Me" from Just One Smile; "Never Had No Toys" from The Gene Pitney Story; the Spectorized "Yours Until Tomorrow", "Run, Run, Roadrunner" and the title track from She's A Heartbreaker; and the bonafide Phil Spector productions "Every Breath I Take" and "Dream For Sale" from his debut LP The Many Sides Of Gene Pitney. Not all of these tracks were Mexicanized, but all had noticeable Latin influences.

While rehearsing the Pop Culture Cantina's Gene Pitney tribute with The Cochinada Brothers, it struck me how little Gene's repertoire has in common with contemporary Rock sounds. Rarely is his kind of music made anymore. Today's Rock 'n' Roll artists strive for Punk and Hip-Hop credibility. Most have neither the inclination nor the skill necessary to craft sophisticated Latin music tableaux like Gene did in the '60s. Rap music is a direct descendant of Habanera Rock, but there's nothing sophisticated about the thug culture themes Rap artists glorify; on the contrary, they're gutter crude! Even Rock en Español artists from Latin America coarsen their own rich musical culture in order to ape North American "alt-rockers". It's sad to watch a unique art form die. Spanish, Cuban and Mexican musical and lyrical themes nurtured Rock 'n' Roll in its formative years; without them, the canon would lack "La Bamba", "Bo Diddley", "Tequila", "The Twist", most of Duane Eddy's early hits, and many other foundational recordings.

Latin music is Rock's forgotten third root, as essential as Country music and Rhythm and Blues. Of late, this root has been pitifully undernourished. English language Pop must reclaim its Latin soul! South-of-the-border romance must return to Rock 'n' Roll. It was there once; it can surely be there again, and what would be more appropriate in this multicultural era when the border seems closer than ever before? ¡Sí se puede! My staff agrees with me: Gene Pitney's spicy brand of Mexicanized Pop/Rock would be just the thing to make music on the radio sound interesting again.

.Gene Pitney2

For more information about '60s Habanera Rock, 
check out my three-part essay:
South Of Spanish Harlem

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I want to thank you for posting this. Thanks to your posts on Gene Pitney, I've been able to identify and listen to some of the songs that my uncle, Fred Anisfield, wrote. Due to circumstances beyond my control, and his early death, I've been totally unfamiliar with his work. Thanks again,

Margie Rynn