25 August 2007

Gene Pitney (Part Two)

It Hurts To Be In Love
Conquistador
The Mexicanized Pop/Rock Sound of
Gene Pitney
by Donny Jacobs
Habanera Rock! The sound of the early 1960s. Hits galore: The Ronettes' "Be My Baby." The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me." The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'." Dion's "Donna, The Prima Donna." Gene McDaniels' "Tower Of Strength." Gary US Bonds' "New Orleans" and "Quarter To Three". Diane Renay's "Navy Blue" and "Kiss Me Sailor". Dobie Gray's "The In-Crowd." Billy Joe Royal's "Down In The Boondocks." The Shangri-Las' "Leader Of The Pack." Marvin Gaye's "Hitch Hike" and "Stubborn Kinda Fella". Tony Orlando's "Bless You" and "Halfway To Paradise". Bobby Rydell's "Volare" and "Sway". Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas" and "Bossa Nova Baby". Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem", the genre's flagship tune . . . and just about everything Frankie Valli + The Four Seasons, Lesley Gore, The Drifters and Jay + The Americans recorded. 


Rock 'n' roll cha-chas, rhumbas, merengues, pasodobles and tangos were everywhere. To be sure, Spanish and Latin-American influences existed in American popular song long before Rock arrived on the scene; in fact, they predate the advent of recorded music! Concert pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk was composing and performing Latin-tinged pieces in the mid-1850s. However, something innovative happened when professional songwriters and studio musicians fell in love with Latin sounds during the mid-1950s: A dynamic new fusion style was born. A blend of classical sophistication, Rock 'n' Roll spirit, and barrio soul. Habanera Rock grew into a mighty tree that took root in New York City, Hollywood, Chicago, Nashville and important music centers all over the world; Latin Rock, Funk, Disco and Rap/Hip-Hop music number among its branches. Possibly Reggae, too.

Ben E. King is the King of Habanera Rock because he introduced "Spanish Harlem", and because he sang lead on "There Goes My Baby", "Save The Last Dance For Me" and other Drifters singles that were seminal to the genre. However, the late Gene Pitney is probably more deserving of the title. King was originally a doo-wop singer who had little interest in Latin music; he only started waxing Pop songs with Spanish and Latin-American arrangements at the behest of his producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. When the songs became successful, he was recast as a Soul artist whose repertoire had a Spanish flair. 


Gene Pitney cut Latin-flavored material regardless of who was producing him; he actively sought it out. He loved it. Gene produced a fair amount of it himself, and of the songs he wrote, several rock to habanera rhythms, including The Crystals hit "He's A Rebel" and Ricky Nelson's "Hello, Mary Lou." Like Spanish-language Pop singers, he performed in an intensely emotional style, which made Latin settings a natural for him. He was especially fond of Mexican themes: Pasodoble strings, Spanish guitars and mariachi horns looked as good on a Gene Pitney platter as a custom-fitted traje de charro, and he incorporated these elements into dozens of his recordings. That's not all: In 1965, he targeted the Latin Pop market by releasing Pitney Español, a greatest hits collection sung entirely in Spanish.

Without Gene Pitney's contributions, Habanera Rock would've still been the dominant sound of the early '60s; however, it wouldn't have been anywhere near as great. His records absolutely define the genre! For the moment, let's ignore his big signature hits like "I'm Gonna Be Strong", "Town Without Pity", "Only Love Can Break A Heart" and "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart." Instead, let's turn over singles and comb through album tracks on a treasure hunt for Spanish gold pieces. To be sure, there are plenty to be found in Gene's Musicor Records catalog; too many, in fact, to list them all here.


María 

(Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim)
Taken from his masterful album of stage and screen standards, Looking Through The Eyes Of Love, this reading of the love theme from West Side Story may not be definitive, but it's pretty damn close. You can't do much better than impassioned Gene Pitney vocals layered over surging Gary Sherman orchestrations; Sherman, formerly The Drifters' in-studio music director, was a key contributor to Gene's Latin Rock experiements. "María" isn't Rock 'n' Roll, of course, but it deserves inclusion on this list. Had the music of West Side Story not captured the public's imagination in 1957, Habanera Rock might not have become the phenomenon that it did.
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan


Marianne
(Gene Pitney)

There's a strong calypso tinge to this sprightly habanera flipside of Gene's hit single "I Must Be Seeing Things." However, its inspiration wasn't Caribbean, but British. Gene wrote the song in honor of mod Pop chanteuse Marianne Faithfull; during his first visit to England in 1964, he was introduced to Marianne by her boyfriend, Mick Jagger. Gene lingered long enough in London to befriend The Rolling Stones and play piano at the recording session for their first studio album.
Arranged and Produced by
Gene Pitney, Gary Geld and Pete Udell



María Elena
(Tony Hazzard)

The Spanish Civil War is the lyrical backdrop for this excellent uptempo ballad, which rose to #25 on the British charts. It's a military-style pasodoble with churning rhythm and a majestic brass arrangement.
Arranged by Keith Mansfield
Produced by Gerry Bron and Gene Pitney



South Of The Border
(Michael Carr-Jimmy Kennedy)

One listen to the old-fashioned two-step rhythm of this number, and you'll immediately think: "Western Swing." The only thing Latin about it would seem to be the title. Not so fast, though! Western Swing definitely counted Mexican music among its influences. What's more, it's not so different from the polka-based norteño sounds that you find in abundance along the southern border of the United States.
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan


Amor Mío

(Tony Bruno-Victor Millrose)
This rousing cha-cha-chá ranchera was made for playing at Mexican wedding parties! Had Spanish lyrics been written for it at the time of its release, it might've been recorded by any number of Latin artists and become a standard. "Amor Mio" first appeared on the flipside of "Princess In Rags", another great mariachi-styled number.
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan


Veinte-Cuatro Horas De Tulsa/
Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa
(Burt Bacharach-Hal David)
It's hard to find a bad recording of "Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa". The versions cut by Dusty Springfield and Jay + The Americans are particularly outstanding, but Gene's is the original and the best. His dramatic tenor vibrato swirls over and around Bacharach and David's brooding tale of infidelity like a crimson matador's cape. He made this superb tango rocker the centerpiece of his 1963 album Blue Gene; shortly thereafter, he tracked a Spanish-language vocal for release in Latin markets. Both the English and Spanish versions helped turn Gene Pitney into an international star.
A Schroeder-Gold Production
Arranged by Burt Bacharach



Conquistador
(Fred Anisfield)
Musically and lyrically, "Conquistador" is without a doubt the most dramatic pasodoble Gene ever recorded; it's also one of the productions Gene was most obsessive about. It took him twenty takes to nail the incandescent trumpet solo that opens the record. Songwriter Fred Anisfield uses New World conqueror imagery as his backdrop for a rather provocative song about sexual conquest. Introduced on Gene's splendid Backstage album in 1966, this sultry number later graced the flip of his 1968 American "comeback" single, "She's A Heartbreaker."
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan


That Girl Belongs To Yesterday
(Mick Jagger-Keith Richards)
This UK Top Ten hit was constructed from an abandoned backing track cut for a British artist named George Bean. It didn't originally have a pronounced Latin feel; the pasodoble orchestration was created in the studio by Gene and arranger Charles Blackwell. Although "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday" quickly became a collector's item due to its Rolling Stones involvement, it performed relatively poorly on the American charts. Fans who bought Gene's 1964 album It Hurts To Be In Love got it as an unexpected bonus.

Arranged by Charles Blackwell
Produced by Andrew Oldham and Gene Pitney


Princess In Rags

(Roger Atkins-Helen Miller)
The most memorable rich-boy-rescues-poor-girl-from-the-slums song would have to be Frankie Valli + The Four Seasons' "Rag Doll". Almost forgotten today is Gene Pitney's very respectable stab at this Rock 'n' Roll subgenre. A strongly melodic tango ranchera, "Princess In Rags" would fit right into the repertoire of a Mexican guitar trio. Despite its authentic Latin flavor, Gene was never happy with this record; his favorite sound engineer, Brooks Arthur, wasn't available to work on it, and the tracks never got mixed to his liking. Despite his protests, Musicor Records refused to hold back the release; they rushed out a single version, and were vindicated when it became a solid hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan



Please Come Back, Baby
(Gene Pitney)
This Ritchie Valens-styled rhumba-tango predates Gene's tenure as a Musicor artist. "Please Come Back, Baby" was first released on Herb Abramson's Festival label, and after Gene became a star, it popped up on numerous budget albums. He both composed and arranged the tune, and was very particular about the rhythm. He actually sneaked a second drummer into the recording session to beef up the track! The results speak for themselves; this sizzling dance number is an overlooked early Rock 'n' Roll gem.

Arranged by Gene Pitney
Produced by Herb Abramson


Save Your Love
(Gene Pitney)
Latin brides are sworn to be virgins . . . what happens when they aren't? Latin bridegrooms go loquitos! This volcano of a Gene Pitney composition captures the anguish of maridos-to-be who obsess over their fiancées' fidelity. A powerful habanera-pasodoble that throbs with passion, Gene performs it with an operatic intensity even Placido Domingo would find hard to top. "Save Your Love" would've been perfect for the soundtrack of a Spanish-themed Hollywood drama like Captain From Castile; instead, it featured on the flipside of "Last Chance To Turn Around" and Gene's wonderful I Must Be Seeing Things album.
A Schroeder-Gold Production
Arranged by Gary Sherman


Where Did The Magic Go?

(Fred Anisfield)
When it came to south-of-the-border Pop, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass had nothing on Gene Pitney! The musical sensibilities of Herb and Gene were so similar, it's a shame they never got together for a duet album. Although the song is over in almost no time, "Where Did The Magic Go?" ranks as one of Gene's finest faux Latin creations. Delighted gringos found it on the flipside of his failed 1967 Bubblegum single "Tremblin'".
Arranged and Produced by
Gene Pitney, Gary Geld and Pete Udell


Pretty Flamingo
(Mark Barkan)
Forget all about the hit version by Manfred Mann! Gene Pitney's tasty tango ranchera treatment of this '60s favorite is the only version you need to hear. You'd swear Mariachi México was backing him up in the studio . . . another musical triumph from the Backstage album.

Arranged by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan


If I Never Get To Love You

(Burt Bacharach-Hal David)
Truth be told, the best version of "If I Never Get To Love You" was cut by Soul singer Timi Yuro. Her fiery vocals over Burt Bacharach's brisk, artillery-band style arrangement was a tour-de-force on wax. Gene and Burt's take on this angst-ridden pasodoble was more understated, but it was just as inspired and almost as memorable. Until it was culled for inclusion on Gene's 1968 Pitney Sings Bacharach compilation, "If I Never Get To Love You" was hard to find in stereo; only certain stereophonic copies of his I Must Be Seeing Things album included it.
A Schroeder-Gold Production
Arranged by Burt Bacharach


Donna Means Heartbreak
(Hal David-Paul Hampton)
Hal David wrote many great tunes without Burt Bacharach's assistance; "Donna Means Heartbreak", hidden away on the flipside of "True Love Never Runs Smooth" (which Hal also co-wrote) is one of them, and it deserves to be better known. Exquisite acoustic guitar licks embellish this taut ballad; with its whiplash rhythm, it's best described as a tango flamenco. Although his vocal is restrained, Gene gives the song all the tension and nuance that a seasoned Spanish cantante would. ¡Olé!

A Schroeder-Gold Production
Arranged by Alan Lorber


Gene Pitney1

2 comments:

Dan Hollyfield said...

Bravo Don! That was one of the most satisfying articles I have ever read regarding the late, fantastic Gene Pitney. You are to be congratulated on your excellent writing and taste in music! Thank you very much - I will be checking this site on a regular basis if this is the quality of the writing I should expect.

Dan Hollyfield

DON CHARLES aka "STUFFED ANIMAL" said...

Hi Dan, and thanks for the kind comments. It's good to hear from another Pitney fan; please spread the word about this new online tribute to his work. Unless senility sets in early, I think you can expect more of the same!