Nobody plays Gene Pitney anymore.
Once a staple of oldies radio, as decades rage on, Gene Pitney’s catalogue of songs seem to be becoming heard less and less, while his albums are finding themselves discarded in .50 cent record bins as the new generation of record buyers have no idea, nor interest, in who this guy is. Now you can say this statement about a lot of artists, but in the case of Gene Pitney its almost criminal.
In those bleak years between Elvis going into the army in 1958, and the Beatles coming to America in 1964, Gene Pitney was one of the few shining stars that kept rock n’ roll from dying out as a fad in America. With the pop charts filled with limp wobbly voiced white boys with pompadour hair cuts, rock n’ roll was now a watered-down cesspool of phonies and novelty acts releasing banal records carefully crafted to cater to the teenage pocket books. It was a far cry from the rebel rousing cutting edge new form of music that it was even five years earlier. There were some interesting things going on in the world of soul and country in Detroit and Nashville, but when it came to rock n’ roll, it didn’t have the exciting power it once had. But there was still hope in guys like Roy Orbison, Rick Nelson, The Righteous Brothers, The Beach Boys, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carol King and Gerry Goffin, Phil Spector and, yes, Gene Pitney, who made their debut during those dark years, keeping music fresh and interesting.
Gene Pitney worked both behind the scenes as a song writer, and in the studio as a recording artist. His song writing credits included “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee, “Hello Mary Lou” for Rick Nelson and “He’s a Rebel” for The Crystals. In fact, when “He’s a Rebel” hit #1 on the Billboard charts in November 1962, it prevented Gene Pitney from topping the charts with his own song, “Only Love Can Break A Heart,” which peetered out at #2. It was the first time on the Billboard charts that someone had a song he wrote, and a song he performed, in the top two spots on the Billboard charts.
It should also be noted that Gene Pitney had a lasting power that very few artists of his caliber had in the 1960’s. Cutting his first album in 1959, he had his first Billboard hit in 1961 with “I Want to Love My Life Away.” He’d go on to have another 16 top 40 hits in Billboard’s American charts, and 22 hits in Britain who was undergoing their own musical revolution at the time. Pitney’s last hit in America would be in 1969 with “She Lets Her Hair Down (Early in the Morning),” and in Britain in 1974 with “Blue Angel”, before having a hit duet with Soft Cell’s front man Marc Almond with a rerecording of his hit “Somethings Got A Hold of my Heart” in 1989. This is astronomical chart success which most of our biggest icons never had in their career.
But what Pitney, alongside some of his other contemporaries listed above, brought to the rock scene was a sense of maturity desperately needed in the early 1960’s. The teenagers who were buying Elvis and Buddy Holly records five years ago were growing up, and for it to maintain an audience, rock n’ roll had to grow up with it. Sure, some of Gene’s early hits were some of the same teenage fluff popular at the time, but he brought a heightened sense of emotional depth to the majority of his songs which an older audience could relate to.
Nothing illustrates this more than his powerful 1961 hit, “Town Without Pity,” which became his signature song for the rest of his career. Written by Dimitri Tjomkin and Ned Washington for the film of the same name, “Town Without Pity” was a dark and brooding song about the anguish of young love. Up until that time, teenage love was downplayed in pop music in songs such as “Puppy Love,” “Too Young” and “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love.” In these songs, the expectations were low, the stakes weren’t high. The love affairs were trivial, and the artists sounded like it when they sang it. But Pitney bled anguish when he sang “Town Without Pity,” and the audience believed it. Furthermore, Pitney almost crooned it, which in even 1961 gave it a throwback sound that the parents of Pitney’s fans could get behind. Surprisingly, “Town Without Pity” wasn’t a huge hit for Pitney. It only went to #13 on the Billboard chart. But it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song – something that had never happened for a pop singer at that time. When Pitney performed it at the Oscar ceremony, he was the first pop artist ever invited to sing at the prestegops event. However, the song lost to Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” from “Breakfast at Tiffanies.” That’s pretty fair. Tjomkin and Washington had won the Oscar the year before with the theme to “High Noon” anyways, so they were good.
Gene Pitney was a huge influence in my development as a music fan. I pulled his album out of a small stack of records that had been left behind when one of my mother’s older sisters had gotten married and moved out of the house. It was probably the early 1980’s and the album was titled, obviously enough, “Town Without Pity.” But this wasn’t the original record which “Town Without Pity” was pressed. This was a 1966 compilation of Pitney hits released on a label called Music O Disc. I’ve looked for information on the label and can’t find much, for the exception that it was a company from Chicago that put out repackaged records of older hits. In all my years of record collecting and crate digging I’ve never seen another copy of this album. As a young kid growing up in the early 1980’s, already interested in music partially due to MTV, I really got into that Gene Pitney album. His voice was strange – he seemed to sing out of his nose – but appealing. But best of all, Pitney had a flare for the dramatic. His ballads were sad, and I remember sitting alone in my bedroom singing Pitney ballads in the mirror. While most of the kids in my school were doing the same thing in their bedrooms, pretending to be Madonna or Bruce Springsteen or Dee Snider or whoever, I was at home being Gene Pitney. What can I say? I was a weird little kid.
But I’ll admit my favorite song on the album wasn’t “Town without Pity.” I mean, I liked it, but what really outshone it to me was a little song called “Angelica” which seems to have been lost to time. Written by the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Well, who had a decade spanning career writing some of the greatest songs in music history, “Angelica” was this haunting song about a man lamenting the loss of his dead lover, and how he didn’t pay the attention that she deserved while she was alive. It’s brooding, tormenting and devastating and it really intrigued me as a kid. I’ve heard other versions of it over the years – The Sandpipers probably recorded the best version of it, and Oliver barely had a hit with the song when his recording climbed no higher than #100 on the Billboard Top 100. But Pitney recorded it first, and I’ve had a lifelong love for the song.
In 2005 I had the opportunity to see Gene Pitney in concert in Orillia, Ontario. I was so excited, but never a great driver, I had my friend Angela, who had no idea who Pitney was, and little interest in 60’s music in general, drive me to the show through a snowstorm. Pitney looked great and performed with his own orchestra that he brought on the road with him. However, musically it wasn’t stellar. Angela didn’t get it cause all she could hear was some old guy singing out of tune, but she also said to me later that she noticed him fiddling with an earpiece all night as if there was some sort of misfunction. But I’ll tell you, off tune or not, I couldn’t stop welling up with emotion when he performed songs like “I’m Going to Be Strong,” “Tower Tall,” “Backstage” and “Town Without Pity.” Damn. I was in heaven.
Within a year of that show Gene Pitney died while touring England. He was only 66.
I know that Gene Pitney fans are out there. People love this guy as much as I do. Its time to bring Pitney back to the forefront of the musical landscape where he belongs. Its got to be cool to be a Gene Pitney fan again. A hit television show or movie or something needs to make one of his songs a hit again. Besides, I own a lot of Pitney albums and it’d be cool if they increased in price – not that I’d sell them. It’s time to bring back Gene Pitney.