One of the unsung heroes of the rock and roll era, Gene Pitney crossed paths with a wide array of rock royalty – from Phil Spector and the Rolling Stones to Ricky Nelson and Carole King – while amassing a sizable string of hits.
Pitney arrived on the scene in the late Fifties as a gifted songwriter, capable musician and incredible singer. His dramatic tenor, given to piercing climaxes, was among the more remarkable voices of the age. He could deliver a rocker with panache, as evidenced by his double-tracked vocals on the racing, uptempo “It Hurts to Be In Love” (Number Seven, 1964) and the R&B-slanted “She’s a Heartbreaker” (Number 16, 1968). But he was best at putting across songs with a smoldering emotional core, such as the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil composition “I’m Gonna Be Strong” (Number Nine, 1964) and the teen psychodrama “Town without Pity” (Number 13, 1961).
“Like Del Shannon and Roy Orbison,” wrote musicologist Mitchell Cohen, “Gene Pitney was most expressive with songs of suffering.” Since lovelorn strife and suffering were part of the rites of adolescent passage, the abundantly talented and broodingly handsome Pitney was ideally suited to become a star during and beyond the “teen idol” era of the early Sixties.
Gene Pitney was born in rural Connecticut and displayed musical leanings at an early age. While in high school, he studied guitar, piano and drums. He then went to the University of Connecticut to study electrical engineering, but his interest in music began interfering with his studies, so he opted for a career in music. He cut a couple singles, including one called “Classical Rock and Roll,” as part of the duo Jamie and Jane, and released another under the pseudonym Billy Bryan. Thereafter, Pitney reverted to his real name. His earliest success came as a songwriter. Pitney had his compositions recorded by the Kalin Twins (“Loneliness”), Roy Orbison (“Today’s Teardrops,” “22 Days”) and Bobby Vee (whose recording of Pitney’s “Rubber Ball” hit Number One). Ricky Nelson cut three of Pitney’s songs, including “Hello Mary Lou,” and the Crystals had their biggest hit with Pitney’s “He’s a Rebel,” produced by Phil Spector.
Convinced he could not only write hits but sing them as well, Pitney re-launched his career in 1961 with an ambitious recording of his “(I Wanna) Love My Life Away,” on which he multi-tracked vocals and overdubbed instruments in a pioneering feat of record production. That same year, he recorded the theme song to the film Town without Pity. One critic wrote that Pitney’s voice “managed to combine an over-the-top passion with an extremely precise diction and an overall feel of vulnerability.”
Carrying ambitiousness one step further, Pitney’s brilliant third single, “Every Breath I Take,” was written by Gary Goffin and Carole King and produced by Phil Spector in one of the earliest and best examples of his heralded “Wall of Sound.” Pitney had written for other artists, and now other songwriters began tailoring songs to him. Burt Bacharach and Hal David penned a series of hits for Pitney, including “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” (Number Four, 1962), “Only Love Can Break a Heart” (Number Two, 1962), “True Love Never Runs Smooth” (Number 21, 1963) and “24 Hours from Tulsa” (Number 17, 1962).
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, whom Pitney had befriended on a 1963 visit to Britain, gave him an early song of theirs, “That Girl Belongs to Yesterday.” Pitney recorded and released it as a single, and it hit Number 49 in early 1964 – the first Jagger-Richards composition to make the U.S. charts, predating the Stones’ own “Tell Me” by a half-year. Though he continued to have hits in America – including “Looking Through the Eyes of Love” and “She’s a Heartbreaker” – Pitney became a far bigger star in Europe.
Pitney also cut songs by such notable writers as Ellie Greenwich (“Keep Tellin’ Yourself”), Al Kooper (“I Must Be Seeing Things”) and Randy Newman (“Nobody Needs Your Love,” “Just One Smile"). In the mid-Sixties, Pitney crossed over to the country charts by cutting two albums with honky-tonk legend George Jones and one with Melba Montgomery. All the while he toured the world extensively and even recorded entire albums in Italian and Spanish for the lucrative and loyal foreign market. Pitney was actually voted Italy’s top singer in a 1964 poll, and he became enormously popular in Britain. He’d tour the U.K. twice a year, often for a month at a time, on packages that included such fellow performers as the Kinks, the Troggs, Peter and Gordon and Joe Cocker. Long after the hit streak faded in his homeland, Pitney continued to tour the continent with great success.
In 1989, Pitney had the first Number One hit of his career when Marc Almond (formerly of Soft Cell) asked him to re-record an old song, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart,” as a duet. The single topped the U.K. charts for four weeks. A double-disc compilation, Gene Pitney: The Great Recordings, appeared in 1995. In 2000, a Pitney concert was filmed and aired as a PBS special. Pitney continued to spend much of the year performing around the U.S. and overseas, even in the early 2000s.
Then, on April 5, 2006, Gene Pitney died in Cardiff, Wales, while on a tour of the U.K. The cause of death was heart disease caused by atherosclerosis. He was 66 years old.
Over the course of his career, Gene Pitney notched 16 Top 40 hits in the U.S., including four that made the Top 10. He scored 22 Top 40 hits in the U.K., including 11 that made the Top 10.