Although he was born and raised in New England, Gene Pitney became so famous in Old England that even some of his biggest fans assumed he was British for four decades before he actually became a UK citizen in 2004.
With a finely polished teen-idol image that disguised the masterful songwriting skills that were the foundation of his nearly 50-year career and an inimitable vibrato that was tear-jerkingly melancholic and irresistibly exaggerated, Pitney recorded 16 Top-40 hits in the US – four in the Top 10 – and 22 in the UK – 11 in the Top 10 – in addition to writing chart-toppers for Bobby Vee, Ricky Nelson and The Crystals and collaborating with an eclectic assortment of others including Burt Bacharach, George Jones and The Rolling Stones.
Born in 1941 in Hartford, Connecticut, Pitney grew up in nearby Rockville (now part of Vernon). At age 13 he began playing guitar, followed by piano at 14, all the while immersing himself in the music of the three artists he said influenced him the most: R&B/ soul pioneer Clyde McPhatter, country-western boogie trailblazer Moon “King of Hillbilly Piano Players” Mullican and Harlem-based doo-wop quartet The Crows. While in high school, he formed his first band, Gene & the Genials.
In 1958, his senior year, Pitney made his first recordings with The Embers – a North Carolina-based vocal quartet widely credited for originating the “beach-music” genre – before becoming half of the duo Jamie and Jane with New Haven native Ginny Arnell. In 1959, Decca Records released their singles “Snuggle Up Baby” and “Classical Rock and Roll” – both written by Pitney – and later that year Blaze Records released Pitney’s first solo single, “Cradle Of My Arms,” under the stage name Billy Bryan, followed in 1960 by Festival Records releasing Pitney’s first single under his own name, “I’ll Find You.” Though Pitney later established himself as a hit-making marvel, none of those singles reached the charts.
In 1961, things changed spectacularly. After moving to New York City, Pitney signed with Musicor Records – founded by Aaron Schroeder, who had penned five #1 hits for Elvis Presley – and recorded his first charting single, “(I Wanna) Love My Life Away,” written by Pitney and which reached #39 in the Billboard Hot 100. His follow-up single, “Town Without Pity,” written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington for the 1961 film of the same name, reached #13, won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song.
Later in 1961, while Pitney was working as a songwriter at the famed Brill Building alongside others including Carole King, Bobby Vee’s rendition of his song “Rubber Ball” hit #6 in the Billboard Hot 100 and Ricky Nelson’s recording of another Pitney tune, “Hello Mary Lou,” reached #9 in the US and #2 in the UK. Having established himself as a world-class songwriter and a successful recording artist, Pitney began collaborating with the legendary tune-smithing team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who eventually wrote three of Pitney’s biggest hits.
In 1962, the first of his Bacharach-David-written singles to reach the Top 10 was “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” which hit #2 in the Billboard Hot 100, followed by the second, “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance,” which went to #4. The Crystals gave Pitney his first #1 hit as a writer later that year when their rendition of “He’s a Rebel,” produced by Phil Spector, topped the US charts, and Pitney’s single “Half Heaven, Half Heartache,” written by Schroeder, Wally Gold and George Goehring, reached #12 in the Billboard Hot 100 in December.
In 1963, now nicknamed “The Rockville Rocket” since his songs had rocketed up the charts, Pitney recorded “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa,” written by Bacharach and David, which peaked at #17 in the US and #5 in the UK, where he would soon become wildly popular and would perform most often over the next decades. It was Pitney’s third single to reach UK charts and the first to break into the Top 20 there.
Throughout 1964, Pitney toured the UK extensively while also appearing in the US as part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, including a show at Bushnell Memorial Auditorium in Hartford and another at the Palace Ballroom in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. After playing piano on The Rolling Stones’ single “Little by Little” and a few other songs from that band’s debut LP that year, Pitney’s recording of The Stones’ “That Girl Belongs to Yesterday” reached #7 in the UK – the first Jagger-Richards tune to make the Top 10 – followed by his recording of his own song “It Hurts to Be in Love” reaching #7 in the Billboard Hot 100 and another, “I’m Gonna Be Strong,” hitting #9 in the US and #2 in the UK.
In 1965, Pitney co-wrote and recorded two albums with country icon George Jones – with Billboard naming them Most Promising Country Duo that year – and he toured across the US, UK and Europe, returning to Connecticut in April to perform at the Actor’s Colony Inn in Seymour. A multilinguist in addition to being a multi-instrumentalist, he also recorded songs in Italian, Spanish and German in the mid-1960s and was a two-time runner-up in Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival Singing Contest, where judges commented on similarities between his singing style and legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso’s.
In 1966, after his recording of “Backstage” hit #4 in the UK, Pitney’s single of his song “Nobody Needs Your Love” failed to chart in the US but reached #2 in the UK – matching the peak of “I’m Gonna Be Strong” less than two years before – and in 1967 his single “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart,” written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, reached #5 there. In 1968, however, after making the Top 40 with his tune “She’s a Heartbreaker,” Pitney’s singles fell into the lower range of the US and UK charts and his remarkable run of hits seemed finished.
In 1974, however, after several of his songs charted modestly, Pitney’s recording of his tune “Blue Angel” reached #2 in the Billboard Hot 100 followed by another, “Trans-Canada Highway,” hitting #14. His biggest UK-Europe chart success came in 1989 when EMI’s release of Pitney and synthpop band Soft Cell’s Marc Almond doing “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” hit #1 in the UK, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany and Finland. In the 1990s and 2000s, Pitney appeared almost exclusively in the UK and in 2002 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On April 5, 2006, Pitney died of a heart attack at age 65 in Cardiff, Wales, where the night before he had sung “Town Without Pity” – his first Top-20 hit released 45 years before – as the encore in his final performance. He was buried at Somers Center Cemetery in Somers, Connecticut. On September 20, 2007, a plaque in his honor was unveiled at Rockville Town Hall and Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell declared that date officially “Gene Pitney Day” in the state.
(by D.S. Monahan – June 2022)