Sex symbol. Living legend. Pop icon. Shrewd businessman. Hit songwriter. Million-seller. Top performer..
Just to be regarded as one of these is an accolade many struggle their whole lives to achieve. For one man, though, bearing all these credits appears to be as easy as 1,2,3...That's not to say he hasn't worked hard or striven to be where he is today - far from - but it just seems to come naturally to him.
"I love to do challenges."
The man in question's name is, of course, Gene Pitney, and it's a name that will live on forever in the hearts of record collectors, fans and the pop world alike simply based on the quality of his large catalogue of recordings, personality and the power of his live performances...Yes, even so many years after he first hit the charts with the self-penned tune '(I Wanna) Love My Life Away', the Rockville Rocket still hits the stage at sell-out shows internationally - shows that leave the female fans (as well as the men) screaming for more.
"Thank God," Pitney once said with a chuckle. "That's what keep me going!"
Born into a middle-class family by Harold and Ann on Monday 17th February 1941, Gene Francis Allan Pitney grew up with his parents, two brothers (Dennis and Frank) and two sisters (Nancy and Shirley) in the small New England town of Rockville, Connecticut on Hammond Street. His mother played the piano by ear and was an excellent whistler (a talent Gene clearly inherited as he demonstrates on tracks like the US hit 'Only Love Can Break A Heart), he sang with the local church choir and school glee club and loved to sing along with the early Rock 'n' Roll/R&B hits of the day by performers such as Clyde McPhatter, The Flamingos, The Drifters etc...All the right elements you would expect to nurture someone into a pop star...But surprisingly - despite being immersed in so many musical influences and clearly having the talent - Gene had no aspirations whatsoever of becoming a singer.
"If you had told me back then that I was going to end up singing to millions of people you would have seen the dust as I was running down the road away from you!"
Instead he primarily put his energy into stamp/coin collecting, ice skating, fishing and trapping. Because of this love for following more outdoor-based activities he's always been noted in a majority of biographys and interviews as a loner, but he doesn't - whilst not denying that he was a quiet and shy child - wholly agree with that statement.
"Ive always tried to, like, qualify it so that it doesnt sound like I was somebody who went and stood in the corner, you know?...That wasnt true. But I just loved the outdoors."
Love the outdoors he most certainly did and, having regularly set out his traps early in the morning so that he could check them after school, it wasnt long til the only trapper at Rockville High became fully trained in Taxidermy. However, not even his experience with skinning minks and muskrats prepared him for what he had to contend with when he and a trapping partner caught a skunk and accidentally cut into the wrong part -
It was awful! We had cut into he sac and what that immediately did was knock out our sense of smell, so we had no idea how bad things stunk, and when my parents got home...Well... <chuckle>
As he made his way through his time at high school, the lure of the music world refused to let Gene slip from its grasp and was probably the reason for the seemingly fateful step he took one snowy day on his way home by stopping at Dubaldos Music Shop and signing up for guitar lessons.
"I'm not an impulsive person and I don't think I had any inkling of wanting to do it...I don't know where that ever came from."
Soon he formed his own band, known as 'Gene Pitney And The Genials'...Yet STILL he was only set on following a career in electronics and graduated to the Wards Electronics School branch of the university in Connecticut.
...So, how did Gene Pitney come to be such a huge household name? Cue free afternoons in his 1935 Ford Coupe - with his guitar - composing songs, and a gig by The Genials that a proverbial fat-man-with-cigar record producer attended. Pitney was asked then and there if he would like to cut a record, and ended up going with Marty Kugell to New York where he was teamed up with a fellow Connecticun: sixteen year old Ginny Mazzarro (a.k.a Ginny Arnell). The duo were tagged 'Jamie and Jane'
"Luckily I was Jamie!"
and cut two singles: 'Snuggle Up Baby' b/w 'Strolling Through The Park' on February 11th, and 'Faithful Our Love' b/w 'Classical Rock 'n' Roll' (a Pitney composition) on June 8th - both in 1959 and for Decca Records.
But Gene got itchy feet, and after the singles flopped he decided that cutting songs as part of a duo was not the career for him.
"I knew I didn't want a professional career in music with only a first name or to be half of a duet. So I recorded 'Cradle Of My Arms' the next year..."
Written by Winfield Scott, 'Cradle Of My Arms' was a classic '50s-style tune well crafted for a voice like Pitney's...But you'll never see his name printed on the single as the new record company that he had moved to - Blaze - didn't like the sound of his name and so gave him the pseudonym of Billy Bryan.
"Not that Billy Bryan's a particularly wonderful name!"
Whilst conceding the fact that they just seemed to be afraid of his real name for some reason, the last straw was put on the camel's back when producers turned around and suggested that he be known as...Homer Muzzy!
"That scared the living hell out of me! That's when I knew I was gonna be me - I wasn't going through life with THAT handle!!!"
And so Gene Pitney the singer was born, and to make his mark he recorded 'I'll Find You' and 'Please Come Back Baby' (the latter being a self-penned composition that Genials' drummer Dick Spurling played on)...It *didn't* make a mark, though - in fact it dramatically flopped due to the Payola Scandal that was seriously damaging the music business at the time.
A fighter, Gene left Kugell, hooked up with publisher Aaron Schroeder (who had already established himself as a talented songwriter), quit university and concentrated more on composing songs than singing them. He made exactly the right move and a succession of his songs were recorded by stars of the era, including: 'Blue Heartaches' by Tommy Edwards, 'Today's Teardrops' by Roy Orbison, 'Loneliness' by The Kalin Twins, 'Across The Street Is A Million Miles Away' by Clyde McPhatter, and the great 'Rubber Ball' that became Bobby Vee's second gold disc for Liberty and charted in the Top Ten of both the US and UK charts. Marty Wilde also covered the song in the UK in 1961, and just skimmed into the Top Ten at number nine.
...But why is a Miss Ann Orlowski listed as the writer?...
"I was signed with BMI," but "[Aaron Schroeder] wanted to shift the money for future songs into an ASCAP firm because he would pay different tax, so he said '...We can't use your name on it. Who do you want to be?'...My mother's maiden name was Ann Orlowski, and that just popped out of my head."
Billy Fury's 'Talkin' In My Sleep' and Eddie Hodges' 'Bandit Of My Dreams' were also credited to Ann Orlowski, as well as Gene's songs 'I Laughed So Hard I Cried' and 'Baton Rouge Or Frisco'.
The decision to focus on writing was not only a good idea to help Gene nurture and vent his talent...It also became a kind of 'side door' into the performing world because his vocal on the demos would be heard by important people.
The ultimate reward for this theory and approach came in the December of 1960 (while Vee was bouncing through the charts with 'Rubber Ball' in the States) when - after a broke Gene had hired some studio time for a mere thirty dollars and recorded a demo as he had done on countless times before - a twist of Fate occurred.
"The publisher listened to it and he said 'You know, I think this can be a hit just like it is'."
'(I Wanna) Love My Life Away' (featuring multiple vocal layers, drums and guitar all performed by Gene with the help of a state-of-the-art four-track machine and some clever over-dubbing techniques) was released in January of '61, backed by 'I Laughed So Hard I Cried', and - though not a major hit - entered both the UK and US charts (US - cat.#MU 1002, chart: #39. UK - cat.#HL9270, chart: ~26).
Schroeder's Musicor label released another single close on the tail of Love My Life Away's success, but the A-side - the beautiful, almost operatic 'Take Me Tonight' - was sadly overlooked because of the track that had been placed on the flip side (Pitney's composition 'Louisiana Mama').
"I learned an important lesson when all the DJs immediately started playing 'Mama' as the A-side...When an artist has a hit with a particular sounding song - in my case it was 'I Wanna Love My Life Away' - he shouldn't try to follow it with a totally different sounding song...especially if the other side sounds like the previous hit!"
The single was never released in the UK and did poorly Stateside, yet both songs have become successful in their own ways - 'Louisiana Mama' becoming a major hit in Japan, and 'Take Me Tonight' becoming one of Gene's most requested songs (as well as gaining a powerful revival in 1975 for one of his Bronze-released LPs).
Two months later another of his compositions was hitting high in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, this time in the form of Ricky Nelson's recording of 'Hello Mary Lou' - produced by Jimmie Haskell (another of the many songs Gene wrote in his '35 Coupe).
"It's the biggest copyright that I ever wrote, but...people say to me 'Tell us a story about Mary Lou - it must be about a real Mary Lou!' and I hate to burst people's bubble to tell them that 'Hello Mary Lou' was really because it rhymed with 'I love you'!"
Having already surpassed the two million play mark in the United States alone, the song regularly appears in 'Favourite Songs Of The Sixties' polls, on CD compilations, and was even turned into a huge country hit in 1986 by The Statler Brothers.
"And I was just sitting there going '#Hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart#'!"
Back to July of 1961, and Pitney was in the studio again to record his next single 'Every Breath I Take'...with one of the biggest gatherings of musical experts.
"I've always said...if they had dropped a bomb on Bell Sound they would have wiped out the future of a lot of the music business, because in the studio were people representative of the songs on the session...Schroeder and Gold, Bacharach and David, Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller and Phil Spector were all there, and Phil Ramone was the engineer."
Not only did it have in attendance such a group: the session was also possibly the most expensive of it time, with a full fifty-piece orchestra that ended up working double-time...And in the middle of it all, poor Gene was struggling to use his voice to its full potential due to a bad cold.
"The only reason for the falsetto [at the end] is that I didn't have the strength to go for the actual note. I didn't know what to do so I broke straight into a falsetto and put that ending onto the song."
It should have been a hit, but it only just peaked at number forty-two in the US charts - leaving Gene and fans alike to this day only being able to ask the question 'Why?' about one of their favourite tracks.
...There had to be a break somewhere and there had to be a reason for the lack of chart success - after all, there was certainly already an audience thanks to his dynamic 'Love My Life Away', and the music experts seemed intrigued by the new voice and face on the scene...
September of the same year, it finally came.
"The first time I ever heard 'Town Without Pity' was a demo record that the composers must have had made."
Starring Kirk Douglas, the film 'Town Without Pity' had already been out in movie cinemas but flopped. Maybe the Ned Washington/Dimitri Tiompkin soundtrack theme should have been the film alone - the lyrics certainly depicted the teenage angst and raw emotion that was missing in the actual motion picture (which told the tale of American soldiers in a German town being accused of raping a local teenage girl), and add to that Gene's growling vocal that almost tears at the heart. It was no wonder that after the single's release and high (#13) chart success, the movie was re-released and did better at the box office. Like the story of the falsetto on 'Every Breath I Take', though, apparently Gene didn't plan on creating the growling sound...
"I was scared of that song because I didn't know how to approach it...I just kept singing it straight, but I could see the guys in the booth weren't happy with what they were hearing. Three o'clock the next morning I'm still singing this thing over and over, and what had been nice and smooth was now <gravely voice> '#When you're young and so in love...#' and they turned around and went 'That's it! That's the sound we been looking for!' I couldn't believe it!"
Backed by the Pitney-penned 'Air Mail Special Delivery', the single also made waves in the UK charts at number 32. But the US is where it has gained its biggest following...Having reportedly sold its fist million copies by the following year, the song won a Golden Globe award for Best Song In A Motion Picture, and was nominated for an Oscar - an event that probably pushed Gene's career into full swing. Since, it has also appeared in several blockbuster movies such as 'Hairspray' and 'Look Who's Talking', and even a story in a compilation episode of cult-cartoon 'The Simpsons' in 1992 parodied the song for its title 'Clown Without Pity'.
It was up, up and away from then, and after recording 'Town' in German - changed to 'Bliebe Bie Mir' (which actually translates as 'Stay By Me') and his only venture into recording in German due to the difficulty he had pronouncing many of the words.
Next, Gene teamed up for the first of several times with the famous songwriting team of Hal David and Burt Bacharach on yet another movie theme...that didn't end up in the actual film...
"'(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance' was a very, very important song for me. A lot of motion picture scores were sent to me after 'Town Without Pity', and this was the one we had to go with - it was Bacharach and David, it was John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Stewart...Everything fit. Paramount paid me an immense amount of money to record it, the session was paid for and all kinds of other things...This is all in New York...In L.A they released the film while we were recording the song."
And the music that was used instead in the film?
"The theme of 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' is really the theme of a 1939 Henry Fonda film called 'Young Mister Lincoln'. I have no idea what they have to do with each other or why they used it!"
Another film tune may have helped boost his career, but Pitney was already rocketing toward more great success...Firstly thanks to yet another of his compositions, 'He's A Rebel' by The Crystals-...
...Well, at least it's credited as by The Crystals (who Gene had intended it for after hearing their hit 'Uptown' on the radio), but was actually recorded by Darlene Love after legendary 'Wall Of Sound' producer Phil Spector (who had already worked with Gene on 'Every Breath I Take' the year before) was presented the song by Aaron Schroeder and - believing he could make a greater record than anybody else - secretly took it with him to Los Angeles and cut the song with the aid of engineer Larry Levine. The was a massive hit nevertheless - reaching number one in the US billboard charts for two weeks - but proved how much power record producers had over the groups' names they owned.
Ironically, whilst this was at the top of the charts it was stopping Gene's next recorded single - another Bacharach/David ballad titled 'Only Love Can Break A Heart' - from reaching any higher than the number two spot. It was a hit, though. It became a million-seller. And even the flip-side track 'If I Didn't Have A Dime (To Play The Jukebox)' charted in the Top Sixty on its own merit.
And the successes would keep rolling, with Schroeder and Gold's 'Half Heaven, Half Heartache' (peaking at #12), Nader and Gluck's 'Mecca' (# ), and Bacharach and David's catchy 'True Love Never Runs Smooth' (# ). But they had all only made an impact on the US market, where he'd already released two full albums. Meanwhile, in England, only a taster had been served with 'Love My Life Away', 'Town Without Pity' and one album ('The Many Sides Of...' - HMV CLP 1566)...It was time for that to change and team up with Burt Bacharach and Hal David one last time...
September 1963 the masterpiece was born.
Specifically written with Gene's wide vocal range in mind, 'Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa' was essentially a three-minute long goodbye letter from the narrator to his girlfriend after finding a new love. Bacharach's music soared and thrummed in all the right places - speeding up halfway through almost as if to represent the narrator's racing pulse - going hand-in-hand (as always) with David's well-crafted tale. Gene's performance was important to say the least and necessary to carry the sentiment of the song to its full potential...He didn't disappoint as he turned the narrator into a believable character that actually seemed to be troubled and guilty for his decision...Every single word from the opening line of 'Dearest darling I had to write to say that I won't be home anymore' to the end 'What Can I do? And I can never go home again' dripped with raw, anguished emotion.
"There's one thing about Burt Bacharach I've tried to explain to people and it's difficult, but Burt's not really a, uh, trained singer - doesn't have a great voice - yet when he sits down and plays a song for you you're never gonna do it as good as him...I don't know what it is about it but he has a piece of him that he leaves in every one of his songs...I never thought my performance was that great - I felt I could have done it much better."
It would be the music listener's decision if the performance was great or not, and the song entered the American charts mid-October of that year. But what would the British audience think? As already mentioned his last five single releases had had no luck whatsoever and they had primarily been ballads...This was a soft Country-flavoured narrative with possibly no right even being released at all in the UK when considering the bands and music (e.g.: The Beatles and Rolling Stones) that were ruling the music scene...Surely it was doomed to the same fate as its predecessors?...
In November - as long-hair and jeans were becoming the fashion - a neatly dressed, twenty-two year-old Gene touched down in England to promote the song...and it became an instant hit with the record-buying public.
"It was very strange because it came out as the British Invasion broke, and it was totally against the grain of what was going on...It shouldn't have been a hit when it was a hit, but in the midst of all the long-haired groups everything went up for me instead of down because I had become the odd one out..."
Yet another million-seller to add to his growing collection, 'Tulsa' peaked at number five, was dubbed 'Twenty-Four Hours From Tulse Hill' on shows like 'Juke Box Jury' and 'Morecambe and Wise', has since received constant radio play, and is Gene's recognised theme song in the UK (mention his name to anybody and eight times out often they'll reply with that song). In 1993 - at the same time 'The Simpsons' were playing around with the title of his US theme song - a major advertising campaign was launched by Mobil Oil using a spoof version of the song - 'Twenty-Four Toasters From Scunthorpe' - as its jingle to much success, and even a newspaper ad that same year by K-Shoes for 'The 24 Hour Court Shoe' bore the slogan 'THEY'LL GET YOU TO TULSA, COMFORTABLY', proving its power and longevity.
"It goes back to having a piece of special material that was written so well."
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