Wednesday, April 05, 2006

STAROBIT: Gene Pitney

Gene Pitney, who has died in Wales at the age of 65, may appear a dyed-in-the-wool entertainer, but he nearly missed his calling. Born in – aptly – Rockville, Connecticut on February 17th, 1941, Pitney's childhood interests were spread – hunting, collecting stamps and playing with electronics as well as music. Indeed, he might have followed a career in electronics had his out-of-school band, Gene Pitney and the Genials, not distracted him.

In 1959, Pitney recorded his first single Classical Rock & Roll, with a duet on the b-side credited to Jamie and Jane. This was to be the first of a series of alteregos – his record label was keen on rechristening him Homer Muzzy; Gene favoured Billy Bryan. Eventually, he decided his real name might be less fraught with danger.

Pitney's first success came from his songwriting – the Kalin Twins picked up his song Loneliness and Pitney started to think of himself as backroom, rather than a performer - perhaps the stage nerves which had developed following a poorly-received school performance still haunted him. He would supply songs to Tommy Edwards, Roy Orbison and Billy Bland; he wrote Hello Mary Lou for Rick Nelson, who sold two million copies of it. Perhaps his biggest success as a writer was Rubber Ball, which not only provided hits for Bobby Vee and Marty Wilde but continued to provide a lucrative revenue stream as an advertising jingle (give 'em Butterball, it seems, they'll come bouncing back for more.)

Sucking a thoughtful tooth, Pitney figured it was time to get back into the recording booth, and funded himself (to the tune of thirty bucks) recording his own I Wanna Love My Life Away. To keep costs down, he played the drums, piano and guitar and provided six different layers of backing vocals for the song. Released as a single, it made the forty in the UK and the US.

The title track for Town Without Pity delivered his first US Top 20 hit and an oscar nomination; he quickly followed up with the equally successful theme for The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance.

Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa was to be the key which sent Pitney global – it offered him the chance to build a near-global following. He took the view that if a record started to do well in a new country, you had no choice but to head out there and build that success. It was a shrewd attitude, and it saw him able to tour worldwide for a full six months every year since 1970. He loved the travel:

"There is nothing more exciting to me than to get on that airplane and know I'm going to get off in a totally different country, in a different part of the world."

Until 1983, his love of jet travel meant his entire touring commitment was concentrated outside his home country – which allowed him to do a comeback tour that year without actually ever having stopped working.

A chance meeting on ITVs Thank Your Lucky Stars led to a friendship with the Rolling Stones: they provided him with That Girl Belongs To Yesterday; he provided Jagger and Richards with their first US number one as writers.

While turning out a slew of rock albums – in a variety of languages – Pitney also dabbled with the country market, bringing a fresh aspect to all his work.

Although he created a string of classics through the sixties and seventies, Pitney wouldn't have a number one in the UK until he hooked up with Marc Almond in 1990. The original version of Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart had stalled at number five in 1967.

His reactivated recording career created a happy double demand – people who came to him for the first time started buying back catalogue, while his older fans wanted new material.

He appeared on Desert Island Discs, choosing Elton John's The Last Song, C C Rider by Chuck Willis, Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven; Gillian Welch's Tear My Stillhouse Down; Israil Kamakaiwo’ole's version of Over The Rainbow, Norah Jones' Nightingale, Queda Te Aqui by the Gipsy Kings and Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman doing Con Te Partiro. His luxury was a case of Opus One wine and his book was a Mensa Puzzle collection.

Pitney died this morning [Wednesday 5th] after being taken suddenly ill while staying at the Cardiff Hilton Hotel. His manager reports that he was found in his bed this morning, and was pronounced dead at 10am. The cause of his death is not yet known.

He is survived by his wife, Lynne, and three sons.

1 comment:

The Stevo in H-Town said...

I wuzza 'bout 14-16 when that dude had his day. You get different opinions about his voice and a lotta folks put him in "the guilty pleasure" category...Either way, I bought every album he recorded and still think his singing style was pretty damned original..Tellya what...If you were goin' thru a break-up with a teenage girl at the time...Pitney could bringya to tears.......

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