Gene Francis Alan Pitney (17 February 1940 – 5 April 2006) was an American singer-songwriter, musician, and sound engineer.
Pitney charted 16 Top-40 hits in the U.S., four in the Top 10. In the UK he had 22 Top-40 hits, and 11 singles in the Top Ten. He also wrote the early 1960s hits “Rubber Ball” recorded by Bobby Vee, “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals, and “Hello Mary Lou” by Ricky Nelson. In 2002, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Pitney was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in Rockville, now part of Vernon, Connecticut. His early influences were Clyde McPhatter, country-blues singer Moon Mullican and doo-wop groups like the Crows. He attended Rockville High School, at which he was named “the Rockville Rocket”, and where he formed his first band, Gene & the Genials. Pitney was an avid doo wop singer and sang with a group called the Embers. He made records as part of a duo called Jamie and Jane with Ginny Arnell (who in late 1963 had a solo hit, “Dumb Head”), and in 1959 recorded a single as Billy Bryan.
Rise to fame (1961–1964)
Signed to songwriter Aaron Schroeder’s newly formed Musicor label in 1961, Pitney scored his first chart single, which made the Top 40, the self-penned “(I Wanna) Love My Life Away”, on which he played several instruments and multi-tracked the vocals. He followed that same year with his first Top 20 single, the title song from the film Town Without Pity starring Kirk Douglas. Written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, the song won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song, but lost the award to “Moon River”. Pitney performed the song at the Oscars ceremony on 9 April 1962 (honoring the film year of 1961).
Pitney is also remembered for Burt Bacharach–Hal David song “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, which peaked at No. 4 in 1962. Though it shares a title with a 1962 John Ford western with the same title, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring John Wayne, the song was not used in the film because of a publishing dispute between Famous Music and Paramount Pictures.
Meanwhile, Pitney wrote hits for others, including “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals, Vikki Carr, and Elkie Brooks; “Today’s Teardrops” for Roy Orbison; “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee; and “Hello Mary Lou” for Ricky Nelson. The Crystals’ version of “He’s A Rebel” kept Pitney’s own No. 2 hit “Only Love Can Break a Heart“, his highest-charting single in the U.S., from the top spot.
His popularity in the UK market was ensured by the breakthrough success of “Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa“, a Bacharach and David song, which peaked at No. 5 in Britain at the start of 1964. It was only Pitney’s third single release in the UK to reach the singles chart and the first to break into the Top Twenty there; it was also a hit in the U.S, peaking at No. 17 on the Hot 100.
Involvement with the Rolling Stones (1964)
Pitney was present with Phil Spector at some of the Rolling Stones‘ early recording sessions in London, including “Little by Little” and other tracks for their debut album; he played piano, though the extent is uncertain.
The Jagger/Richards song “That Girl Belongs to Yesterday” was a UK hit for Pitney in 1964; it was the first tune composed by the Rolling Stones to become a Top 10 hit in the UK. In the U.S. the single stalled at No. 49, ending a run of seven Top 40 singles for Pitney as a performer.
After another low-charting single, 1964’s “Yesterday’s Hero”, Pitney rebounded with another string of hits in the mid-1960s, including the 1964 singles “It Hurts to Be in Love” and “I’m Gonna Be Strong“, which reached No. 7 and No. 9, respectively, in the U.S., and 1966’s “Nobody Needs Your Love”, which peaked at No. 2 in the UK, matching the No. 2 UK peak of “I’m Gonna Be Strong”. “It Hurts to Be in Love” had been planned for and recorded by Neil Sedaka, but RCA refused to release it because Sedaka had recorded the song outside RCA Victor in violation of his contract. The writers, Howard Greenfield and Helen Miller, presented the song to Pitney. Miller replaced Sedaka’s voice with Pitney’s, though Sedaka’s trademark backing harmonies were left intact.
In 1965, Pitney recorded two successful albums with country singer George Jones. They were voted the most promising country-and-western duo of the year. Pitney also recorded songs in Italian, Spanish and German, and twice finished second in Italy’s annual Sanremo Music Festival, where his strong vibrato reminded older listeners of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. He had a regional hit with “Nessuno Mi Può Giudicare”.
UK, Australian and European stardom (1966–1970s)
Pitney’s career in the U.S. took a downturn after mid-1966, when “Backstage” ended another run of Top 40 hits. He returned one last time to the Top 40 with “She’s a Heartbreaker” in mid-1968 and placed several singles in the lower reaches of the Hot 100 after that, but by 1970 he was no longer a hit-maker in the U.S.
Pitney maintained a successful career in Britain and the rest of Europe into the 1970s, appearing regularly on UK charts as late as 1974. In Australia, after a fallow period in the early 1970s, Pitney returned to Top 40 in 1974, as both Blue Angel (No. 2) and Trans-Canada Highway (No. 14; production by David Mackay) were substantial hits. Pitney continued to place records in the Australian charts through 1976, including the hit “Down This Road”, written and produced by distant relation Edward Pitney. They also collaborated in the production of the hit song “Days of Summer”.
In the early 1970s, Pitney decided to spend only six months each year on the road.
Pitney’s last hit on the UK charts came in 1989, after an absence of 15 years, when he and Soft Cell singer Marc Almond recorded a duet version of “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” by British writers Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. The song had been a UK No. 5 for Pitney in 1967. The duet brought him his first UK No. 1, in late January 1989. The single remained at the top for four weeks, and also went to No. 1 elsewhere in Europe. Pitney and Almond appeared on the Terry Wogan television show in Britain.
On 18 March 2002 Pitney was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Pitney was touring the UK in the spring of 2006 when his manager found him dead in his hotel room in Cardiff on April 5. An autopsy found the cause of death to be a heart attack and that he had severely occluded coronary arteries. His final show at Cardiff‘s St David’s Hall had earned him a standing ovation; he ended with “Town Without Pity”.
He was survived by his wife Lynne and their three sons Todd, Chris, and David. He was buried at Somers Center Cemetery in Somers, Connecticut.