Gene Pitney stumbled onto a good thing early on, becoming one of the singular voices of the '60s in the process. After some trial and error, he made his first recordings with Ginny Arnell for Decca Records in the spring of 1959 as Jamie and Jane (the unsubtle "Snuggle Up Baby" and Gene's own composition "Classical Rock and Roll"), then appeared that fall on the Blaze label as Billy Bryan with "Cradle of My Arms," sounding much closer to what would become his signature style. At the start of the new decade, the Hartford, Connecticut native made up his mind to write and record using his own name. Scoring a chart single in the fall of 1960 with "Harmony," recorded by North Carolinian Billy Bland, provided encouragement.

"I Wanna Love My Life Away," in the spring of 1961, was the first of his singles to make an impact, with as many as six or seven voice tracks, one on top of the other, creating an off-in-the-distance echo effect. Next came a top ten hit for Pitney the composer, with his destined-to-be-a-classic "Hello Mary Lou" by Ricky Nelson, and Gene was off and running as a singer and songwriter. Shortly after, Phil Spector stepped up to produce Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Every Breath You Take," an ambitious, multilayered work predating Spector's "Wall of Sound" by a couple of years, which pushed both Phil and Gene up another rung of the ladder.

A huge hit single hadn't yet surfaced for Pitney the singer, but that breakthrough came at the end of 1961, with the theme from the film "Town Without Pity," starring Kirk Douglas and E.G. Marshall. On April 9, 1962, the then-21-year-old singer performed the Dimitri Tiomkin-Ned Washington composition on the Academy Awards telecast, a rare feat for an up-and-coming rock-oriented artist. Forging ahead with the movie-theme-equals-hit concept, he next recorded Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" for the movie release of the same title, starring John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin, but the timing was off as the film was completed and ready to hit theaters just as Gene went in the studio to record the song, so of course it wasn't used in the film and there's an uncertainty as to whether director John Ford would have approved its use anyway. The catchy, western-flavored song nevertheless was a boon to both filmmaker and singer alike, as both were hits simultaneously in the spring of 1962.

One thing was clear with those early singles: Here was a singer who sounded nothing like anyone who had come before, and after many years, there's still no one close to his vocal style and sound. When you turn on the radio in the middle of one of his songs, there's instant recognition. Few artists can boast that, and songwriting only adds to the equation. If I were to pinpoint a time when Gene was at the top of his game, the peak of both singing and songwriting sides of his career, it would be without a doubt the final week of October, 1962. It was this specific moment that his sixth single for Musicor Records, Bacharach and David's "Only Love Can Break a Heart," became the biggest hit of Gene's career as a singer, hitting number two on the Billboard charts. If normally one would feel frustration at coming so close to achieving a number one hit, in this case Gene couldn't exactly feel denied, as his earlier association with Phil Spector had resulted in Phil's using his composition "He's a Rebel" as a vehicle for The Crystals, albeit with Darlene Love and The Blossoms singing in substitution of then-unavailable Crystals group members, and the record steamrolled to number one just in time to block Gene's own single from the top. It was a triumphant moment for Burt, Hal, Darlene, Phil and the Crystals (in proxy), but most of all for Gene, who pulled off the uncommon feat of scoring the top two hits in the country, one as a writer and the other as a singer.

1963 found Pitney on a roll, with the ballad hits "Half Heaven-Half Heartache" and "True Love Never Runs Smooth," the uptempo Arabian-Nights-styled (and not universally loved) "Mecca," as well as "Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa," another Bacharach-David number, an "I'm on the road but I'm leaving you" theme that would pop up again before long in another of his hits, "Last Chance to Turn Around."

At the very beginning of 1964, Gene was part of another historical unlikelihood. His records had been quite successful in England by this time; he and Phil Spector made a trip overseas in the fall of '63. After being introduced to The Rolling Stones by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham, he recorded the Mick Jagger-Keith Richard song "That Girl Belongs to Yesterday" and it first appeared on the charts in America the third week of January, 1964. Up until this time the Stones had placed only a couple of minor hits on the British charts. It was Gene who provided the gateway to America for the blues-inspired band, and incredibly that single appeared the same week future Rolling Stones rivals/friends The Beatles debuted with their (much, much bigger) initial U.S. hit "I Want to Hold Your Hand." A few months later, Gene was invited by Mick and the boys to join them during the recording sessions for "12 x 5," and he played piano on at least one of the album's tracks.

Gene Pitney

Of all the great Gene Pitney songs, my favorite is "It Hurts to Be in Love," written by Howard Greenfield and Helen Miller, rightfully one of his biggest hits. Anguished, haunting - 'cry a little bit, die a little bit, it hurts to be in love' - with perfectly executed yet uncredited "girl-group" backing vocals. Impossible to tire of this record, even after a thousand listens. Its follow-up, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's "I'm Gonna Be Strong," was more quietly delivered, yet no less pained, and the two singles went top ten back-to-back.

An unpredictable detour into country music followed, when Gene teamed up with George Jones as George and Gene in 1965 for the hit "I've Got Five Dollars and It's Saturday Night," more likely than not a move by Musicor Records, whom both recorded for at the time. The label, in fact, had Gene taking on a number of different projects. In the mid-'60s he was extremely popular in Italy, so an entire album in Italian was recorded, which included the single "Nessuno Mi Puo Giudcare." These releases may have compounded a previously-considered problem of Gene as a hard-to-categorize artist (in retrospect a very good thing, given the variety and high quality of his musical catalog). Yet as his regular single releases experienced a decline, he hit new heights in England, where he'd been a favorite since the first single. Seven consecutive releases from 1964 to 1966 were top ten hits in the U.K., yet at home he only managed to get into the lower rungs of the top 40. In the long haul, Pitney, a consistent hit artist for nearly a decade in America, was ultimately more successful in England, and had large followings in many other countries.

In 1968, Gene tried a tougher approach, growling and bellowing through the change-of-pace "She's a Heartbreaker," probably his hottest-rocking track, enjoying a welcome hit after spending a couple of years outside the top 40. His last single of note predated today's rampant commercialism (that is, literally having your song used in - and promoted by - a TV commercial) by decades. "She Lets Her Hair Down (Early in the Morning)" received much more exposure through use in a Miss Clairol hair color TV spot than radio play in late 1969 and early 1970, and a competing version by The Tokens made it difficult for either act to score a big hit with the song.

- Michael Jack Kirby



I Wanna Love My Life Away Town Without Pity Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa That Girl Belongs to Yesterday