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Well look who the wind blew in! (Yes, it’s been VERY windy here!) It’s one of my favorite singers, Mr. Gene Pitney. I’ve probably played his albums (yep, the vinyl kind) more than any others I have. Go! Buy one now!

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Gene Francis Alan Pitney (February 17, 1940 – April 5, 2006) was an American singer-songwriter, musician, and sound engineer.

Pitney charted 16 Top-40 hits in the United States, four in the Top 10. In the United Kingdom he had 22 Top-40 hits, and 11 singles in the Top Ten. He also wrote the early 1960’s 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’s early influences were Clyde McPhatter, country-blues singer Moon Mullican, and doo-wop groups like the Crows. He attended Rockville High School 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.

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 April 9, 1962 (honoring the film year of 1961).

Pitney is also remembered for the 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. Because of his success on the music charts and as Pitney explained to his friend Oldies DJ “Wild”Wayne, an unknown radio disc jockey at the time dubbed him with the nickname “The Rockville Rocket” which caught on.

Meanwhile, Pitney wrote hits for others, including “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals (later covered by Vikki Carr and Elkie Brooks), “Today’s Teardrops” for Roy Orbison, “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee, and “Hello Mary Lou” for Ricky Nelson.

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.

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 to what extent is uncertain.

The Jagger/Richards song “That Girl Belongs to Yesterday” (can’t imagine them writing that song) was a No. 7 UK hit for Pitney in 1964; it was the first tune composed by the duo 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-1960’s, 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”.

At the height of his fame in 1966, Pitney married his childhood sweetheart, Lynne Gayton, and the couple had three sons. 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.”

On September 20, 2007, a plaque to Pitney was unveiled at the town hall in his hometown of Rockville, Connecticut. Members of the family attended. The event was emceed by nationally known oldies radio DJ and Pitney friend “Wild” Wayne. The Gene Pitney Commemorative Committee established a music scholarship in Pitney’s name. It is awarded annually to Rockville High School. In October 2008, an international fan convention was held in Rockville.

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“Only Love Can Break a Heart” was written by Hal David (words) and Burt Bacharach (music) and appears on Pitney’s second album Only Love Can Break a Heart.

Though Pitney had enjoyed some success as a songwriter prior to breaking through as a performer in his own right, ironically, Pitney’s success as a singer was beginning at this time, and “He’s a Rebel” kept “Only Love Can Break a Heart” from topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it spent one week at No. 2. The song also spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart in October and November 1962, while reaching No. 2 on New Zealand’s “Lever Hit Parade”. 

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(I would love to do a survey and see how many of us bought into this philosophy when our hormones were raging!)

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Picture Source: Classic 45’s