Inductee: Gene Pitney (vocals, guitar; born February 17, 1940; died April 5, 2006)
One of the unsung heroes of the rock and roll era, Gene Pitney crossed paths with a wide array of rock royalty – from Phil Spector and the Rolling Stones to Rick Nelson and Carole King – while amassing a sizable string of hits. Pitney arrived on the scene in the late Fifties as a gifted songwriter, capable musician and incredible singer. His dramatic tenor, given to piercing climaxes, was among the more remarkable voices of the age. He could deliver a rocker with panache, as evidenced by his double-tracked vocals on the racing, uptempo “It Hurts to Be In Love” (#7, 1964) and the R&B-slanted “She’s a Heartbreaker” (#16, 1968). But he was best at putting across songs with a smoldering emotional core, such as the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil composition “I’m Gonna Be Strong” (#9, 1964) and the teen psychodrama “Town Without Pity” (#13, 1961). “Like Del Shannon and Roy Orbison,” noted musicologist Mitchell Cohen, “Gene Pitney was most expressive with songs of suffering.” Since lovelorn strife and suffering were part of the rites of adolescent passage, the abundantly talented and broodingly handsome Pitney was ideally suited to become a star during and beyond the “teen idol” era of the early Sixties.
Pitney was born in rural Connecticut and displayed musical leanings at an early age. When his interest in music began interfering with his collegiate studies in electrical engineering, he opted for a career in music. He cut a couple singles, including one called “Classical Rock and Roll,” as part of the duo Jamie and Jane, and released another under the pseudonym Billy Bryan. Thereafter, Pitney reverted to his real name. His earliest success came as a songwriter. Pitney had his compositions recorded by the Kalin Twins (“Loneliness”), Roy Orbison (“Today’s Teardrops,” “22 Days”) and Bobby Vee (whose recording of Pitney’s “Rubber Ball” hit #1). Rick Nelson cut three of Pitney’s songs, including “Hello Mary Lou,” and the Crystals had their biggest hit with Pitney’s “He’s a Rebel,” produced by Phil Spector.
Convinced he could not only write hits but sing them as well, Pitney re-launched his career in 1961 with an ambitious recording of his “(I Wanna) Love My Life Away,” on which he multi-tracked vocals and overdubbed instruments in a pioneering feat of record production. Carrying ambitiousness one step further, Pitney’s brilliant third single, “Every Breath I Take,” was written by Gary Goffin and Carole King and produced by Phil Spector in one of the earliest and best examples of his heralded “Wall of Sound.” Pitney had written for other artists, and now other songwriters began tailoring songs to him. Burt Bacharach and Hal David penned a series of hits for Pitney, including “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” (#4, 1962), “Only Love Can Break a Heart” (#2, 1962), “True Love Never Runs Smooth” (#21, 1963) and “24 Hours from Tulsa” (#17, 1962). Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, whom Pitney had befriended on a 1963 visit to Britain, gave him an early song of theirs (“That Girl Belongs to Yesterday”). Pitney recorded and released it as a single, and it hit #49 in early 1964 – the first Jagger/Richards composition to make the U.S. charts, predating the Stones’ own “Tell Me” by a half year.
Pitney also cut songs by such notable writers as Ellie Greenwich (“Keep Tellin’ Yourself”), Al Kooper (“I Must Be Seeing Things”) and Randy Newman (“Nobody Needs Your Love,” “Just One Smile"). In the mid-Sixties, Pitney crossed over to the country charts by cutting two albums with honky-tonk legend George Jones and one with Melba Montgomery. All the while he toured the world extensively and even recorded entire albums in Italian and Spanish for the lucrative and loyal foreign market. Pitney was actually voted Italy’s top singer in a 1964 poll, and he became enormously popular in Britain. He’d tour the U.K. twice a year, often for a month at a time, on packages that included such fellow performers as the Kinks, the Troggs, Peter and Gordon, and Joe Cocker Long after the hit streak faded in his homeland, Pitney continued to tour the continent with great success.
In 1989, Pitney had the first #1 hit of his career when Marc Almond (formerly of Soft Cell) asked him to re-record an old song, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart,” as a duet. The single topped the U.K. charts for four weeks. A double-disc compilation, Gene Pitney: The Great Recordings, appeared in 1995. In 2000, a Pitney concert was filmed and aired as a PBS special. Pitney continued to spend much of the year performing around the U.S. and overseas, even in the early 2000s. He died in 2006 while on tour in England.