For the journalist, a celebrity’s death creates a neat ending point for a career arc. When I read the obituaries of Gene Pitney, who died in his sleep early Wednesday at 65 after receiving a standing ovation at a concert in Cardiff, Wales, I saw the familiar attempts to make the subject’s career fit a template. The writers are sensitive enough; Pitney was well-loved and made remarkably few enemies. But when I see the man who wrote “He’s a Rebel” described in flat, workmanlike terms, something inside me rebels.
Let’s get this straight. Gene Pitney was not a mere 1960s pop hitmaker. He was not just a great live performer who routinely received standing ovations from sold-out crowds in halls seating thousands.
Gene Pitney was a brilliant, funny, no-nonsense UConn electronics major who could have done anything he wanted to do, and decided to follow his talents into the rock world. He never fell victim to the booze, drugs, or ego trips that beset so many of his famous peers. He frustrated one-time flame Marianne Faithfull because, unlike her other package-tour conquests, he was so damn logical.
When the hits stopped coming, Pitney knew when to ditch the record-biz merry-go-round in favor of his always-supportive live audiences. He wed his high-school sweetheart, stayed married, raised three sons, invested well, and never wrote a kiss-and-tell tome.
The author of Ricky Nelson’s unassuming hit “Hello Mary Lou” never tried to be an Artist with a capital A. He avoided the clichés of 1960s rock stardom at every turn–which is why he’s so much more interesting, and in many ways more artful, than so many of the performers who replaced him on the charts.
Rockers of the Beatles/Bob Dylan generation prized self-revelation. By contrast, Pitney’s gift, with records like “I’m Gonna Be Strong” and “Backstage,” was to embody deep, universal emotions. His finely nuanced performances caused listeners to feel their own emotions amplified. At live performances like the sold-out one I witnessed at Carnegie Hall in 1993, the experience was nothing short of cathartic. Or, to put it another way, as critic Nigel Corten the South Wales Argus told the Associated Press of Pitney’s final concert, “The audience were in raptures.”
No doubt Pitney performed two of his biggest U.K. hits at that Cardiff show, “Just One Smile” and “Nobody Needs Your Love,” which he recorded in 1966–jumpstarting the career of a struggling songwriter.
“I had to fight so hard to get a Randy Newman song called ‘Just One Smile’ done,” Pitney recalled to me in 1993, when I interviewed him for Goldmine magazine.
Randy Newman used to make these horrible demos. He was a very eccentric guy, and they couldn’t get him into the studio, so he would always do his own demos on a tape recorder at home. When he did them, he would leave several bars in between each line of the song, and it stretched everything out so bad.
“I heard ‘Just One Smile,’” Pitney continued, “and I kinda lived with it. I got it down pat on the piano, and I started to condense it ’cause I knew there was something there, and everybody hated it. The producer hated it. The arranger hated it. Everybody tried to talk me out of it, and I put my foot down and I said, ‘No. There’s a great song here somewhere.’”
“That was [Newman’s] best period of time,” he added, “because, like a lot of writers that write novels and things like that, when you’re hungry and when you’re depressed, anguished, whatever it is that drives you–that’s when you write your best things, and he definitely was at that period of time.”
After his wave of U.S. smashes in the early 1960s, although Pitney continued to have hits overseas, his efforts to maintain his recording career in his home country were stymied by record-company missteps. He admitted to me that the Musicor label’s various packagings and repackagings of his hits “weren’t very good.” “The only thing that I can say for my side of it was that I worked really hard to make sure that the songs weren’t just filler, that they all had some strength to them.”
He took a breath. “For an example of how the label operated: I had an apartment for quite a few years at the top of Seventh Avenue, right on Central Park, and the guy that I shared it with was from the William Morris agency. I was in the apartment one night, and he was roaring laughing.
“I said, ‘What are you laughing at?’
“He said, ‘Have you listened to your new LP?’ He had just gotten it that day from Musicor.
“I had heard it, so I said, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ It was a phony live LP, and they’d hired a guy like Murray the K to say, ‘And here he is now –’
“Well, when he did this whole spiel and introduced me, the crowd started to roar. My roommate played it for me and said, ‘Did you ever hear the bell?’
“I said, ‘What bell are you talking about?’ He put the record back on.
“They didn’t have a crowd-noise tape in the studio, so they used a fight crowd! The gong for the round goes off, and then you realize it’s all guys in the background going, ’Yuhhhh! Hit him again!’ “
I asked Pitney why he never recorded anything by another Los Angeles writer popular at the same time as Newman: Jimmy Webb. He responded with a story about another acclaimed artist who never quite caught on with him.
I give Jimmy Webb all the credit for what he’s done and all the success he’s had, but it’s just like–I remember the day that I was out cutting the grass and someone said Australia was on the telephone. I came in, I huffed and puffed up to the phone, and it was a guy that I knew very well, calling from Melbourne, Australia, and he said, “What did you think of Elvis?”
I thought, what a strange thing for a man to ask, calling me from Australia in the middle of the afternoon. And I said, “Y’know, I was never really that impressed. I was not a great Elvis fan.”
Then all of a sudden he stopped me and he said, “Do you know what’s happened?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been out cutting the grass for about three hours. No, to be honest with you.” He said, “Elvis has died.”
[Both] Jimmy Webb’s songs, and Elvis as a performer never had the depth of the people that I liked. I like a lot of people who were obscure. [Original Drifters singer] Clyde McPhatter was one of my favorites, just a unique individual, in his own pattern, not following after anyone else.
I told him about how, at his Carnegie Hall performance, some audience members wondered beforehand if he could still hit the high notes.
“I love that,” Pitney said, “because I know what I can do. Actually, I think, in some ways, I can do better now than I could ever do in the Sixties.”
I agreed. “Your voice sounds fuller,” I said. “It’s lost some of the . . . I hate to say this –”
He interrupted me. “I know what you’re gonna say: the high-pitched nasal sound.”
“Definitely!” he exclaimed. “I love it, because I used to hate that myself. It’s rounded out, which I much prefer.”
Asked if he had a message to share with his fans, he said, “Just that, even though a lot of people in this country think so, I’ve never, ever been away. I’ve always been out there performing.”
I complimented him on how effectively he performed his old songs from a grown-up perspective, avoiding the Peter Pan sensibility that plagues many oldies rockers who attained fame in their youth.
“Fortunately, I agree with everything you’re saying,” he said. “The only thing that I think I still have is what an old friend of mine, the English songwriter Roger Cook, used to always say: ‘I’ve still got a little bit of the boy in me.’ I think that’s important. You have to retain that.”
–Dawn Eden edits “Big Town, Big Heart” for the New York Daily News.