Although in his day he was often dismissed as a lightweight teen idol who just churned out song after song about teenage agony and angst, Gene Pitney managed to sustain a long and mostly successful career. Along the way he explored other genres, performing with everyone from George Jones to the Rolling Stones, and eventually gained the respect of most of his critics — or outlasted them.
Growing up in Connecticut, by his teen years he’d become a singer and a talented multi-instrumentalist, but his first career break was actually as a songwriter, when Ricky Nelson had a big hit with his “Hello Mary Lou.” Pitney’s songwriting talents are often forgotten, but eventually he would furnish songs to everyone from the Crystals to Vikki Carr to Roy Orbison.
But like most singer/songwriters in the early part of their career, young Gene wanted to be the singer in the spotlight. His own recording career took off slowly, but he began to get noticed in 1961 when he recorded “Love My Life Away,” and not only sang but also played all the instruments (via multi-tracking). It not only showed his musical abilities but also his studio skills.
His first top-ten charted record occurred later that year when he sang the theme song from the movie “Town Without Pity.” The tune won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, and young Gene sang it on the Academy Awards TV show. Over the next few years he spun out hit after hit, including “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” “It Hurts to Be in Love,” and “Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa.” (Video below.) He also had another movie theme success with “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
As popular as Gene became in the US, he was an even bigger hit in Great Britain, where he charted 22 top-40 hits (vs 16 in the US). In fact, as his career continued he found himself gravitating more and more to the UK, and spent some time with the Rolling Stones, eventually recording their tune, “That Girl Belongs to Yesterday.” It was a hit in the UK but a disappointment in the US, and that might have foreshadowed the direction Gene’s career was to take because as the years passed he continued to remain popular with British fans.
For many years he continued to draw well in live shows in the UK, and although his recording activity slowed down, he did hit the top of the British charts in 1989 with an update of a tune he’d originally recorded in the Sixties, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart.” He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and continued performing right up until his death in April 2006, the night after a show in Cardiff, Wales. He left behind a wife and three sons, and a solid musical legacy.