Why We Listened to Gene Pitney

It’s a perfect three-minute teaser for a legendary western by the same name, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

The song opens with a languid intro on the fiddle, followed by a simple quadruple drum pattern. Then, rising dramatic tension. A few bars later the voice enters, with a tessitura so distinctive I’d never heard one like it before or since. It was halfway between a country vocalist and a pop balladeer. The singer sets the story by painting a scary picture of a villain who terrorizes the townspeople with his “straight and fast” shooting. In the next stanza, the singer’s quavering voice softens the music to introduce an unobtrusive female chorus. In one line he describes the hero, a reasonable man who just wants to live in peace with his girl despite the gruesome gunslinger terrorizing them. Rising crescendos in the chorus inject even more tension, tattoos on the snare drum imitate gunshots, and the song suddenly ends, ambiguously, cagily, without revealing its surprise. It’s a perfect three-minute teaser for a legendary western by the same name.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

It is perhaps Gene Pitney’s greatest song and it encapsulates (most of) the plot of John Ford’s 1962 picture. And yet it is nowhere to be found in the movie itself, not even at the closing credits where it was originally intended. John Ford hated teen idol singers so much, he scotched the song and substituted it with Alfred Newman’s “Ann Rutledge Theme” from a previous film, Young Mr. Lincoln (1938). Nobody lined up to buy that one, but John Ford didn’t give two shits.

Unlike that of other white male teen idols like Ricky Nelson and Roy Orbison, little of Gene Pitney’s music is known today. Yet in the early 60s, whenever one of his songs came out, it was an event for us junior high schoolers. We eagerly listened to it on AM radio, even waited, transistors at our ears, for the next time it would be played. In his early years, his tenor voice seemed high and youthful, like Michael Jackson’s was at twenty. Peppy numbers like “Cry Your Eyes Out,” “Donna Means Heartache,” and “(I Wanna) Love My Life Away” propelled our callow ideas of melody and rhythm out into the troposphere like bottle rockets. He was equally good in the slow dance category. My dancin’ fool friend Ronald Costa said this about “True Love Never Runs Smooth”: “Perfect. Absolutely perfect. The girls just melt in your arms.” I don’t think he really cared about Pitney’s words, because I once asked him what he thought of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” He said, “Good but doesn’t cut it. Too fast for a slow song and too slow for a fast one.” Then he smiled as if he knew that would be the cleverest thing I’d hear all week. And it was.

Gene Pitney didn’t just typify a four-year pop music era, he helped shape and fashion it. His voice could span three octaves, his fertile mind could write songs for anyone. Many performers used his compositions: the Kalin Twins (“Loneliness”), Roy Orbison (“Today’s Teardrops,” “22 Days”) and Bobby Vee. (“Rubber Ball” hit Number One.) He propped up Ricky Nelson’s sagging career with not one but three songs, including “Hello Mary Lou.” The Crystals are still famous today for their Phil Spector-produced blockbuster “He’s a Rebel” written by… guess who? When Pitney was inducted into The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, singer Darlene Love posed next to him on stage.

“Like Del Shannon and Roy Orbison,” wrote musicologist Mitchell Cohen, “Gene Pitney was most expressive with songs of suffering.” Like we didn’t know that. The rocker “It Hurts to Be In Love” seemed tailor cut just for our achy yearning hearts.

It hurts to be in love
When the only one you love
Turns out to be someone
Who's not in love with you.

He was good-humored, but displayed little sense of humor in his music. And he was in no way a topical singer in 1963, the year The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan came out, reanimating the protest-song genre. There was an exception, sort of. In 1961, the historical drama film Town Without Pity was released, containing his performances of Dimitri Tiomkin’s song “Town Without Pity.”   A plea for tolerance, the song became an Academy Award nominee and Pitney’s first Top 40 single. Apart from “Town Without Pity,” there were few references to the intolerant confusing world in most of what he sang. (However, I did hope his 1963 hit, “24 Hours from Tulsa”, with its adult themes of infidelity and guilt, would be made into a TV movie. But nobody asked my advice.)

He was broodingly handsome, even more so than Ricky Nelson, and far cuter than Paul Anka and Bobby Darin put together. Two girls I knew had glossy 8 x 10 pictures of him because they’d incessantly hounded his overworked fan club. I struggled hard to get my hair like his, but alas, I couldn’t afford the $100-a-day stylist.

Gene Pitney Signs Autographs

My friend Steve and I particularly liked the overdubbed and elaborate “Not Responsible,” never a hit, never even released as a flipside on a 45. Yet Pitney was one of the first singers to take full advantage of 33 rpm record albums. And many of them contain excellent songs that promoters didn’t want to bet on for some reason. “Please don’t look at me with hungry lips,” Pitney crooned, and we agreed we’d give anything to have a girl look at us that way. And we both felt so awed by at the sight of any beautiful girl that of course we couldn’t be held responsible for our babbling tongues and rockhard erections. Gene Pitney had given us permission.

But even then we couldn’t relate to all aspects of his style. Sometimes he used silly devices like a wisecracking bass singer posing as a genie in “Aladdin’s Lamp” or the Mantovanni-like thirty-second over-orchestration in “Every Little Breath I Take.” Whenever that happened, I prayed for the invention of fast forward. But in the long run it didn’t matter. We forgave him. Even today, “Every Little Breath I Take” still amuses me with its quaint “dip dip” singers at the opening and stuns me with his sudden falsetto finale (which hadn’t been planned, I later found out).

Most of today’s popular songs can’t compete with such 60s ancestors, because they are so homogenous. It’s practically an adage that the many untalented people we hear on the radio can’t live without autotune. Plus there’s this daunting fact:

An astonishing amount of today’s popular music is written by two people: Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, who are both responsible for dozens of songs in the top 100 charts. You can credit Max and Dr. Luke for most the hits of these stars: Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Jessie J., KE$HA, Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, Maroon 5, Taio Cruz, Ellie Goulding, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, Nick Minaj, Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, Usher, Adam Lambert, Justin Bieber, Domino, Pink, Pitbull, One Direction, Flo Rida, Paris Hilton, The Veronicas, R. Kelly, Zebrahead.
The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality) by Jon Henschen | Intellectual Takeout, August 16, 2018 

While Pitney survived the first few years of the British Invasion, he eventually had to pull back and diversify, recording country songs with George Jones and Melba Montgomery and singing ballads in Spanish and Italian. He was voted Italy’s top singer in a 1964 poll, and he became enormously popular in Britain. Unlike Orbison, he never had long fallow periods due to depression, drugs, or personal problems. When times got really tough, Pitney just repositioned himself, even if it meant paying the devil via gigs in real estate and finance planning.

In 2006 he died relatively young at 66 of a heart attack the night after performing in London. The last song he sang that night was “Town without Pity.”

His two-CD set The Great Recordings (1995) did fairly well on the oldies circuit, but it wasn’t a chart-buster. Unlike Beethoven and Mozart, or Monk and Coltrane, such music wasn’t built to last and it’s just as well. Like chocolate cheesecake, nostalgia this rich should not be consumed in large quantities. And certainly not too often.

Author: Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and also runs the blogs Stylus and Hdrbodegaphoto.

8 thoughts on “Why We Listened to Gene Pitney”

  1. Peter, this is really good, even if you stayed up well past your bedtime to send it out. 😃 I always admire someone who can capture a mood or a feeling that would be difficult for me, in this particular case just being able to analyze music and the terms you use and how it feels. But also, you’ve really put me right back into the early sixties. Just the whole effect what you wrote. It’s also very well polished! I only caught one or two grammar Eros** haha.

    **Okay, that should be errors

  2. Peter, this is a wonderful merging of a deep understanding of the era and your own personal anecdotes, a really wonderful little essay, riding the edge between academic writing and a memoir. By the way, “Town Without Pity” is one of my favorite Karaoke songs (after “It Really Doesn’t Matter Anymore”). I have a feeling people conflate Pitney and Roy Orbison — you can imagine Orbison singing “Town Without Pity” can’t you?

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