This is the fifth in a series of short articles about artists who, although not country artists, were of some importance to country music.
WHO WAS HE? : Gene Pitney was a successful singer-songwriter whose peak American success occurred during the 1960s. As a songwriter, Pitney supplied hits to a number of prominent artists including “He’s a Rebel” (The Crystals) “Today’s Teardrops” (Roy Orbison), “Rubber Ball” (Bobby Vee) and “Hello Mary Lou” (Ricky Nelson).
As a singer, Gene was a very dramatic balladeer, whose powerful voice bought the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David to prominence with such hits as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” and “Only Love Can Break A Heart”. “Only Love Can Break A Heart” was Gene’s biggest US pop hit, reaching #2, kept from the top, ironically enough by the Crystals’ recording of “He’s A Rebel”. All told Gene charted twenty-four tunes in the US Hot 100 with four songs reaching the top ten.
Although Gene had considerable success in the USA, he was even more successful in the UK with eleven songs reaching the top ten including his 1963 recording of “That Girl Belongs To Yesterday”, the first ever hit for the songwriting duo of Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, and a #1 duet with Marc Almond in 1989 of “Something’s Got A Hold of My Heart”. Gene died of an apparent heart attack in 2006 while on a successful tour of Great Britain.
WHAT WAS HIS CONNECTION TO COUNTRY MUSIC? : Gene listed Moon Mullican among his early influences. Although he was raised in Connecticut, he recalled listening to the WWVA Big Jamboree on some Saturday nights.
Gene was the flagship artist for Art Talmadge’s Musicor label, which had only two consistently bankable artists in Gene Pitney and (after 1965) George Jones. Both artists were grossly over-recorded, often releasing five or more albums per year. Somewhere along the line, someone had the bright idea to record George and Gene together, releasing the records under the name ‘George & Gene’. This duo charted four songs on the country charts, the biggest being a #16 charting remake of the old Faron Young hit “I’ve Got Five Dollars and It’s Saturday Night” (it also reached the Billboard Hot 100). George Jones and Gene Pitney would record a total of seventeen songs together; however, all of their work together was in the recording studio as they never appeared in concert together.
Gene would also have another duet country chart hit, this time with another Musicor label mate, Melba Montgomery, on “Baby Ain’t That Fine”. Gene and Melba recorded several songs together.
Although Gene’s success on the country charts was limited, several of his pop classics were covered by country artists with success. Sonny James took “Only Love Can Break A Heart” to #1 Cashhbox/#2 Billboard in 1972 and in 1979 Kenny Dale took it to #7. Randy Barlow took “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa” to the top twenty in 1977 and several other artists had some lower places with covers of Gene’s hits, plus his songs show up as album tracks on country albums throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
There is an official website where you can find out more about Pitney and listen to samples of his music. If you’ve never heard Gene Pitney, you’re in for a treat. He’s not really comparable in style to anyone I can think of, maybe somewhere between Jackie Wilson and Roy Orbison, but unique and distinctive.
Sometimes when a duo is created by factors that are not organic or artistic the results can be less than satisfying. But Musicor’s marriage of convenience that paired Gene & George turned out to but a really great combination. Their voices blended well and they seemed to enjoy singing together. At the time “I’ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night” was released in 1965 I was not aware that it was a re-make of a Faron Young hit from a decade earlier. Comparing both versions their take on it was just as good as Faron’s in my book. Also thought that their revival of George’s “Why Baby Why” and Rusty & Doug’s “Louisiana Man” were both excellent. My favorite performance from those sessions was issued as the “flip” side to their third single “Big Job.” “Your Old Standby” was a remake of a 1957 bluegrass favorite by Jim Eanes & The Shenandoah Valley Boys that showcased the emotional range of both singers.
Two CDs have compiled all of the Jones/Pitney duets. “George Jones & Gene Pitney” (Bear Family BCD 15790) also includes Gene’s solo recordings from both of the duet albums and Gene’s entire 1966 solo Musicor album “The Country Side Of Gene Pitney.” The Varese Vintage label reissued all 17 duets on “George Jones & Gene Pitney The Complete ‘60’s Duets” (Varese Sarabande 302 066 642-2)
Nice pick for this series Paul.
Very informative article and great comment by Mr. Johnson. Gene was the reason I started listening to George Jones more carefully and I thank him for that! I must admit that I thought his foray into country was ill-advised, but there were several outstanding outputs – those mentioned in the article and those by Mr. Johnson, but my all time favorite was Gene’s re-make of George’s “Things Have Gone to Pieces”. That caused me to find several other versions, but his will remain my fave!
Not sure how official your website source is/was. Gene was born in 1940. The 1941 date goes back to an early fan club newsletter that had the incorrect information on it.
My source was Joel Whitburn’s Top Country Singles 1944-1997 which shows his birhdate as 2/17/1941, which is the same date shown on http://www.genepitney.com. Wikipedia shows 2/17/1940. Whitburn is usually more accurate than Wiki so I went with that date. Getting a birthdate right can be a challenge. On an article for the late and lamented 9513.com , I had three different birthdates to chose from, went with Whitburn’s and eventually heard from Gail who gave me an entirely different date !
Sometimes you can’t win. I don’t lose any sleep over getting the birthdate wrong, particularly since the artists themselves and/or their record labels are often guilty of spreading misinformation (Webb Pierce or his label took five years off his age)