Gene Pitney
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

One of the 1960s’ great pop ciphers, GENE PITNEY (1940-2006) was the voice of white American emotionalism. Though he didn’t compose much, Pitney wrote or co-wrote three classics: the Buddy Holly-flavored “Rubber Ball,” a hit for Bobby Vee; the oft-covered “Hello, Mary Lou” (Ricky Nelson was first); and the epochal “He’s A Rebel” — upon which Phil Spector arranged his “Wall of Sound,” ineffable Darlene Love on top. As a singer of startling dramatic (sometimes melodramatic, as in “Town Without Pity”) empathy, Pitney took the Brill Building’s best and made them better, including songs by Goffin-King, Mann-Weill, Bert Berns and, staggeringly, Burt Bacharach and Hal David: “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance” (1962), “True Love Never Runs Smooth” (1963), “24 Hours To Tulsa” (1963), “Fool Killer” (1965). Showing his range, Pitney also made two superb albums with honky-tonk hero George Jones, and another with Jones’ regular duet partner, Melba Montgomery — impressive for a kid from Connecticut. Like most pop vocalists, Pitney had a hard time making records commensurate with his talent and, by the mid-1970s, he’d stopped trying. This might have been the end but for British singer Marc Almond, whose 1988 duet with Pitney, “Something’s Got A Hold Of My Heart,” became a became a number one UK hit — 21 years after Pitney’s previous version went to #5.

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Historian, journalist, and poet Brian Berger is coeditor of New York Calling. He has written for many publications, a few of which even still exist.