Mister Boomer has music flashbacks. It can happen any time of day, but most often, these nostalgic memories arrive on awakening, or during the morning commute to work. Sometimes they take the form of earworms, and stick around all day — whether they are wanted or not. Other times, it’s like waking up to 1960s radio, the way so many of us did.
For the past week and half, there has been one artist’s songs — out of the blue — that have entered the realm of the flashback zone for Mister B: Gene Pitney. It started with one of Mister B’s Pitney favorites, It Hurts to Be In Love (1964). Town Without Pity (1961), Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa and (The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance soon followed on the inner airwaves.
Pitney missed being a boomer by a few years, having been born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1940. Gene Pitney formed his first band in high school, and also sang doo wop. He made his first record as part of a duo called Jane & Jamie in 1959. He pursued a solo career, but got his first big break when Roy Orbison recorded his Today’s Teardrops as the B-side to Blue Angel in 1960. It wasn’t included on the Lonely and Blue album that featured Blue Angel, but Orbison did include another Pitney song on that album, Twenty-Two Days. Pitney was signed to the Musicor label in 1961 as a songwriter, and took up residence in the Brill Building in New York.
That year was a momentous one for Gene Pitney, and was the year Mister Boomer first heard his records on his transistor radio. Pitney succeeded as a singer when he was tapped to sing Town Without Pity for the movie of the same name. He didn’t write the song (fellow Brill Building songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David did), but it was nominated for an Academy Award and he sang it at the Oscars Ceremony in 1962, becoming the first pop singer to perform at the Academy Awards. The song became Pitney’s first Top 20 single. That same year Pitney-penned songs were released by other top stars, further showcasing his talents as a songwriter. Bobby Vee had a hit with Red Rubber Ball and Ricky Nelson climbed to number 5 with Hello Mary Lou.
Record producers tried to convince him that he was a better songwriter than singer, but Pitney continued to follow both avenues. He released a single in 1961 — (I Wanna) Love My Life Away, in which he pioneered multi-track vocals and overdubbed instruments. Pitney performed on the piano, guitar and drums and sang all seven vocal tracks on the recording, in addition to writing the tune. It reached number 39 on the US charts, and the Top 40 in the UK, Canada and Australia.
In 1962 the Crystals released He’s a Rebel, written by Gene Pitney and produced by Phil Spector. The single hit number one on the charts. As luck would have it, Pitney had a hit climbing the charts at the same time. He recorded Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. His single’s upward climb was halted at number two when He’s A Rebel took the top spot. In 2004, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time ranked He’s a Rebel number 263.
For the next five years Pitney had a series of hits, ironically, most with songs he did not write. Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa, another song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, was a Top 10 hit for Pitney in the UK and the U.S. in 1964. It Hurts to Be in Love, written by Howard Greenfield and Helen Miler, another Brill Building songwriting team, was another Top 10 hit for Pitney in 1964. The song had been recorded by Neil Sedaka, but RCA wouldn’t let Sedaka release the song since it wasn’t recorded in RCA studios, which was a stipulation of his contract. As a result, the songwriters offered it to Gene Pitney. The arrangement and background vocals on Pitney’s hit remained those recorded by Neil Sedaka.
Gene Pitney had done it all in less than a decade; doo wop, country, blues, pop and rock ‘ roll. But like so many of his contemporaries, when the psychedelic era dawned in 1967, his career fell. He had a Top 40 hit in 1968 with She’s a Heartbreaker, but by 1970, was off the charts.
He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. While touring the UK, Pitney died of a heart attack on April 5, 2006.
Mister Boomer is still a big fan of Pitney’s vocals and songs. These are the kind of music flashbacks he’ll welcome anytime.