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Gene Pitney, 65; Sang the Hit `Town Without Pity,' and Wrote `He's a Rebel'

April 06, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Gene Pitney, a successful songwriter of the early 1960s rock-pop scene who reinvented himself as a teen idol with a melodramatic tenor and such hits as the Oscar-nominated "Town Without Pity," was found dead Wednesday morning in a hotel room in Wales. He was 65.

The 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee had performed Tuesday night in Cardiff, one of the many European cities where the American singer remained popular despite his 1960s fade from fame in his native country.

"We don't have a cause of death at the moment, but looks like it was a very peaceful passing," James Kelly, Pitney's tour manager, told the Associated Press.

Gene Francis Allan Pitney was born Feb. 17, 1941, in Hartford, Conn., and during his youth in nearby Rockville, he became an adept musician. As the 1950s came to a close, the teen had already been frontman in his own band, Gene and the Genials.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Pitney obituary: The obituary for singer Gene Pitney that appeared in the April 6 California section reported his age as 65. He was 66.

Music publisher and songwriter Aaron Schroeder signed the young Pitney, who in the early 1960s wrote the signature Ricky Nelson hit "Hello Mary Lou," the Roy Orbison tune "Today's Teardrops," the Crystals classic "He's a Rebel" and Bobby Vee's "Rubber Ball."

But Pitney wanted to be in the spotlight himself, and he found it in 1961 with the release of "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away."

That recording cracked the Top 40 and was notable for its then-unusual multitrack production and overdubbed sound as well as the vibrato that would become a Pitney hallmark.

That studio ambition, which set Pitney apart from teen idols of the time, was also in play on his third single, "Every Breath I Take," which became a classic example of producer Phil Spector's famed "wall of sound" production.

In 1962, Pitney had a hit with the story-song "(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance," which was intended as a tailored movie theme to the John Ford western that had the same title and starred John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

"We were in the studio about to record the song and [songwriter Burt] Bacharach informed us that the film just came out," Pitney would later tell Mike Ragogna, who wrote the liner notes for a Pitney greatest hits collection.

The western-themed hit song was written by Bacharach and Hal David, who would give Pitney a chain of hits: "Only Love Can Break a Heart" in 1962 and "24 Hours from Tulsa" and "True Love Never Runs Smooth" a year later.

"He was a rare talent and a beautiful man, and his voice was unlike any other. I have great memories of working in the studio recording with Gene," Bacharach said Wednesday in a statement.

"Only Love Can Break a Heart" would become Pitney's strongest chart success, peaking at No. 2 in the U.S. in November 1962. There was a satisfying consolation -- the song in the No. 1 spot was the Pitney-penned "He's a Rebel."

Pitney toured England in 1963 and met a scruffy young band called the Rolling Stones. With a friendship struck up, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger gave the American star "That Girl Belongs to Yesterday," making Pitney the artist with the first Jagger-Richards composition to hit the charts in America.

In the mid-1960s, Pitney took a different musical tack by teaming his tenor with the baritone of country music icon George Jones for two albums. He also recorded a collection with country singer Melba Montgomery in that period.

The U.S. Top 40 hits for Pitney ended with his 1968 song "She's a Heartbreaker." As his American audience shrank, he looked to Europe for his fans. The man who had been voted "Italy's favorite singer" in 1964 recorded in Spanish and Italian and twice finished second at the San Remo Song Festival.

In 1970, angry about a tax squabble with the U.S. government, Pitney decided that the life he wanted was the faraway road. Over the next 15 years, his pattern would be to tour Europe in the fall, spend the winter at home, and then go to Japan, Australia and New Zealand before a summer spent back in Connecticut.

"The thing I always liked best about touring abroad was constantly running into different people, different cultures, different foods," he told The Times in 1989. "It really pumped up my batteries.... I'm constantly playing to a demographically diverse audience ... one generation is driven by nostalgia, the next by curiosity. And that's why I have no plans to retire."

His British fan base remained strong and, in 1989, he even had a surprise hit when Marc Almond of the techno-pop duo Soft Cell joined Pitney to record a new version of his 1960s song "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart." In 1990, the resulting duet gave Pitney his lone No. 1 hit on the British charts.

Last week, in an interview with the South Wales Evening Post on the eve of his final concert, Pitney reflected on the 1960s zenith of his career: "It was a unique period. I was having a hell of a good time traveling the world, writing, performing and recording."

Pitney is survived by his wife, Lynne, and three sons, David, Todd and Chris.

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