A Town Without Pity

11:42 p.m. July 22

Pop-rock singer Gene Pitney died on April 5.

I was on the road and unable to weigh in on his obituary. Unless you’re Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, news moves faster than when Gene was turning out the hits; “Town Without Pity” (1961), “Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa,” (1963) “It Hurts To Be In Love” (1964) and “Princess In Rags” (1965).

In 1964 Gene even dipped into the songbook of spaced out rock savant Joe Meek, when he had a minor hit with Meek’s cheery “Lips Were Redder On You.” Check it out.

Gene died of natural causes in his hotel room after a show in Cardiff, Wales. I don’t have any obit in front of me, but he had been all over the world. He knew the reward of travel was understanding the warmth of home.

I caught up with Gene in August, 1988. He was living in his hometown of Somers, Conn. He had lived there his entire life. He told me how he spent his teenage summers slinging burgers as a cook at the Crystal Lake Beach Club in Stafford Springs, down the road from Somers. He was the leader of a high school rock band called Gene Pitney and the Genials and they played some of his earliest hits.

He enjoyed reliving those memories.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s the beach club fell into serious disrepair. Connecticut winters were cold and beach clubs weren’t as cool as they were earlier in the decade. So in 1974 Gene and a New York cop took over operations of the club and restored it to its innocent splendor.

“And I don’t wander around with a hat on and say I’m the owner,” Gene told me. “I paint the fences, I do the plumbing, I do the electrical work. The ballroom part of the clubhouse, which is four stories high off the beach, burned down years ago. Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman played there in the 1930s. I had my work cut out for me in putting it back together again.”

That’s the way Gene did things. He was grounded. In 1970 he went off the road to help his wife Lynne raise their three boys. He did not want to miss watching his children grow up. Lynne was his high school sweetheart at Rockville High in Connecticut. And from 1970 until his death he promised to spend at least six months out the year at home. This led to weird speculation. Gene told me, “There’s one guy out of New York named Norm N. Nite who wrote a book [“Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock n’ Roll] that people take as a bible. In the first edition he wrote that Gene Pitney was a recluse living somewhere in the wilds of New England. Then they put out another edition and he changed it to: ‘Gene Pitney is a recluse living somewhere in Europe.’ I’ve been sitting here in Somers all along.”

Gene was a major talent. His dramatic tenor influenced David Bowie. He could have replaced Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys. I only saw him come through Chicago once, at a 1983 concert at the Park West. Besides his own hits, he wrote “Hello, Mary Lou” for Rick Nelson, “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee and “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals.

Gene had a million road stories, but one of the best ones was when he hooked up with Phil Spector during the Rolling Stones’ “Not Fade Away” sessions in 1964. “Andrew Oldham was my publicist and he was also manager of the Stones,” Gene said. “I stopped in London on my way out of Paris.”

Cool!

“Andrew said he needed my help,” Gene recalled. “The record company was screaming for another release and the Stones were in the studio, but they would not sing, nor would they even talk to each other. They hated each other. So a friend and I concocted this story—we had five fifths of Cognac we were bringing back from Paris. We took a fifth and went to the studio. Phil Spector arrived out of the blue in this big Rolls-Royce. I told everyone it was my birthday, and it was a family tradition that everybody has a water glass of Cognac. It did the trick. Everybody mellowed out and they got ‘Not Fade Away’ (originally recorded by Buddy Holly) out of the session. I loved the credits. They gave Phil credit for playing maracas. He was actually playing an empty Cognac bottle with a half-dollar.”

Gene could tell jet-setting stories like that, but his heart was always back on the beach of his hometown, a place where the chords were always sweet and the skies were perfectly clear. Everyone has a place like that. Gene Pitney’s good fortune was that he knew where it was.

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