Rock 'N Roll Case Study: Gene Pitney
This month we are reviewing the Gene Pitney tribute album: THE GENE PITNEY STORY RETOLD. I was only vaguely familiar with the name Gene Pitney, but even the most casual rock history fans will recognize some of the songs that he wrote for others that were hits. I talked to Jeff Glenn, just one of the persons that was instrumental in getting the Gene Pitney tribute album off the ground (the others being Lisa Mychols and Gary Pig Gold). Glenn's band, The Retros, also has one track on this compilation. In addition to finding out about the album I got a cool history lesson about Gene Pitney!

The Gene Pitney Story Retold
Interview with Jeff Glenn
By Ronnie

Right: the cover of THE GENE PITNEY STORY RETOLD is a clever parody of an original Gene Pitney LP called "The Gene Pitney Story" with Lisa Mychols image in place of the original girl on the cover!

E.C.: Listening to the CD (THE GENE PITNEY STORY RETOLD), I was really surprised that I recognized some of the songs, although the name of "Gene Pitney" really didn't ring a bell. Then I did some research on Gene and was impressed by his accomplishments (in addition to his own hits, he wrote hits for others, sat in with the Rolling Stones and recorded with Phil Spector!). How did the CD come about and what was your role in it?

Jeff: The CD primarily came about through the vision of Lisa Mychols who produced the set along with Gary Pig Gold. At the time Lisa was the front person of the great band The Masticators; they recorded for To M'Lou Music, which is run by Gary and Shane Faubert. Lisa is a huge longtime fan of Gene Pitney and was telling Gary that with all the tribute CD's that have been released, no one had ever done one for Pitney. Gary suggested that she put one together and said that To M'Lou Music would release it. It took a long time to get everything together - bands from all over the U.S. as well as from Canada, Australia, and Austria were involved - but it was worth the time it took to do it right.

Because Gene Pitney has never received his due. I live in Los Angeles, and you almost never hear him played on the radio anymore (despite having almost two dozen U.S. chart hits between 1961 and 1970 - four of which went Top Ten as well). One of his earliest hits - "Every Breath I Take" - was also one of the earliest hits for producer Phil Spector, who went on to record Pitney's song "He's A Rebel" with The Crystals, giving Gene his only U.S. #1 as a writer or artist. And as a result of Andrew Loog Oldham being his U.K. music publisher, Pitney was the first artist to take a Jagger/Richards composition into the U.S. charts when he released their "This Girl Belongs To Yesterday" in early 1964. He was also present at the recording session in London for The Rolling Stones' "Not Fade Away" - bringing with him the liquid motivation that fueled a classic performance - and played piano on its original U.K. flip side "Little By Little." Some pretty hip credentials in my book.

Other than being largely responsible for The Retros' track - "I'm Afraid To Go Home" - I helped out on research regarding publishing info and original release dates and numbers, but all the credit for the release goes to Gary and especially Lisa, whose love of the music drove the whole thing.

E.C.: Another realization upon hearing the CD is how well the songs sound with a modern translation. Although he didn't always write his material, he had a real good sense for picking songs out. Do you think this is Gene's strongest attribute?

Jeff: Gene Pitney's early hits came during the heyday of the Brill Building, and throughout the 60's he had access to a lot of great songs. What he recorded was a combination of his own songs, songs he got from publishers, and songs that were brought to him directly. And based on his recorded output he's had a pretty good track record picking the right songs to highlight that amazing voice. So to answer your question Gene's strongest attributes are his ability to pick the right songs AND The Voice.

It's an interesting (and ironic) aside to note that Pitney's biggest hits as a writer were songs he gave to other people: Bobby Vee's "Rubber Ball," Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou," and The Crystals' "He's A Rebel."

E.C.: Your band, The Retros, is one of the bands on the CD. How did you find the artists for this CD? Who picked the songs?

Jeff: Lisa already knew most of the artists that appear on the CD. She and Gary wanted to get some bigger names, and I believe Gary was instrumental in securing the participation of Gordon Waller and Al Kooper. As far as the songs, the artists picked the songs on a first come, first served basis although there were a few changes along the way. There were also some cases where Lisa suggested songs to certain artists.

E.C.: I also found Gene's official website and he is still doing public performances! Do you know if he's heard the tribute CD? I was just curious if you got any feedback from Gene Pitney himself?

Jeff: I know that Mr. Pitney is aware of the compilation, but I'm not sure if he's actually heard it yet.

E.C.: Reading some bio info on Gene, I also noticed that although he had quite a few career accomplishments, his personal life was pretty nondescript without many of the tabloid-like stories that other singers use for publicity. Why do you think Gene is not as well known?

Jeff: I think you essentially answered your own question. You're absolutely right about Gene's life being relatively nondescript, so I don't think we're going to see a VH-1 "Behind The Music" on him any time soon! And that's probably why he's not as well known. Scandal = fame/notoriety. But. I have heard that there may be a documentary on the making of this tribute CD next year. You heard it here first!

E.C.: I think Gene Pitney would be the great subject of a biography. Do you happen to know if there are any books of him out there?

Jeff: I'm not aware of any biographies of Gene out now, but I'd love to see him write his own story. Even though he hasn't led a tabloidesque life, he's crossed paths with Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector, The Stones, George Jones, and Marc Almond (just to name a few), so he must have dozens if not hundreds of great stories about the recording industry. And that alone would make it a great read.

E.C.: Gene Pitney seems to have that chameleon-like style of Bobby Darin. He could change genres from rock, teen idol, Brill Building pop and even country. How would you categorize Gene Pitney?

Jeff: I would say that Gene Pitney is best characterized as a great entertainer/performer. You're absolutely right about Pitney being similar to Bobby Darin in regards to the wide range of material they tackled, and so to characterize him more specifically wouldn't be as accurate. And certainly he's concentrated most on the performing aspect of his career - on records and on stage - than anything else.

E.C.: I'm really curious after hearing this CD and I'm going to search out more of Gene Pitney's original material. Would that be the ultimate goal of this CD, to generate interest in an artist that has been sorely neglected?

Jeff: I'm sure the primary goal of this CD is for the artists to show their love of Gene Pitney's music, whether they have come to it recently or were around when it was originally released (or in Al Kooper's case, were involved in its creation).

But the other major goal is to generate interest in an impressive body of work that's largely overlooked, at least here in the U.S. The situation is much better in the U.K., and in fact most of his work is available on CD there on the Sequel label. A great place to start is the 50 song 2-CD compilation Looking Through Gene Pitney: The Ultimate Collection, the best-chosen and best-sounding Pitney comp ever released. Sequel also has most of his original LP's available on two-fer CD's for those who want to explore beyond the hits. And in the U.S. Varese Vintage has an excellent 25 track single CD comp called 25 All Time Greatest Hits.

But pick up He's A Rebel: The Gene Pitney Story Retold first!