Gene Pitney

AT a time when many of his contemporaries are desperately scraping a living on the nostalgia circuit, 60s pop idol Gene Pitney is still playing sell-out shows and gaining new fans.

But then the name Pitney was always synonymous with quality. The American performer didn't just record chart-busting hits, he wrote them for other people too.

His own clean-cut Ivy League image helped propel records like Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa and I'm Gonna To Be Strong into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

While away from the stage his song-writing talents produced multi-million selling hits like Rubber Ball for Bobby Vee and Marty Wilde. As a performer he was asked to sit in on a couple of Rolling Stones studio sessions and has worked with the cream of the crop on the technical side of the business too, including the legendary Phil Spector.

Although currently in the news (and on bail) after a B movie actress was found shot dead in the foyer of his LA mansion, back in the early '60s Spector was best known for his genius behind the recording console. The inventor of the famous Wall of Sound produced, among others, Gene Pitney's second hit Every Breath I Take and turned one of his songs, He's A Rebel, into a million seller for the girl group The Crystals.

That record along with recordings by The Ronettes helped define the quintessential Spector sound.Not surprisingly perhaps, given recent events, Pitney, who is currently publicising his forthcoming tour of the UK which includes a concert at the Bournemouth Pavilion this May, has been talking about Spector quite a lot over the past week or so.

"He is an absolute eccentric, he always has been," he told me, as he reminisced about the early days with Phil. "We had dinner together the first time he ever came to New York from LA. We didn't know each other at all at the time and we were talking about our families when suddenly he told me that he had a sister who was in an asylum and that she was the sane one of the family. I thought: 'Woah, where's he coming from?'

"I think the guy's had a lot of demons, some kind a mental situation that's caused him a lot of grief. But I also think that that is probably what has made him so successful."

Working with Spector was an extraordinary experience, says Pitney. "He would hear things that others didn't. He certainly didn't work in a conventional way in the studio." He remembers the sessions for Every Breath I Take with Spector at the control desk and a few famous friends who had dropped by to listen.

"There was Lieber and Stoller, Bacarach and David, Schroeder and Gold and a few others too. If someone had dropped a bomb on that studio that day it would have literally changed the course of musical history."

At the time, however, Pitney was more worried about the battle of wills that was taking place behind the recording console.

"They were all so opinionated. It was driving me nuts because I was just the guy singing. Every time I did a take I would think: 'Great, that was it'. And every time someone would say: 'Yes, but what if we did this?'

"It was a very long, long, long drawn-out session for me but you know what, Phil eventually forced his way through and made the record he wanted to. It wasn't a major hit which is something I've never really understood. To this day I think it was one of the very best things I ever recorded."

Pitney was as shocked as everyone else when news of the shooting at Spector's mansion broke and says he has been concerned about the reclusive record producer for some time. The last time he saw Spector, Gene Pitney was waiting to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York last year.

"I was standing there in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel getting ready to go up on stage when Phil walked past. I was just about to jump out and say: 'Hey, how're you doing?' when I realised he was kind of being directed by a minder, he was sort of shuffling. He really didn't look very well at all."

Gene Pitney appears on Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow (Feb 21) at 9am (repeated Sunday at 11.15am) and will be in concert at the Bournemouth Pavilion on Friday, May 30. Telephone 01202 456456 for tickets or further information.

© Jeremy Miles 2022