What a career Gene Pitney has had! He's charted sixteen Top 40 singles and released 47 albums. And, that's just in the US. He wrote "Hello, Mary Lou" which was a big hit for Rick Nelson, and "He's a Rebel" for The Crystals, another song that enjoyed great success.
It's an honor to present an interview with one of the greater talents of Rock 'n' Roll - Mr. Gene Pitney.
Q - You've always had great success overseas, but, the British in particular really took a liking to you. What do you think accounts for that?
A - I started over there. It was a strange time to have success, because the first big record I had over there was around '64. It was right smack in the middle of the British Invasion, when The Stones, The Beatles and just about everybody else, were dominating the world market. I had a song called "Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa" which was right against the grain of what was going on, but it was a monstrous success for me. They're kind of like a Country 'n' Western fan. Once they're a fan of yours, they're pretty much a fan for life. I've gone back and done at least one tour a year over the last 25 years.
Q - How many months of the year are you on the road?
A - That varies an awful lot. I was traveling 11 months of the year, then I cut back to 6. I've found that when I made the commitment to cut back on my time, which was really made for my family's benefit, I benefited myself, much, much, more. I didn't know enough to stand back and get away from what I was doing. I think anybody who's in any job at all, I don't care what it is, if you just keep hammering away at it, you work just as hard, but you lose the one hundred per cent. Your one hundred per cent becomes ninety per cent, eighty per cent, but you're still hammering away, so you think you've got the same output. You become mechanical. If I didn't have that chance to back away, for that reason, I never would have known it. When I did walk away and take 2-3 months off, then went back and did a 'live' performance, the enthusiasm was so incredible. I hadn't had that for a long time.
Q - You've made this observation about the music industry, "I think that careers today are planned to be short-lived." With the tremendous amount of money it takes to promote an act today, do you really believe that?
A - I believe it, but for a different reason as well. I don't mean it plans to make x amount of money and then quit. I was really referring to the side which I think is unfortunate...the side I've been able to pursue and do what I really love doing for over 25 years. I don't think an act today can possibly do that. I think that when you reach the peak of a career, I'm talking about the acts that are going out
with 6 tractor trailer trucks and playing stadiums on 100,000 capacity, there is no way to back down from that. You just can't go into being a club performer or a 3,000 seat performer. It just doesn't work that way anymore. You just kind of fade from the picture.
Q - You were a headliner on Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars bus tours. You were paid $1,500 a week for 14 shows. There are those who say Dick Clark took unfair advantage of the performers, regarding the salary they received. What are your feelings on that?
A - Oh, yeah. Dick was an excellent businessman. As a matter of fact, I remember when he was really concerned about the fact that William Morris was taking 15 per cent of the gross on those tours. He didn't feel that was the way it should be. As a result, he stole away their top agent, and was putting things out himself, without going through an agency. The only thing people don't look at when they look at those salaries, which were very, very low, was the fee at the door. That has to be taken into consideration. I mean, there were tickets for 75 cents admission, as opposed to an $18 ticket now.
Q - And you were probably on stage only 20 minutes.
A - Well, that's my only beef. When people ask me what I would've done differently, it would've been eliminate almost all those tours. They were very, very good for promotion, but as far as learning your craft, they didn't do you any good whatsoever. You could've used a cardboard cutout. If I was headlining and closing a show, I never sang more than 4 songs. There was no burden on your shoulders to be a performer and to carry an audience, to lift a show, to pace a show.
Q - So, where did you learn all that?
A - All that came later on. It's one of those strange times when the hits stopped happening. Then you start wondering, were those people coming to see me because I had the hits, or because I was a performer. Then, you start going out doing a full show, with the burden on your back. It's great. You really left the audience with something. You got through to them, and it was through your ability and not just the fact that you had a hit record.
Q - Here's what Brown and Friedrich had to say about you in their book, Encyclopedia of Rock, "Half rock and half country, he had a style all his own. Although he didn't have much of a voice, he managed to overcome that through sheer showmanship. He's the type of performer who could come up with another Top 10 winner at any moment. We aren't holding our breath though." Well, the book was written in 1970, but what are your thoughts on their observations?
A - Well, I think some of it is just the opposite of that. I think that vocally, I had one of the better voices around. As far as being half-country, half-rock, every area I went into, any way I wanted to bend, I was capable of doing it. As a matter of fact, I loved the challenge of doing it. It was really fun to see if I could fit into each one of those categories. The only thing was, that when you were successful, by doing each one of those things, it added one more piece to your workload throughout the year. I needed an 18 month year. I was doing things with George Jones, Melba Montgomery. I went into the Italian market and sang in Italian, then in the Spanish market. When the success came in Italy, that meant that instead of just looking for songs in English for an English album, I'm now looking for songs done by Italian writers in Italian, for the Italian market. Country 'n' Western, I had the success, and we got an award as Best Country 'n' Western Group, which I couldn't understand, because there were only two of us, me and George. And now, looking for country songs for a country album. And also, doing all of the traveling, the touring and everything else. I remember sitting down in Nashville one time, borrowing a tape recorder from a publisher and talking into the tape recorder, and playing on piano the keys, and the way I wanted the songs arranged on a straight pop album that Gary Sherman was gonna do the arrangements for in New York. It got to the point where I couldn't sit down and talk to people, these things were being done long distance. Some of these things in books are incredible. I get these letters from people that say, 'My God, I thought your were dead!'
Q - I think they have you confused with Gene Vincent.
A - That has happened. That could be. But, Norman Nite, with his original book that came out, said Gene Pitney is a recluse living in the wilds of New England. Then, when they put out the next edition of the same book, it said Gene Pitney is a recluse living somewhere in Europe. (laughs) It's amazing how people really believe the written word. But, I wasn't helping by not being here.
Q - Nik Cohn, in his book, "Rock From The Begining", wrote "Gene Pitney came on like a full-blown tycoon which was exactly what he was. Money interested him deeply. Deals, they lit him up like neon." You enjoy the business side of music.
A - I enjoy that side of it. My business activities are primarily passive. The only one I take an active role in is The Beach Club. And, that's not walking around with a hat on saying 'Owner.' I do the painting, the plumbing, the electrical work. I dig the holes, and put the fences in. It's kind of like being able to channel my energy.
Q - So the idea is to diversify?
A - Yes. I think you can work just as hard or harder but make sure it's going in a different direction, so that when you come back to the other thing, it's brand new and you really love going at it again.
Q - Have you ever missed a show?
A - I've only missed 2 shows in 25 years. One, the band couldn't read music and I had to cancel the show, and the second was a snowstorm in England, and we almost made it. We were trying to flag a train down in Birmingham.
Q - You once performed in the duo, Jamie and Jane. Whatever happened to Jane?
A - Jane is a mom with five kids living down in the lower part of the state (Connecticut) where she originally came from.
Q - Did you know Elvis?
A - No. The day he died I was out cutting the grass. I didn't know what had happened during the day. My wife waved to me and said there was a long distance phone call. I came in, and it was Bert Newton who was a very big DJ in Melbourne, Australia. He said, 'Gene, this is Bert'. I said, "Hey, how you doing?, 'cause he does call now and then. He said, 'Gene what did you think of Elvis Presley?' I said I wasn't that influenced as most people were, and I told him the truth. All of a sudden he says, 'You don't know what happened, do you?' And I said, 'No, I've been out cutting grass for the last 3 hours.' He said, 'Elvis is dead.' Then, we just talked a little bit more about it. But, he was so surprised that I didn't know him. When Elvis came out with 'Heartbreak Hotel', I had just gotten into my Freshman year of high school. So, by the time I started recording, Elvis was gone. Elvis didn't do tours or anything like that. Tragically, I think that was the thing that affected his whole life. He was locked away. He didn't partake in the touring, so I never did see him.
Q - You were offered the opportunity of promoting the Rolling Stones concerts here in the US very early on in their career, and you turned it down. How come?
A - To be honest with you, I was so involved in just trying
to be successful myself at that point that there was no way in the world I could have handled all that. Today, it's a whole different perspective. Everything is much, much more in order. I think I could have. Then, it was like you were worried about the next single, the next album. Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones Manager) offered me the US for like six airfares or something like that, if I would send them over here. When I met them, it was very unusual because long hair hadn't yet been seen. It was a way of life from where they came from in England. It wasn't something that was made like that to create the fad. It was kind of a shocker. I remember the fella I had traveling with me from Connecticut had a picture taken, this was when Brian (Jones) was still alive, and he had two of 'em on each side of him with their arms around him, and I when he came home, his wife actually said, "Who are those four ugly broads?" (Laughs) As far as musically, they were very, very unique, and they were very energetic. I just knew that something would happen with them.
Q - When you were touring England in the early 60's, did the whole long hair and rock 'n' roll pairing surprise you?
A - Well, nothing in music surprises me. Everything is so cyclical to me in music. That period of time was almost a ten year cycle from when the 'Heartbreak Hotel' of Presley, which I think was around '54, and you're talking about '64 when The Beatles and Stones came out. Then, to me, everything got lost in the 70's. To me, it was a washout with the heavy metal and disco. There's not that many songs that I can remember that were stand-out things.
Q - Did you work with The Beatles?
A - I did TV shows with them. One of the more bizarre times, we were at Ethel Merman's birthday party and sprawled out on the carpet in front of the TV were The Beatles watching their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show being shown in British Television. We knew each other. One night, I was doing one of my tours, and I heard the announcement made for the second half, and I thought "that's not my announcer." And I went down and looked and there was McCartney, just outside of Heathrow Airport, he was backstage showing people the chords of "Yesterday". He had to take a right handed guitar and turn it upside down in order to play, being left handed.
Q - What did you think of Creedence Clearwater Revival's version of "Hello, Mary Lou"?
A - I liked it. From a songwriting point of view, I love it when anybody takes a song and does it, as far as different than I would have conceived it. Like when Rick Nelson originally did "Hello, Mary Lou", I never, ever would have had Rick Nelson in mind for that song.
Q - Who would you have had in mind?
A - I didn't write specifically. The only song I ever did write for anyone, and I couldn't believe I got the record, was "He's A Rebel" for The Crystals. I heard the song (Phil) Spector had done before called "Uptown". It was the first time I had heard R&R cellos and violas used in a funky way, in an arrangement, that it gave me goose bumps. I remember I was sitting in front of the Connecticut Bank and Trust Co. in the car when I heard that, and I said to myself, I'm gonna write their next single. And I couldn't believe it when it worked.
Q - With the royalties you must received from just "Hello, Mary Lou" and "He's A Rebel", you don't really need to go out on the road do you?