The Rockville Rocket: Gene Pitney
Half Heaven, Half Heartache
Stiff Competition in the Sixties
In an era of such greats as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Frank Sinatra, another entertainer existed, not as well known but truly wonderful. He was Gene Pitney whose fabulous tenor voice startled the pop music world in the Sixties and beyond.
Gene began working on his musical career in the late Fifties while he was still a teenager. By the early Sixties, he had became famous, especially for his recording of "Town Without Pity."
Although Gene had begun studying for a career in electrical engineering after high school, he later made the decision to pursue the tough road of a career in the arts and therefore dedicated his life to the entertainment world. He was not only a singer but also a composer of original songs that were recorded by other famous rock and roll stars at the time such as The Crystals, Rick Nelson, Roy Orbison, and Bobby Vee. He was friends with the Rolling Stones and scores of other key people in the pop music industry, and was respected by all who knew him for his performing and song-writing talents, as well as his great intelligence and sensitivity.
For more than thirty-five years, Gene Pitney was a star performer and top producer of songs for many great recording artists. He was well known not only in America but also in Europe where he put on shows and recorded songs in English, Italian, Spanish, and German. Gene placed second in two different years at the internationally acclaimed Sanremo Song Festival in Italy, where the serious musical critics compared his singing to that of the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso.
Because performers themselves are better known than their song-writers, Gene became known to most people as a recording artist rather than a composer, although the people in the entertainment world honored him for his song-writing talents as well. Not all of Gene's recordings were written by himself. He knew and worked closely with other great song-writers of his day.
Beginning in 1961, he came into the popular eye as a singer with a strong, emotionally moving voice. He recorded three songs that ranked high on the charts: "Every Breath I Take," "Town Without Pity," and "I Wanna Love My Life Away." The next year saw more success with "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Only Love Can Break a Heart," and "Half Heaven, Half Heartache."
In 1963 Pitney recorded "Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa," a song played repeatedly by radio DJ's. Then came "It Hurts to be in Love" and "I'm Gonna Be Strong" in 1964, followed by many more hits throughout the Sixties, including "She's a Heartbreaker" (1968).
As Gene began to travel to Europe to put on shows, many of his songs became more popular there than in the United States. More and more, the Europeans loved him. In 1989 a song released only in Europe, "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart," ranked Number One on the U.K. Singles Chart.
Gene's greatest recordings on the U.S. Hot 100 Chart were "Liberty Valance" (Number 4), "Only Love Can Break a Heart" (Number 2), "It Hurts to be in Love" (Number 7), and "I'm Gonna Be Strong" (Number 9).
Meanwhile, the songs he wrote for others to perform were chart-breakers in their own right, including Bobby Vee's "Rubber Ball," Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou," and The Crystals' "He's a Rebel." Not only was Gene Pitney a composer, but he also played several musical instruments and due to his interest in electronics, knew his way around the technical side of recording studios.
In his early years in the small town of Rockville, later to become part of Vernon Connecticut, Gene got to be known as the "Rockville Rocket." In the Fifties he formed a rock and roll band at Rockville High School, called "Gene and the Genials." The "Rockville Rocket" rose quickly to stardom a few years later when a song he wrote for a Hollywood movie was adopted as the film's title song. Although that song, "Town Without Pity," was nominated for an Academy Award in 1961, it lost out to "Moon River" as the best theme song of the year, Henry Mancini's composition sung by Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The next year, another great Pitney recording, based on a John Wayne film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," was one of the most popular songs in America. Sung by Gene Pitney, "Liberty Valance" was written by fellow composer Burt Bacharach.
Compared to people like Elvis, Sinatra, and The Beatles, Pitney was not quite on the same level of fame and in the spotlight. But he was a respected composer. The Crystals' number-one hit "He's a Rebel" in 1962 was the only reason Pitney didn't go all the way to Number One himself with "Only Love Can Break a Heart." Pitney wrote "He's a Rebel" but The Crystals sang it so well that the rest was history.
Later in life, Gene Pitney was to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1993 and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. After receiving a standing ovation for a performance in Cardiff, England, in 2006, Gene Pitney died unexpectedly that same night of heart disease. His passing was grieved not only by his wife and three sons, but by the many fans who knew him the world over. A plaque commemorating his achievements can be found at Rockville Town Hall. Every year Rockville High School awards a Gene Pitney music scholarship to a student in honor of "The Rockville Rocket."