INTERVIEWERS: Jenny Wilkes
(Transcribed from interview courtesy of Eileen Simms, England.)
GOTTEN HOLD OF MY HEART' - 1989 duet with Marc Almond>>
JW: Oh, wonderful stuff from a man whose career has spanned forty years, with worldwide record sales of over seventy-five million, twenty-two British hit singles and that was the first number one. His first British tour in over three years starts on Thursday and he's just finished recording his first new studio album for twenty-five years. Gene Pitney, good afternoon!
GP: Hi, Jenny!
JW: How you doing?
GP: (clears throat) Good, thank you.
JW: Oh, good stuff.
GP: Talking my head off here.
JW: (laugh) They're working you well, aren't they?
GP: Oh, very well today.
JW: That's what we like. But, I mean, first time that you've been on tour for three years, so we all want to hear from you. That's the thing - we want to know what you're up to!
GP: You know, I didn't even realise that it was three years that...that went by. The, um...uh, Fan Club president, uh, started complaining--
JW: (small laugh)
GP: --about, you know, "Yo-- You haven't done a tour", and I thought 'What's he talking about?' I really didn't...It just...It just happened that way. I did a tour last year in Australia and then I d--done a lot of work in the States right through, uhhh, up until two weeks ago before coming over. And it just fell that way. I--
JW: Oh, so y--...It's not like you've been doing nothing, then.
GP: Oh, God, no!
JW: (quiet chuckle)
GP: Oh, no, no (chuckle)
GP: Oh, no, no, not at all!
JW: Only there's this album that you've been working on with your son Todd, um, in a studio at home, and hopefully it'll be out next year. That's right, isn't it?
GP: Well, we've been working on that for a long time - for, like, three-and-a-half/four years. We've written, like, fifteen songs together. But the thing that's happened that really makes it close to being a reality now is that, urm, just a week ago, uh, on the weekend, I was in Nashville recording some songs for a soundtrack for a new Dustin Hoffman film that's out in March.
GP: And I think that that's the foot in the door that we've been looking for to, um, get these...these new songs, and the new type o' songs that we been writing, uh, out on a CD.
JW: W--W--...It is coming, though, isn't it? Because there was talk about you not being able to get a--a deal or, you know, waiting for a label to come forward. Surely somebody's gonna put your songs out, Gene!
GP: Nnno, it's very hard today, and it's very difficult if you had a past success. You know, I been telling people today that (pause) I been staying very, very true i--in writing these songs to lyric and to melody. And I been letting Todd do the one bending the songs into, like, today's, uh, structure - the way things are for the Nineties.
GP: And, as a result it's interesting when I go to play some of these new things for someone who is aware of what I've done in the past, because I--...I sometimes get the reaction "Well, it sou--...I know that it's Gene Pitney singing the song, but it doesn't sound like a Gene Pitney song." And I wanna whack 'em in the head because--
JW: (small chuckle)
GP: --that's the whole idea.
JW: 'Cos you're saying "These are the 1990s and I'm doing it--
JW: --for the Nineties."
GP: Because if I go and record a song that would of been a big successful hit in the Sixties it d--doesn't do...do anything for today!
JW: 'Cos it's changed!
JW: I'm with ya. I'm with ya.
GP: Gotcha. Got me?
JW: So, listen, I wanted...I want to do a bit about your history. I want to take you back to Rockville.
GP: Rockville, Rockville, Rockville?
JW: What a...What a great place to--
GP: Let me think.
JW: --to (chuckle) be brought up.
JW: Rockville. (chuckle)
JW: Uh, when you were a...a stamp collector.
JW: And a coin collector.
JW: And a mink trapper.
JW: (laugh) Well, how did you become a singer, then, from all of that?
GP: Um, I really was a trapper, I mean, there's not many of us left anymore. Uhh, and I did collect all those thing...I used to collect flowers and stamps and leaves and all kinds of stuff like that. I had very, very...ummm...interest in a lot of things.
JW: And you were quite into electronics, weren't you?
GP: Well, I--I m-- I moved onto that. I mean, that's what I went to school for and I was looking to be an electronics engineer, but the music kinda crept in at the same time and I knew that I was gonna lose probably both of them, so I figured school I could always jump back in to a future semester...
JW: So, you decided to, uh, stick with, what 'Gene Pitney and The Genials', as it started as?
GP: Ah, I was i-- That had to be, didn't it?
JW: (laugh) The Genials.
GP: If--If you came from Rockville it had to be 'Gene Pitney and The Genials'.
JW: Brilliant. And, 'cos then you...You went on to quite a few name changes and various guises.
GP: Well, the first guy who...When I had a band in sch--...When we were 'Gene Pitney and The Genials', and we used to play at the, uh, thing that was the rage at the time - the record hops - uh, one night we were playing and the proverbial fat man with the cigar walked up and he said "Do you wanna make a record?" and that really is the way it happened. And this guy was the one that, uh, took me into New York and knocked on doors and, um, put me up singing in front of some of the A&R men. But what happened was - I'm not sure if it was because du--duos were more popular at the time...But he joined me up with a girl named Ginny Mazzaro, and we became 'Jamie and Jane'--
JW: Hmm (tiny huff of laughter)
GP: --on Decca records. Luckily I was Jamie.
GP: (chuckle) And...We had some...We had a couple of records that were not bad - they were pretty good - but just didn't happen. Then I moved on to some other very clever person who named me Billy Bryan, and again I had a couple of good records, but that one was a different story - it was right in the middle of what they called the Payola Scandals?
JW: Oh, yeah.
GP: And the last thing you wanted to be was a new artist with a new record because record...uh...comp--...stations were absolutely afraid of having anybody come through the door to connect them to that scandal. So, those didn't happen either. So, luckily I ended up having the first hit when I had my own name.
JW: 'Gene Pitney'!
JW: 'Cos they wanted to call you--
JW: --'Homer Muzzy' as well, didn't they?
GP: Well, that was the end. That's when I knew I was gonna be me.
JW: Homer Muzzy?
GP: Homer Muzzy.
GP: That was before the days of Engelbert Humperdink.
JW: (laugh) Great name!
GP: And they said, uh, "This is what we think would be a good handle for you." And I said "That's it--
GP: --From now on Gene Francis Allan Pitney is gonna be my handle." (snort)
JW: And when you did, um, 'I Wanna Love My Life Away', uh, it cost you thirty dollars, is that right, to record it?
GP: Yes, because it wasn't meant to be a record. It was meant to be a--a demo, uh, to present the song to someone else to recod. I was...I was virtually a songwriter at that time. And because I could play all the instruments and we didn't have any money, myself or my publisher, uhh, I played everything on th--the record, and it cost, like, thirty dollars for studio time.
JW: And you did all the backing vocals.
GP: I did all th--...um...'Bop-Bops' and 'Ooohs' and 'Aahs'--
JW: (small chuckle)
GP: --and everything in the back. And that was when state-of-the-art was four-track recording. So, I played piano and lead vocal on one track, uh, guitar and harmony on the second track, drums on the third track and then a bass player - which I couldn't play - played on the fourth track. Then they had to play the whole thing back, and what you did at that time was did sound-on-sound - you would drop sound down on top of all four of those tracks, and I did all the, um, '#bop-bop#' and '#oooooh#' and 'ah'--
GP: --over the top.
JW: And it was a hit!
GP: When it was through...I mean, I didn't realise it, but the publisher listened to it and he s-- "You know, I think this can be a hit just like it is," and they put it out. And it, uh...took a lot of promotion and it wasn't a big hit - it was, like, top twenty - but it was the first one.
JW: 's interesting that you say about that 'sound-on-sound', because one of the big influences on you was Phil Spector, wasn't he, with his Wall Of Sound?
GP: Well, Phil did one session that I've never understood why it wasn't a big, big, big record, 'cos I think it's one of the favourite things I ever recorded - a song called 'Every Breath I Take'. And, um, he had a group call The Halos that did the backing for it...And it was almost like, um, semi-Doo-Wop type of a thing 'cos it was '#I hardly ever thank the stars above, doo-doodun-doo-da-bop-bop#' - they had that figure going in the background. And it was a terrific record and t--...very, very well produced. But Phil, um...I just happened to meet when he first came to New York. We...errr...I had dinner with him the first night he was there. He's a very interesting guy. I remember him telling me at dinner that, um, his sister was in an--...a asylum, and she was the sane one in the family.
JW: (breath of laughter)
GP: I thought 'Hmmm?...'
JW: Hmmm (chuckle)
JW: And somebody else who you worked--
JW: --with that people might not know about's The Rolling Stones.
GP: Yeah. Well, I--I happened to fall into situations, um...That happened...My publicist - Andrew Loog Oldham - was the Stones' manager, and that's how we got to know each other. So, we kinda hung out and did, um, I went to all their--...their sessions and p-played on one of them as a matter of fact. And then I took one of their songs and it was the first, uh...The first Jagger/Richards composition that was on the American charts - song called 'That Girl Belongs To Yesterday'.
JW: And I think you're probably known, as well, as well as w--...a singer as a--a writer for so many people, and probably lots of the songs that we all know people don't realise that--that you've written for pe--...you know, Ricky Nelson, The Crystals an' Roy Orbison and Bobby Vee and goodness only knows who else. Do you still write for other people as well today?
GP: Um, I stop--...I didn't stop writing, it's just I'm not a travelling writer. When I started having success myself on record, umm, th--the writing slowed down, only because I have to commit myself and lock myself in a room an' say "Okay" - you know - "You're gonna write." I'm not, um, one of the normal people that gets inspired by being on trains and planes and buses and things like that. But, lately, in the last, uhhh, three to four years I've been writing...I have a studio at home - um, a recording studio - and I've been writing with my son Todd who's very accomplished, um, keyboard, guitar...he's a drummer, uh, 'n' lives and breathes computers which run the studio. (long sniff) And we think that we've got, uh, a handle on a--a deal now for the stuff that we w--...wr--written about fifteen, so I think that there's enough there for, uh...a--a good CD to come out in the new year.
JW: And that's what you're hoping for?
JW: And will we be able to hear some of those songs when you come to Symphony Hall next Monday?
GP: Nnno, we didn't put any in, uh...We've got...We've changed the show considerably, but we haven't put any of the new ones in it. No.
GP: So there!
JW: You got some old ones?
GP: Yeah (laugh) right.
JW: (laugh) I thought you might have one or two old ones in there somehow. And a thirteen-piece orchestra?
JW: <quietly> Wow.
GP: --I usually work with that same, uh...same group. It's--It's great to--to just have them set the show up. When they walk out on stage in tuxedos and they play the overture before the show actually--...my part of the show actually begins...It's a wonderful setup for the evening. It's, uh, terrific.
JW: Aw. Have you played at Symphony Hall before in Birmingham?
JW: Great, isn't it?
GP: Yeah, beautiful place.
JW: Oh, it's wonderful!
GP: There and the Hippodrome are my two favourite places to play in in Birmingham.
JW: 'Cos you've been here a few times, haven't you?
GP: Oh, I've been in so many different places. What's that place wi--...th-the big old place that's about four-hundred feet up from the audience in the centre of town?
JW: (pause) (breath of laughter) Well, I don't know! (laugh)
GP: It's the highest stage I've ever been on in my life. The--
JW: Is it--
GP: --people look like ants down--
JW: Is Tow--
GP: --in the audience.
JW: Town Hall, is it? In the Town Hall?
JW: 'Cos that's closed at the moment.
GP: Oh, I can--
JW: And that has got--
GP: --understand that.
JW: Yeah, that has got quite a high stage. Ooohh, interesting stuff.
JW: So, there you go. Anyway, Symphony Hall: Monday the twenty-eighth of September. And, fingers crossed for the album, then.
JW: And that's in 1999.
GP: We hope so.
JW: So you're gonna wor--work your way into, uh, persuading somebody that perhaps you'll might be able to have a hit or two out cold.
GP: I wanna have a hit in the Millennium.
JW: You're gonna do that! I--
GP: All right.
JW: --can't believe you can't!
GP: (breath of laughter)
JW: Gene, it's lovely to talk to you.
GP: Thanks, Jenny.
JW: Thanks a lot. That's--
GP: Okay. Bye-bye.
<<'I'M GONNA BE STRONG' (c)1964>>
JW: What an amazing voice. Gene Pitney, next Monday evening at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Can you believe that nobody wants to release his CD? I think somebody might come along and do it, I reckon.