Interview with Gene Pitney

There's more to Gene Pitney than 24 Hours From Tulsa. He tells Alexis Petridis about his friendship with Phil Spector, the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame - and taxidermy

Ten minutes in and my conversation with Gene Pitney has taken a turn for the odd. We were talking, harmlessly enough, about his childhood in Rockville, the small Connecticut town that REM's 1984 single advised people not to go back to.

By his own account, he was a slightly peculiar child. "Not shy. I was going to say loner, but that's not the right word either. I was just different. When the other kids gravitated to football or basketball I went fishing and skating. I was into trapping animals, pheasants and squirrels."

Then comes the surprise. "Not only was I trapper," he adds rather proudly, "I was a taxidermist."

Hang on, a taxidermist? Isn't that a rather macabre pursuit for a child? Apparently not. "It was a natural offshoot from trapping. I saw an advert in a magazine somewhere that showed you the beautiful thing that it was supposed to look like. The first few times you try it, it doesn't look anything like it did before. Today, I have to laugh - I saw that you now buy the body in plastic, small medium or large. If you want to do a pheasant with wings outstretched, that's how the plastic part comes. At the time, you had to take all the meat off the carcass, measure it, then rebuild the entire carcass to the dimensions that it was, before you put the skin and fur back on. It's a fine art."

He pauses, as if realising what a disconcerting image of the young Gene Pitney, up to his elbows in animal gore, this is, and what effect it might have on ticket sales at the Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre. "It only lasted for a short time and I wasn't very good at it."

However odd his childhood hobbies, Pitney must have seemed an oasis of normality next to his former friend and collaborator, Phil Spector. They worked together in the early 1960s: Pitney writing songs, Spector blessing them with spellbinding productions. The biggest hit was the Crystals' majestic He's a Rebel.

They haven't spoken in years, but these days Spector is, as the 62-year-old singer songwriter tactfully puts it, "kind of a hot news item". Pitney clearly enjoys spinning a yarn about the old days - "y'ever heard that one?" - and is happy to expound on his theories about the murder, suggesting that a combination of anti-psychotic drugs and the alcohol Spector was supposed to have given up could have been to blame: "He probably doesn't even know what happened, doesn't even know where he was."

Spector, he says, with commendable understatement, is "a very eccentric guy. I had dinner with him the first day he arrived in New York and he said to me his sister was in an asylum and she was the sane one in the family. I thought, 'Wow, where did that come from?' Even by the standards of the music business at the time, he was unique."

Candid and talkative, Pitney is good company. His voice is urgently staccato, and he has a habit of gruffly referring to his music industry peers by surname: Spector, Orbison, Bacharach. It's a trait which hints at the friendly rivalry that must have existed in the Brill Building, the Broadway song factory where Pitney worked in the 1960s, alongside the greatest songwriting teams in American pop: Goffin and King, Mann and Weill, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman.

"It was a very open society. At that time, there were a lot of eccentrics running the business who made it interesting and unique. There was George Goldner, a big producer from the doo-wop era. He was one of those loudmouthed New Yorkers with a big cigar. I auditioned for him, sitting at the piano in his outer office. He came bounding into the room and said, 'Play!' I played him one of my songs and he said, 'Stop! What is your birthday?' I said February 17. He said, 'He's an Aquarian! Sign him!' then stomped out of the room. I thought he said, 'He's an aquarium', so I told the guy I was with, 'Fuck it, this guy's nuts, we're out of here'. I never signed the deal."

He began taking guitar lessons at school, "found out that if you could play four chords, you could play the top 20" and formed a band, the regrettably named Gene and the Genials. "One night, we were playing in this place outside Rockville and the proverbial fat man with a cigar came and said, 'Do you want to make a record?'"

His early efforts as a singer flopped, but his songs began selling to other artists. He wrote Rubber Ball for Bobby Vee, Ricky Nelson's Hello Mary. By the time He's a Rebel reached number one in 1962, Pitney was a star in his own right.

His forte was the big tragic ballad. Songs in which the protagonist was unceremoniously dumped or tortured by unrequited love suited his voice, which had a slightly odd, nasal quality and an ability to leap three octaves for dramatic effect.

Unlike most stars of the pre-Beatles era, he not only weathered their arrival, but flourished. His lushly orchestrated tales of catastrophe straddled the boundaries between pop and cabaret show-stopper, attracting both teenage screamers and their parents: Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa, I'm Gonna Be Strong, Nobody Needs Your Love and the remarkable Backstage, which depicted Pitney sobbing in his dressing room, oblivious to the cheers.

Occasionally, it seemed like no situation was too calamitous for Pitney to essay in song. Last Two People on Earth, from 1965, found him heartbroken once more, the vagaries of love this time compounded by outbreak of nuclear war.

He looks slightly nonplussed when the song is mentioned. "Yeah, I just read something where Bacharach said he couldn't have cared less what the words were when he was writing with David, so long as the rhyme scheme fitted his music. It was kind of like that with me. I didn't have much interest in the content, so much as the singability of the song."

For Pitney misfortune was strictly business. "They weren't reflecting my own personal life. It's like an acting job. When I did those things my heart and soul was in it, not necessarily because it was a part of me, but because I was trying to sell it, get something across in the song."

Indeed, he seems to have been strangely impervious to his surroundings throughout the 1960s. He was a friend and mentor to the Rolling Stones and duetted with the famously unstable country singer George Jones, yet never shared in their excesses.

He was a happily married family man who never left Connecticut. Did he never hanker after a slightly more credible, rock'n'roll image? He looks genuinely bewildered by the suggestion. "I think that to be successful as the type of guy that I am, I need to have the type of image that I have. I'm quite content with the area I live in."

He seems equally startled when talk turns to his 1989 remake of Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart, the duet with gay icon Marc Almond that returned him to the top of the British charts 15 years after his last hit. Was Pitney aware that he had a gay following? "Me? That I had a gay following? No, not really."

But surely he must have realised that there was something deeply camp about his 1960s hits: the sawing strings, the sense of melodrama? "Oh yeah, I can see that. Musically I got along perfect with Marc. The video in the middle of the desert, with me in the white tux and him in the leather, that was great."

At 62, he still tours six months of the year. The music industry is still very much at arm's length. He was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "It's a nice thing, but there's a lotta screwballs there. It was a zoo. That was the last time I saw Spector. He was like being directed by someone behind him, who was kind of aiming him in the right direction. I just left it alone."

Out of the charts for over a decade, he has been trying to write songs with his son. "He shouts me down an awful lot: 'Aw dad, that's so 60s.' He's right. You can't write a great 60s song now and have it be successful."

He seems to have the same attitude to trends in pop music as he has to those in taxidermy: they're not quite doing it right. "Hal David was talking about successful contemporary songs and he says he gets the impression they're about 75 % finished. I thought, wow, that's exactly where I'm coming from. Nobody goes that extra yard and creates a gem, something that's going to survive for a long, long period of time. I don't think anybody around today will be around for 40 years, like I have. Not because of lack of talent, but because artists are created with a shelf life of about three or four years. It's kinda gone screwy."

· Gene Pitney plays the Waterfront Hall, Belfast (0289 033 4455), tonight, then tours.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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