Obituary: Gene Pitney

Chart-topping singer and songwriter whose quavering tenor won him a loyal fan base

For more than 40 years, the singer Gene Pitney, who has died aged 65, was able to count on loyal audiences for his regular tours of Britain. The night before his body was discovered in bed in his room at the Hilton hotel in Cardiff, he had played an enthusiastically received concert at St David's Hall in the city, and had been due to travel to Bristol for the next night's show.

"I love what I'm doing, to pick and choose where I want to go and what I want to do," he said before the 23-date tour began. "He said it was the best tour he had done for quite a few years," added Mark Howes, of Pitney's management company, In Touch Music.

Pitney was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and started writing songs while still attending the local Rockville high school. He formed a band called Gene Pitney and the Genials, and in 1959 recorded his first single, one of his own songs called Classical Rock And Roll, as half of the duo Jamie & Jane.

At first he seemed destined to be best known as a songwriter, and his persistence in sending demo recordings of his songs to a New York publisher paid off when Roy Orbison recorded Today's Teardrops as a B side. Better still, in 1961 Bobby Vee, then moving towards the peak of his success on both sides of the Atlantic, cut Pitney's song Rubber Ball and took it into the higher reaches of the American and British charts. Later that year, Ricky Nelson scored a British and American hit with Hello Mary Lou, which would prove one of Pitney's most durable compositions.

Meanwhile, Pitney was pursuing a parallel career as a performer, and his unique voice - a piercing yet panic-stricken tenor - quickly seized the ear of the listening public. In an era when songs from movies were part of the stuff of the charts, he began 1962 by climbing the hit parade with Town Without Pity, the theme song from the 1961 Kirk Douglas US army melodrama of the same name set in Germany. "It was," he recalled, "a huge career song for me and I was on the Academy Awards singing it, the first pop artist to sing on the show. But I never had any relationship with the film itself."

Then he did even better with (The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance. This was another song for a movie, this time the 1962 John Wayne-James Stewart western, and first of a string of successful collaborations with composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

In November that year, Pitney hit number two in the US with Bacharach and David's Only Love Can Break a Heart but was denied the number one slot by his own composition, He's a Rebel, which he had given to producer Phil Spector to record with the Crystals. "When my publisher in New York played He's a Rebel, Phil's eyes lit up," Pitney said. "He just took that thing and trucked out the door, he was gone."

Pitney enjoyed more success in 1963 thanks to Bacharach and David's True Love Never Runs Smooth and the immortal 24 Hours from Tulsa, the latter climbing to number five in Britain in early 1964 and fixing Pitney securely in the affections of British listeners. Fate had apparently decided that Pitney and the British belonged together, and the process was hastened when Pitney was introduced to the flashy, fast-talking Andrew Loog Oldham.

Oldham was then the Rolling Stones' manager and became Pitney's publicist. Hence, Pitney recorded the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards composition That Girl Belongs to Yesterday, taking it into the British top 10 and making him the first artist to have a hit with a Stones song while the Stones were still recording cover versions. Pitney even featured on the first Rolling Stones album.

Henceforth Pitney became a regular attraction in Britain and also built a loyal following in Italy, Spain and Germany, so much so that he became far better known in Europe than in his homeland. Italians were doubtless beguiled by Pitney's rendition of Nessuno Mi Puo Guidicare, which won him second place at the San Remo Song Contest in 1966.

Pitney developed a routine of touring Britain twice a year, earning himself a plaque from the Gene Pitney Appreciation Society in the process, and most of his biggest hits would be in Britain. In 1966, Backstage reached number four, while Nobody Needs Your Love hit number two after failing to chart in the States. When Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart ascended to number five in 1967, it was his last major hit until the same song went to number one in 1989, re-recorded as a duet with Marc Almond of Soft Cell.

In the latter part of his career, Pitney earned the bulk of his income from touring rather than recording, and never lost his appetite for treading the boards in front of a suitably appreciative crowd. None the less, in 1990 his bank account was boosted to the tune of $188,000 following a lawsuit against Gusto Records, after Pitney had taken legal action in pursuit of improper payment of royalties.

In 2003, he recorded some of his thoughts about death to the Daily Mail. "If I could choose a season in which to die it would be late autumn, when it's still nice and warm here and all the leaves are changing colour. I'd love the Rolling Stones to come and play at the party - I'm sure they'll still be touring long after I am dead."

He is survived by his wife Lynn and sons David, Todd and Chris.

· Gene Pitney, singer and songwriter, born February 17 1941; died April 5 2006.


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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