Along the Way: Gene Pitney

Pitney
Memorial bench in Somers, Connecticut. Grave of Gene Pitney (insert) at Somers Center Cemetery.

There is something about the region northeast of Hartford that amazed me. Despite the hustle and bustle around the city and on the interstates, once away from them, the region maintains a small town feeling. Arriving in Somers, Connecticut the community maintained a feeling of a small town New England. Happy couples pushing strollers or walking dogs. Young kids sitting on their bikes talking beneath the shadow of an ancient church. A baseball game being played as a crowd gathered to watch.

The scene was almost too perfect, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

I drove slowly through the town taking it all in. Once I had passed through Somers, I headed to the northern edge of it to Center Cemetery, also known as Somers Center Cemetery. Turning onto the grounds of this sacred location, I drove back the road and took the first right and headed towards the rear of the cemetery. Arriving at the back of the cemetery, I pulled to one side of the road and got out. From my location, I could see a granite bench that marked the plot of the man I came to pay my respects.

Walking over to the bench I scanned the area. Flush on the ground nearby was the grave of Gene Francis Pitney, singer and song writer.

Growing up, I was introduced to Gene’s music through “the music that my parents listened to.” I admit that I only recognized a couple of his songs at the time, but four songs had introduced me to his music and have become a part of my life: Twenty Four Hours From TulsaOnly Love Can Break a Heart, and – my personal favorite – (The Man who Shot) Liberty Valance.

Gene’s songs  were mostly pop in nature, consisting of “teen idol” music. Despite often being placed in this genre, Gene’s music ranged from pop/rock to country to soulful ballads, but no matter what genre, they were filled with emotion and his distinct voice told the listener that it was Gene singing.

Gene was born February 17, 1940 and grew up in Rockville, Connecticut. While in high school, he formed his first band, Gene and the Genials.

Gene did not write much of his own material, but did pen a number of hits, composing He’s a Rebel for the Crystals and Hello Mary Lou for Ricky Nelson.  Pitney did write his first single, (I Wanna) Love My Life Away – he sang and played every instrument on it. In late 1961, Gene would find success, entering the Top 20 with Town Without Pity, the theme for the movie with the same name.

Note: Gene’s highest ranked song was “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” which reached Number Two on the charts. The Number One song at the time was “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals, which was a song written by Pitney.

For the next four years, Pitney found success and with the British Invasion, he still maintained popularity. In a strange twist, as Americans embraced the British Invasion, Pitney found success in Europe. He had six singles make it into the U.K. Top Ten during the years 1965 and 1966, solidifying his success as a star in Europe.

Pitney entered the American charts for the last time in 1968 with She’s a Heartbreaker.  In 1989 Gene returned to the charts for the last time, this time with a duet with Marc Almond on a remake of an earlier hit Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart. On March 18, 2002, Pitney was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Gene continued touring and was on tour when he died in April 5, 2006 after a show in Cardiff, Wales.

I finished paying my respects and left the cemetery in silence. I paused before leaving town at the polished, gray granite bench that stands in front of Piedmont Hall, the home of the Somers Cultural Commission, before leaving the region behind.

 

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