Friday, October 7, 2016

SHG: Gene Pitney: "Only Love Can Break a Heart"

Gene Pitney: “Only Love Can Break a Heart”
Entered the chart on: 9/29/62
Peaked on: 11/3/62
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals

This is why I was excited for 1962: a hat-trick of absolutely spectacular male soloists all with consecutive songs peaking at #2 in the autumn. Here we have Gene Pitney, and if Roy Orbison had any kind of competition for most potent male balladeer of the early 60s, it had to have been from Gene. Clearly it was a mutual admiration society, since Roy sang at least one song Gene wrote: “Today’s Teardrops.” In fact, before he made it as a soloist, Gene made his bread and butter as a songwriter, having written hits for a couple of other Second Hand Goods’ alumni: “Hello Mary Lou” for Ricky Nelson and “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee. Oh, and “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals! Is this the first instance on SHG where the top 2 are by different artists, yet written by the same person?

Not only was he a versatile vocalist and superior songwriter, but he was multi-talented as an instrumentalist as well, playing and singing everything on his debut hit “(I Wanna) Love My Life Away.” But it’s his expressive tenor voice that he’s best remembered for. He could sometimes border on campy melodrama (see his rendition of the title song from Town Without Pity, one of his most enduring hits) but he was always a captivating listen. He was Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s preferred male interpreter of their material. This song is one of theirs. This has a lot of potential to live up to.

Man, this song doesn’t mess around! A swath of strings and we’re right into the refrain. I imagine Bacharach wanted to hammer in the most memorable and catchy bit of this because, like a lot of his tunes, it’s really oddly constructed. The verses are of differing lengths with melodies and rhythms that jump all over the place. It’s precisely that weirdness that makes Bacharach’s songs memorable. Part of Pitney’s appeal to him is that he—like their preferred female soloist, Dionne Warwick—is able to navigate the unexpected twists and turns of his songs and make it sound natural.

Whoever’s playing the guitar on this deserves an award for making it sound very smooth. None of the changes seem jarring or out-of-place. There’s also a nice whistling hook near the start that’s repeated at the end. Pitney doesn’t go for melodrama here, if anything, he’s under-selling the lyric. But God, that voice is to die for.

Not your usual romantic ballad, by any stretch of the imagination. You could write a term paper on this.

Rating: 5

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