Gene Pitney's career as a singer, songwriter and producer took him around the world, but always returned to his hometown, Rockville, now part of Vernon, Connecticut. His nickname, after all, was the "Rockville Rocket."
Treasures from Gene Pitney's personal archives are now on display an exhibit at Arts Center East in the Rockville section of Vernon.
The nostalgia hits you right away as you enter the Vernon exhibit. Gene Pitney's 1962 hit "Only Love Can Break a Heart" is playing through a beautifully restored 1960 Rockola Tempo 2 jukebox. In fact, the jukebox is filled with Pitney songs, from his bigger hits, to more obscure songs, some sung in Italian and German. Coincidentally, the Rockola Tempo 2 is the same jukebox shown in the opening scene of the film "Town without Pity". Gene Pitney scored his first big hit singing the title song to that movie.
There are so many clever connections like this in the exhibit "Gene Pitney - The Rockville Rocket" at Arts Center East. Emily Frederick Santanella is the Vice President of the Gene Pitney Commemorative Committee. Her father, Brian Frederick was a close friend of Pitney's, and before he died he asked Frederick to be his personal archivist. Almost the entire exhibit comes from Pitney's personal archives, and much of it has never been seen before. Frederick-Santanella takes me on a tour of the exhibit, starting with Pitney's childhood in Rockville. First Stop -- The Old Palace Theater in Rockville. It's not there anymore, but on display is a huge side panel from the original sign and an old ticket taker.
“The reason we have incorporated the Palace Theater is because Mr. Pitney worked there as an usher for a while when he was a teenager, and that was actually where he made his first stage performance,” said Frederick-Santanella. That was in 1958, Pitney's senior year. Also in the Rockville room is the 1958 Rockville High School yearbook, open to a “superlatives” page. Pitney was elected “most complaisant” of the senior class. There’s also a sign from the old Bud's Music Shop on Main Street announcing Gene Pitney's first album, and a replica of Pitney's legendary automobile.
“He would drive around town, and he was known for this cherry red coupe,” explains Frederick-Santanella, “The story goes that's what he was sitting in when he wrote "Hello Mary Lou" down at Walker's reservoir.”
"Hello Mary Lou" was a big hit for Ricky Nelson in 1961, and in the exhibit you can see the various drafts of the song. Pitney worked and reworked the lyrics, from his first draft in the red coupe on Walker’s Reservoir to the final product.
"Heard the pitter patter of your feet, took a second look and said Hooeee’, that's not in the final version. And at first he left the line ‘Tommy said give it a whirl, and I'll introduce you to that girl,’ but then he deleted that out. So it's really cool to see the evolution of the song and the way he edited it down,” said Frederick-Santanella.
The exhibit is chock full of sheet music, posters from his early shows, industry awards and other artifacts that give you a sense of his amazing career as a singer, songwriter and producer. But it goes even further - diving into Pitney's creative process, which, like many great songwriters, came in flashes of inspiration.
“He wrote on the back of a calendar page. When he started writing, he couldn't stop,” said Frederick-Santanella, “We have handwritten lyrics on notebook paper, there's some on typing paper, there's some on the back of calendars, he writes on the very last cardboard page of a notebook, where he ran out of paper but still had to get the words down.”
We come across another landmark in Pitney's songwriting career - The Crystals 1962 number one hit "He's a Rebel." Unlike “Hello Mary Lou", the handwritten lyrics on display only have a few changes.
Another room focuses on his years touring, wowing audiences around the world, from Dick Clark bus tours where he became friends with so many other recording artists of his generation, to a picture of Pitney with producer Phil Spector and a group of rough looking British lads.
“It's funny because Andrew Loog Odham called Mr. Pitney before he was catching his flight out of town and said ‘Hey, I've got these guys in a recording studio, I'm trying to get them to record, and they are not getting along. Can you come help me out?’ So, they are actually credited on the Rolling Stones first album, on the song "Little by Little" where Mr. Pitney played piano and they say Phil Spector played maracas, but he really he was hitting a congnac bottle with a fifty-cent piece.”
The exhibit ends back in the Rockville room where we see images and memorabilia from Gene Pitney's final years. In 2006 while in Wales as part of a tour of the UK, Gene Pitney suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Frederick-Santanella says at heart, Pitney was a small town boy. While he always kept a busy touring schedule, she says Pitney never wandered too far from his boyhood home.
“When he was touring like crazy in the '60's, he would still come back and emcee a talent show for the Rockville Exchange Club,” said Frederick-Santanella. “He would come back and be the parade marshal for the town. He sang at the Academy Awards, and then came back and got a key to the city. He was just as happy in Rockville as Rockville was happy with him.”
"Gene Pitney - The Rockville Rocket" runs through this weekend at Arts Center East in Vernon, Connecticut. Ray Hardman, Connecticut Public Radio.