Gene Pitney, the songwriter behind “Hello, Mary Lou” and a singer identified by his pleasant tenor and falsetto flourishes on hits such as “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” died Wednesday following a concert in Cardiff, Wales. He was 65.
Pitney apparently died of natural causes, police told the Associated Press. He was staying in a hotel in Cardiff.
“We don’t have a cause of death at the moment but looks like it was a very peaceful passing,” Pitney’s tour manager, James Kelly, told the AP. “He was found fully clothed, on his back, as if he had gone for a lie-down.”
As a teenager in Connecticut, Pitney recorded demos of his songs and sent them to a publisher in New York. When he was 19, in 1960, Roy Orbison recorded his “Today’s Teardrops” as the B side for “Blue Angel.”
After getting into the top 10 with Bobby Vee’s recording of his “Rubber Ball,” Pitney quit college to concentrate on songwriting and performing. Three months after dropping out of school, he had a global smash with Ricky Nelson’s “Hello, Mary Lou” in May 1961.
Pitney’s singing career ostensibly launched late that summer with his recording of “Every Breath I Take,” with Phil Spector producing. It would reach No. 42.
In January 1962, Pitney sang the theme to the Kirk Douglas starrer “Town Without Pity,” snaring his first top 20 hit as a singer. Lightning would strike again that year in film music with his recording of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance,” written as the theme for the John Wayne-James Stewart oater. Pic was released without the track, but the single would go to No. 4 that summer.
Pitney followed it with another Bacharach-David tune, “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” which went to No. 2. The only reason it didn’t hit No. 1 in November 1962 is that the Crystals’ version of his song “He’s a Rebel” was the chart-topper.
“He was a rare talent and a beautiful man, and his voice was unlike any other,” Bacharach said in a statement Wednesday.
Pitney would continue to record other songwriters’ works, including “True Love Never Runs Smooth,” “24 Hours From Tulsa” and “I’m Gonna Be Strong,” one of his falsetto showpieces.
Pitney toured the U.K. often and had hits there, but when the British Invasion started pushing Americans off the charts, he turned to country music. He recorded with George Jones in 1965.
Oddly enough, while American teens were buying Brit singles by the boatload, Pitney had a far stronger run in the U.K. than in the U.S. His last U.K. top 40 hit registered in 1974. A 1990 collection of his hits and eight new tracks went to No. 17 in the U.K.
He nabbed his only performing No. 1 — in Britain, of course — in 1990 for a recording of “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” with Marc Almond.
Throughout the 1980s, Pitney was a touring attraction and became a popular country singer in Canada. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
Pitney said he wrote many of his best songs, including “Hello, Mary Lou,” in his candy-apple red 1935 Ford coupe, parked near a reservoir in his hometown of Rockville, Conn.
Pitney kept a base in Connecticut all his life. He built a recording studio in his home in Somers, 20 miles northeast of Hartford.
He is survived by his wife, Lynne, whom he married in 1967, and three sons.