Only love can break a heart

Al Kooper is something like the Forrest Gump of pop music. He has turned up at historic moments and turning points with almost unbelievable regularity. He recalls them in his engaging 1998 memoir Backstage Passess & Backstabbing Bastards. Early in the book Kooper recalls hopping a subway on a Saturday morning in 1960 to wait around Musicor Records at 1650 Broadway in New York. Musicor was the new label founded by songwriter Aaron Schroeder; Kooper was hoping for some session work. Schroeder invited Kooper to sit in on the audition of a singer/songwriter he was thinking about signing to his new label:

While I thumbed through the latest Billboard magazine in the waiting room, this guy walks in wearing a salt and pepper jacket, heavily greased-down DA (“Duck’s Ass”) hairdo, and white bucks. Three dressing schools tied together; very strange. The creature was quickly ushered in, sat down at the piano, and proceeded to mesmerize us for two uninterrupted hours with his incredible songs and bizarre voice. He was an original, and the impact on me was like hearing soul music for the first time. But one of the mightiest music business ordinances encourages the “poker-face,” so Schroeder and I did our utmost to refrain from hailing him as the unique talent we knew he was. After the kid left, Schroeder nonchalantly asked me what I thought.

“What could anyone think?” I said, knowing that we both knew the answer perfectly well. “Sign that guy!”

“Should we change his name?” Schroeder asked.

“Don’t make no difference what you call him,” I answered, “Gene Pitney is gonna be a big star!”

In April 2006 Gene Pitney died in his hotel room after a successful performance in Cardiff, Wales, at the age of 65. As Kooper’s memoir suggests, Pitney was a phenomenally talented singer, songwriter and performer. At the time of his death NRO posted Dawn Eden’s fine appreciation of Pitney. I hadn’t thought about Pitney since he died last year until this past weekend when our friends Joe and Susan Vass invited us to see Gary Rue and Prudence Johnson play a Pitney set at the Dakota Restaurant and Jazz Club downtown Minneapolis.

I knew Gary Rue by reputation as a local musician and I’m a long-time fan of Prudence. I also love Pitney’s hits. So, fortunately, I made it to the show. It turns out that Gary Rue had been Gene Pitney’s musical director for twenty years. Rue had summoned Pitney’s regular band for a rerun of Pitney’s last show, from overture to “Town Without Pity.”

Rue assembled violins, brass and a chorus (that’s where Prudence fit in) for the show. The orchestra played the identical arrangements that Pitney used. Rue directed the orchestra from the piano and did the singing as well, recreating Pitney’s vocals with uncanny precision, punch and passion. Gene Pitney was the first artist used by the Bacharach-David team to put across their terrific compositions. The heart of the show was the part of the Bacharach-David catalogue that Pitney turned into hits: “24 Hours from Tulsa,” “True Love Never Runs Smooth,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart.”

In the course of the show Rue took time out to express his regard for Pitney as a gentleman, as a “spit-and-polish” perfectionist, and as a musician. I sat through both the 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. shows. “It’s a good thing you did,” Prudence said afterwards. “The first show was our rehearsal.” Both shows were beautiful and full of emotion. After Prudence sang the eerie, high melody line that introduces “Town Without Pity,” she wiped a tear from her eye. It was that kind of night.

Rue is talking with the Pitney family about taking the show on the road. Pitney had a loyal following around the United States and an even more intensely loyal following in Europe. I hope the family sees its way to helping Rue get the show on the road because in his hands Gene Pitney lives.

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