Plaque dedicated to Pitney at Town Hall
By Annie Gentile
Friends, family and fans of Gene Pitney will forever remember him as the local boy who put the "Rock" in Rockville.
On Thursday, Sept. 20, the Gene Pitney Commemorative Committee hosted a dedication ceremony of the Gene Pitney Memorial Plaque in the lobby of Vernon Town Hall in downtown Rockville.
"[Pitney is] probably the only entertainer to reach superstar status from Rockville, and the town decided they wanted to memorialize Gene because of his roots," said GPCC President Cliff Edwards.
Wild Wayne Jones of WWUH, 91.3 FM, host of New England's longest-running oldies radio program, served as master of ceremonies for the dedication, revisiting Pitney's prolific, more than four-decade career as a singer, songwriter and musician.
Before breaking into the big-time, Pitney was a bit of a local sensation, Jones said, forming his first band, Gene and the Genials, as a student at Rockville High School. He performed at local venues such as the now-closed Polish American Citizens Club on Village Street and at the Kosciuszko (TKB) Club, where he performed with Jeri Lynne Fraser and The Bel-Aires in 1958. Pitney also released a couple of records as part of a duo named "Jamie and Jane," Jones said.
It was in 1961 that Pitney released his first solo single under his own name, "Love My Life Away," followed that same year by "Town Without Pity," and from there his musical career skyrocketed.
"Town Without Pity," the title song to the movie of the same name, garnered Pitney an Academy Award nomination and won him the Golden Globe Award for Best Song in a Motion Picture. Those who attended the recent dedication ceremony had the pleasure of enjoying a rare screening of Pitney's Academy Award show performance, as emceed by Bob Hope.
Throughout the 1960s, Pitney produced hit after hit, while also penning popular songs for his contemporaries. He turned an unreleased Mick Jagger/ Keith Richards song into a hit of his own, making it the first Jagger/Richards song to make the US Hot 100 and demonstrated an ability to cross over into other musical styles, being voted along with George Jones as the most promising country and western duo of 1965. His 1963 hit "24 Hours from Tulsa" amassed Pitney a huge international following, said Jones, "and we [in his hometown] were bursting with pride." It was really bragging rights to be from Rockville back then, Jones said.
By 1970, Pitney, who married his high school sweetheart, Lynne, had decided to cut back on touring to spend time with his family. Still, he continued to perform, and his long and versatile career culminated in a 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Pitney died while on tour in the United Kingdom in 2006.
A record person all his life and friend of the Pitney family, Edwards said that he, along with the 11 committee members, have been working on several venues in which to honor the "Rockville Rocket."
Along with the memorial plaque, designed in the shape of a record, the GPCC created a display case to showcase items from Pitney's career. The archival items include Pitney's 1962 key to the City of Rockville. A Web site, www.genepitney. org, was created to honor Pitney, and the site includes a map that pinpoints many of his favorite haunts growing up in Rockville, including Walker Reservoir, where it is believed he first penned the 1961 Ricky Nelson hit, "Hello Mary Lou."
The group also established an annual scholarship fund to be awarded to a Rockville High School graduate majoring in the music field in college. The first $500 award was given this past June to Felicia Ainsworth of Vernon, who is majoring in music education at the University of Connecticut. This first scholarship was funded in full by GPCC members Russ Johndrow and Sandy Lachapelle, owners of Russ's Diner in downtown Rockville.
By far the most ambitious of the GPCC's efforts will be to establish Rockville as the site for a future Connecticut Music Hall of Fame, and they hope to bank on Pitney's considerable fame. At the very least, the committee plans for a future Gene Pitney Museum.
"There are many performers today who could take a page from Gene Pitney's life," said Jones.