If you've never heard Gene Pitney's 1968 Top 20 U.S. hit, She's A Heartbreaker you're in for a shock. His previous single, Somewhere In The Country had fitted a classic Pitney mould: grand melodrama with a murky backstory. Composed by the Musicor label's house writer/producers, George Tobin and Johnny Cymbal, it was a tragic tale of a high society girl, disowned by her family, and forced to seek an abortion out at "Aunt Nora's house / Somewhere in the country".
“Seductive, lachrymose, overwrought, sometimes Pitney's voice feels like a ghostly bluff.”
As with so many great Pitney performances, from his 1961 breakthrough The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance through to big-hit classics like Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa, Somewhere In The Country presented the Connecticut singer as unreliable narrator, dramatising a story in which he himself might somehow be complicit, his version questionable, the reality uncertain.
The song is given the distinctive Pitney treatment, weeping strings and spectral backing vocals accompanying the singer as he glides through a three octave range, from brooding Marty Robbins bass to high adenoidal falsetto. This only seems to compound the unease. The Pitney voice is an easy thing to admire but difficult for all to fully enjoy. Seductive, lachrymose, overwrought, creepy, sometimes Pitney's voice feels like a ghostly bluff, a put-on, part of the grand chiselling con that he's playing on his audience with these Rashomon-style tales. The big Pitney ballads often tend to make me think of this guy, and this one.
But She's A Heartbreaker is (almost) a different beast entirely.
His last U.S. Top 40 hit, ...Heartbreaker was written and produced by another Musicor house team, Charlie Foxx and Jerry Williams Jr. Foxx was the older brother of Inez Foxx, who together had had a top ten hit with Mockingbird in 1963, while Williams was a 26-year old R&B singer/songwriter producer who was just about to present a new soul incarnation to the world, the psychedelic superhero soul fool, Swamp Dogg.
"I produced the motherfuck out of it," Williams told L.A. Record's Ron Garmon last year, "[and] Charlie Foxx put me down on the label as “vocal arranger.” What the fuck is that? When they took out full-page ads in Billboard and Cashbox, there was a picture of Charlie on one side and a picture of Gene Pitney on the other and no mention of me."
“It's Gene Pitney possessed by the spirit of Swamp Dogg.”
You can understand Williams' ire, because She's A Heartbreaker is a stunning track, a dry-run stomp-tryout for the Swamp Dogg mania to come. Foxx and Williams' lyrics still tap into Pitney's trademark imprisoned masochism - "I need a heartbreaker on my body's soul / She make you feel like a king behind closed doors / When we're out on a date tonight at a show / She makes me feel like the lowest man on the totem pole" - but Williams' production pushes the performance close to hysteria, Pitney following Williams' studio guide-vocals so closely that it goes beyond mere mimicry, wailing through a delirious horns’n’strings soul stew like a man possessed, controlled by a voice and a dark passion that is not his own.
It's Gene Pitney possessed by the spirit of Swamp Dogg, and it was the last America wanted of this soul (in torment) singer. During the 1970s, Pitney became a fixture on U.K. variety shows, his special brand of tortured torch song entirely at home amongst the failed dreams and grubby flock grandeur of ’70s light entertainment. Watch this clip of Pitney playing The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club in 1975, inhale its deep fetor of ballroom grime, half heaven and half heartache, and it's but a short step to the romantic grot aesthetic of Soft Cell's Bedsitter, which finally, easily explains the glorious unlikeliness of this.
Happy birthday Gene Pitney. You still haunt our dreams.