Back in the early days of rock 'n' roll there were touring shows that packaged a dozen or so singers for one-night visits to cities from coast-to-coast. Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars was the most famous package, and the line-up of performers changed from year to year.
In 1964 the Caravan included Gene Pitney and one of the stops must have been Akron. That's how I met the singer; at least, that's how it must have happened, unless he was brought into town solo for an appearance in the annual Soap Box Derby in Akron – with one of those touring shows that featured a dozen or so pop parade.
Anyway, Pitney and I breakfast together in the restaurant of an Akron hotel in the early '60s. The singer was best known at the time for two hits, "Town Without Pity" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." The first was nominated for an Oscar as best song and Pitney sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards program. The second was written for the John Wayne-James Stewart movie of the same name, but some legal squabble prevented it from being used in the film.
Pitney's voice was distinctive — raspy, pleading, often dramatic, perfect for story-telling songs such as "Liberty Valance." In a way he was his generation's answer to Frankie Laine. Unlike popular young singers of his era, Pitney was not interested in doing films, or vice versa. He did, however, compose a lot of music, which was something most singers of his time did not do. His hits for other artists included "He's a Rebel" for The Crystals, "Rubber Ball" for Bobby Vee, and "Hello, Mary Lou" for Rick Nelson.
Pitney was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Soon after I met him, his career tapered off in the U.S. and he worked more and more in England. When he died in 2006 it was just after he had finished performing a concert in Wales.
My most vivid memory of our interview involved two teen-aged girls who approached our table and asked for singer's autograph. Pitney, who seemed a pleasant young man, quickly obliged. The girls then looked at me, cocked their heads slightly, and asked, "Are you anyone famous?"
Pitney answered the question for me, and I think he was making a good-natured joke, though in print it can be interpreted as a bit of sarcasm. "Well, his mother thinks so," he said.