True Story About Eugene Pitt: He Was No One-Hit Wonder. Nick, Nick, Nick. . . .
Eugene Pitt had one of the great underappreciated rhythm and blues voices, and it surfaced in some of the unlikeliest places.
Pitt, who died early Friday morning at the age of 80, was best known in the rock ’n’ roll world for “My True Story,” a mysterious love ballad that reached the top 10 in the early fall of 1961.
That was his first record with the Jive Five and while they kept recording for years, they never got that far on the charts again.
Then 20 years later, when most of their peers were playing revival shows, the Jive Five resurfaced as the voice of a hip-and-different children’s television network called Nickelodeon.
When Nick launched, it decided one of its signature jingle sounds would be the sing-along parts of 1950s-style rhythm and blues vocal group music.
That may sound about as smart as smothering a porterhouse steak with rum raisin ice cream. In fact, it was brilliant. Nickelodeon’s pre-teen audience, who had no idea this sound had been popular 30 years earlier, just heard it as fun music, with some nonsense syllables and irresistible harmonies against a backdrop of cartoon characters.
Yes, that was an alligator singing bass and an amoeba on first tenor. What’s not to like?
The real-life voices on many of those jingles and bumpers came from Eugene Pitt and the Jive Five, who brought years of swooping harmony to the project and gave Nickelodeon a distinctly cool brand. If you were a kid then, or parked your kid in front of the TV then, you can sing “Nick-Nick-Nick-Nick-Nick-elodeon” as readily as your ancestors could sing “Yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip moo moo moo moo moo moo get a job.”
Okay, the Nick jingles weren’t the definitive musical legacy of Eugene Pitt and the Jive Five. They were a nice bonus that singers like Pitt deserved and rarely received.
Furthermore, even if the Nick jingles weren’t exactly Bob Dylan-level lyrics, they made the subliminal point that 1950s vocal group music wasn’t just a passing novelty. It existed, like all popular music, because people responded to it.
By the standards of a hard business, Eugene Pitt did well. Besides “My True Story,” the Jive Five got significant radio play for “What Time Is It?” and “I’m a Happy Man.” They recorded other songs that deserved to be heard and really weren’t, like “Rain” and “Hurry Back.”
They also recorded a fascinating version of “Lily Marlene,” a song more identified with cabaret in Berlin than street-corner harmony in Brooklyn.
“Lily Marlene” aside, the group did have a problem with inconsistent material. It had more of a problem with timing. “No Not Again,” whose background vocals are contemporary to 1962, has Pitt singing lead — beautifully — in a style more like 1957. For radio play, the song was a couple of years late.
It made total sense that Pitt would be drawn to it, however, since he came straight out of the 1950s vocal group tradition.
As early as 1954 he was forming groups with friends in Brooklyn’s Cooper Projects, and that was not his first ensemble singing experience. The Pitt family had so many kids — 14, five boys and nine girls — that their father split them into two separate gospel ensembles.
The Jive Five was Pitt’s fifth vocal group, and legend has it that they took their name from a sarcastic remark by some young ladies who thought the boys were showing a little too much interest.
Whatever the genesis, Pitt was working at a Nostrand Avenue supermarket when he ran into one Mrs. Oscar Waltzer, whose husband was a songwriter.
That led to an audition with the newly formed Beltone Records, back when a small label had a legitimate shot at scoring a national hit record. While the Beltone people reportedly didn’t care much for the Jive Five’s stock songs, their ears perked up at “My True Story.”
Me, I’ve always wondered what’s really going on in “My True Story,” which Pitt said had autobiographical roots.
All we really know from the song, it seems to me, is that there were two people named Sue and Earl, and Earl loved Lorraine. Lorraine is said to be a “wonderful girl,” but “they” must cry, cry, cry.
Maybe it’s a simple love triangle. It just feels like there’s something more going on and the song never says what, jumping right from that teasing setup to “This story ends yeah / It was no lie.”
In any case, it’s a compelling record and became Pitt’s signature song.
It has also been called one of the last 1950s-style vocal group radio hits, with only faint stirrings of what would become the soul harmony of the 1960s.
Eugene Pitt had the voice to be a star in that realm. If the heavens never quite aligned for him, the way they didn’t fully align for other wonderful singers from James Carr to Maxine Brown and Bettye Lavette, he left his mark.
He also got to sing his whole life. True story. No need at all to cry, cry, cry.