Before 'CMT Crossroads' - George Jones & Gene Pitney

Thursday, 10 July 2014 06:20 AM Written by 

No one thinks twice today about rock, rap and pop acts teaming with country singers. It happens on records (including the overblown "vocal events"), onstage and TV shows like CMT Crossroads, which made the concept into an art, pairing, among many, Keith Urban and John Fogerty, Hank Williams Jr. with Kid Rock, Taylor Swift with Def Leppard and Faith Hill with the Pretenders. It made for interesting, if not always musically fulfilling, television.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backed Johnny Cash on his Unchained album (1996). Cash joined his friend Bob Dylan on his Nashville Skyline album (1969) to duet on Dylan's "Girl From The North Country" and Dylan returned the favor, appearing on the debut of Cash's ABC TV show.

Before all that, however, George Jones was doing the same thing. In the late 70's he recorded duets with longtime fans Elvis Costello and James Taylor, and in the 90's with Keith Richards.

For Jones, his first such encounter came in 1965 with pop balladeer Gene Pitney, when they were the top artists on New York-based Musicor Records.

He was a huge star even then, the Gold Standard for country vocalists because of his masterful, emotional delivery of tunes like the hit singles "White Lightning," "Tender Years," "Why Baby Why," "She Thinks I Still Care," "Window Up Above" and this ballad:

"Things Have Gone To Pieces" (1965) with his band the Jones Boys. The bass player: future star Johnny Paycheck.

Pitney, part of Manhattan's Brill Building music scene along with Carole King and Neil Sedaka, had a similar flair for dramatic delivery on his hits: "Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa," "Town Without Pity," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

"I'm Gonna Be Strong" (1964)  His second Top Ten single that year.

Musicor President Art Talmadge suggested Pitney record with Jones in Nashville, trying to expand the market for both. He met Jones in Nashville in January 1965 and they began working out the songs. Early on, Pitney realized he'd have to adapt to George's style, not the other way around.

This was the first song they recorded, on January 5, 1965.

"I've Got Five Dollars And It's Saturday Night" Originally a raucous 1956 hit for Faron Young. Jones and Pitney's single (as "George and Gene") reached the Country Top 20.

 "Wreck On The Highway" This 1938 Dorsey Dixon ballad was immortalized by Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys in 1942. Acuff's emotional delivery of ballads was a huge influence on both Jones and Hank Williams, Sr.  This wasn't a hit for Jones and Pitney, yet it reveals how well they meshed.

"Louisiana Man" A 1961 country Top Ten by Cajun brothers Rusty and Doug Kershaw. George and Gene's single broke the country Top 30.

Two albums came from this alliance: For The First Time: Two Great Stars (1965) and It's Country Time Again! (1966). Soon after that, Pitney decided to forgo future collaborations. Here's why.

In an interview before he died in 2006, Pitney expressed pride in the duet material, but noted pop disc jockeys during the mid 60's told him they wondered if he was abandoning pop for country, which was never his intent. That was how deeply the genres were divided in those days. Pitney, an astute observer of the music business for his entire life, correctly added that in the early 21st Century, no one would bat an eye.


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