In 2010, I was asked to edit and help publish an interview with Eugene Pitt, original lead singer of the Jive Five, as conducted by Bob Miner, for Keep Rockin’ magazine. With Gene’s passing, I thought it was appropriate for fans to hear his history in his own words and also read some kind words from his admirers and fans.
While Eugene Pitt might not be a household name, but his voice has been heard in our homes in each of every decade since 1961. From his first smash with the Jive Five, “My True Story”, to his soul and disco hits under various tags in the 1970’s through the 1980’s and 1990’s when the Jive Five blared from every television in America on commercials and as the kitschy doo wop voices of cable network Nickelodeon, Eugene Pitt has never left the scene. Over the years, his voice has influenced countless other singers. Born of gospel, influenced by pop and impassioned by rhythm and blues, Gene’s vocal style defies classification. His history is as rich as the sounds he has woven into the fabric of our culture over the past 50 years. So, here’s Bob Miner’s exclusive Q&A session with the great Eugene Pitt…
When did you first start singing?
My career started in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York when my father took me and four of my sisters and taught us how to sing harmony so we could form a gospel group. We just sang in churches around the neighborhood as the Pitt Gospel Singers, back in 1947 or 1948. We never recorded, though.
You said your father taught you and your sisters how to harmonize. Did your father have a musical background?
My father had a very good ear because he sang with the Golden Gate Quartet back in his high school days. I don’t know if he ever recorded with them, but he had a lot of those tin records that he said were of him and his group.
Tell us how you got started on the R&B scene.
When my mother passed away, we moved to the Cooper Projects in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. There, I started singing with Ray Murphy, Charles Murphy, Santee Shore, Monroe Shore and me. We called ourselves the Akrons and we worked the Baby Grand which was on Fulton Street & Nostrand Avenue and we worked the Audobon Ballroom which was up in the Bronx.
The Murphy brothers that you’re referring to were relatives to a now-famous comedian, am I right?
Exactly! Charles was Eddie Murphy’s father and Ray was his uncle. I knew Eddie. He got his sense of humor from his father. His father used to have us in stitches all day long.
After the Akrons, what was your next step, musically speaking?
We started the Genies with my cousin Claude Johnson who sang lead, Freddie Jones, who sang bass, Estelle Williams and I sang tenor and Haskell Cleveland sang baritone. Then Claude Johnson moved to Long Beach and took Freddie with him. Estelle and Haskell started a group in Brooklyn called Jeanie & The Boyfriends. Claude Johnson and Freddie got some new guys together and recorded the hit “Who’s The Knocking?” Estelle and Haskell recorded “It’s Me Knocking” and I formed the Jive Five and recorded “My True Story.” [Editor’s note: Claude “Sonny” Johnson would go on to become one of the founders of the duo Don & Juan, who recorded “What’s Your Name?” for Big Top Records.]
So, how did the Jive Five come together?
Well, then I stepped out and went across town. That’s where I met Jerome Hanna, Billy Prophet, Richard Harris and Norman Johnson. That’s where I started the Jive Five – Myrtle Avenue between Marcy Avenue and Tomkins Avenue in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. I took the guys to my father and he taught them how to sing harmonies. He would stand one guy in each corner and put the lead in the middle of the floor. So when he put you in your corner, you couldn’t hear any other notes to lean on – you could only sing your own note coming out of the corner. A lot of groups get together and stand around and listen to each other. That ruins your pitch because you’re leaning on the next guy to get your note.
Did the gospel recordings have a big influence on the early Jive Five?
Well, my father thought we were gonna be a gospel group because he didn’t want me singing rhythm and blues or rock and roll in the house. He only wanted me to sing gospel, so when I took the group to my father, in the house we only sang gospel. Then, when we left my father and got out onto the street, that’s when we started singing doo wop on the corners. He didn’t know we were singing that kind of music until “My True Story” was a hit. My father came to me and said, “I heard you have a hit record out there.” I said, “Yes, Dad. We have a hit record.” He just shook his head and that was it.
Who were some of your favorite artists growing up?
Frank Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole – those were my singers and we were allowed to play them in the house.
Tell us how your first recording contract came to be.
I was working in a Key Food grocery store and this lady came in one day. She heard me singing and she said “Oh my God! You’re a very good singer. You should come and see my husband. He writes music.” So I didn’t pay it any mind, I kept on working but she came back a couple of days later and said, “I told my husband about you. We thought you were gonna come by.” I really thought the lady was… well, you know how people talk. So, after work I stopped by her husband, Mr. Oscar Waltzer’s house. He lived on President Street. He said, “I hear you can sing.” So I said, “Yeah I do a little singing. We’ve got this group called the Jive Five.” He said, “Well you should bring them by. I’d like to hear them,” and he invited us to dinner. That weekend, the group and I went to Mr. Waltzer’s house and we were singing the songs that every group sings on the corner – “Glory of Love”, the way the 5 Keys did it, “Hucklebuck Jimmy”, “The Closer You Are”, all that kind of stuff – and he said, “Oh, you guys can really sing.” He said he had a friend by the name of Les Cahan who was opening a record company so he set up an audition for us 2 weeks later. On the way to the audition, we ran into a good friend of mine, Jackie Wilson. And he said, “Gene! Where are you going?”, and I said, “We’ve got this audition up at Beltone.” And he said, “Wow! That’s great, I’m going too” and he came along with us! So we went up to Beltone and there we met Otis Pollard, Joe René, the owner Les Cahan and Marcia Vance, she was the secretary. [Editor’s note: Otis Pollard would become the group’s personal manager for many years to come. Joe René was an orchestra-leader, producer and songwriter. Marcia Vance went on to become one of the foremost and most beloved historians of R&B vocal groups.] So we sang a few songs and Les Cahan said, “Wow, you can sing. Do you have any other songs?” So I answered him, “Well, we have a song that we don’t really like,” and he said, “Well, let me hear it.” When he heard it, he said, “That’s a hit!”, and it was. So we recorded “My True Story” and it was a smash hit nationwide for 7 weeks in the summer of 1961.
It was a #1 hit on the R&B charts and a #3 hit on the Pop charts. So that opened up a lot of doors for you?
Oh, yes it did! The first door it opened was American Bandstand. I got a chance to meet my man Dick Clark. That was August of 1961. Being a young kid, we were so excited just to be on the show.
In what cities did you perform?
We got a chance to travel with Dick Clark on his “Caravan of Stars” with Paul Anka, Linda Scott, Duane Eddy and the Rebels, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, The Shirelles and my favorite singer, Mr. Tom Jones all on one big bus. We crowded in and toured the country – all through Canada and all the way down south. We played the Regal Theatre in Chicago and we did a lot of what they called “Rodeo Shows”, at big centers.
Did you write most of your own songs?
I wrote them but I also lived them. They’re all true stories. I’d write a song and then I’d show the group how to sing it. I wrote “Never, Never” on the way to the recording studio one day because we had a recording date and we didn’t have a song to record. When I got in the group, I never wanted to be a lead singer. I was so used to singing background with my sisters, but being that I had to show the group how to sing the song, I wound up being the lead.
Is there any song out there that you wish you could have recorded that you never did?
Back in 1962 or 1963, we did a show at the Howard Theatre in Washington with James Brown and the Famous Flames, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jackie Rourke and Tony Clark. James Brown had an after-show party for all the people on the show and we went. At the party there was this kid doing the dance called the Monkey. Everybody stood around and watched this guy. Everybody flipped out. I went back home after the show and I wrote a song called “Doing the Monkey.” Les Cahan said, “Well you know, it’s hard to do dance records. We’re gonna pass on it.” The next thing I know, Smokey came out with “Mickey’s Monkey” and had a smash all over the charts
You mentioned that the Jive Five liked to change with the times, but you stayed with a doo wop sound on “I’m a Happy Man.”
We weren’t looking for a doo wop sound. Otis Pollard said they were looking for a dance record. So I wrote “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss” for the A-side and people started hearing from the south that “Happy Man” was taking off there so they started flipping it over in New York. And that was in 1965. We managed to stay on the charts during the British Invasion. “I’m a Happy Man” was #2. Tom Jones was #3. We were looking to get to #1 but Tom Jones went to #1 with “What’s New Pussycat?”
Who were the members at that time?
Casey Spencer, Norman Johnson, Webster Harris, Beatrice Best. Beatrice replaced Jerome Hanna, but he sings baritone. Bea and Casey are still with me to this day.
A lot of record collectors, myself included, loved “Falling Tears.” Who’s singing the duet lead with you?
I sang lead and I harmonized with myself and I wound up doing a tenor in the background also! “Falling Tears” was a fun song which we did with multi-tracking, but the other guys are on there too.
After United Artists, what other record labels did you go to?
We went to ABC where we became Sting and we did an album. We had a hit record in England. We went to Decca, where we went back to the name, but we changed the spelling to Jyve Fyve. Then we went to Honey Bee Records, where we became Ebony, Ivory & Jade and Shadow and Showdown.
The sound evolved into what we called soul music…
Yes. We recorded “You’re a Puzzle” with Richard Fisher on lead for Decca. We recorded “If You Let Me Make Love to You, then Why Can’t I Touch You?” which was a big hit for Ronnie Dyson. On Honey Bee Records, I did a lot of work with Gloria Gaynor. I sang on her “Never Can Say Goodbye” album, we did a duet called “We Belong Together.” That was Meco Monardo, Tony Bongiovi and Jay Ellis – we helped Gloria Gaynor with that. [Editor’s note: Tony Bongiovi was a highly-regarded recording studio engineer who began his career at Motown in the late 1960’s. He is a second cousin to Bon Jovi lead singer John Bongiovi. Today, Tony heads up an audio engineering empire. Meco Monardo was a record producer perhaps best known for his disco version of the Star Wars theme, released under the name Meco.]
Do you collect records?
I only have about 260,000. I started collecting records in 1947. The first record I ever collected was “Mule Train” by Frankie Laine, but most of my records are of vocal groups. I have everything The Orioles ever recorded, on 78rpm’s and on the Jubilee label on 45rpm’s, The Moonglows on the Champagne label, The Flamingos on Chance… I have a record right now that people have offered me $1000 for – The Checkers on Federal. Many people said there’s no such thing, but I have the record. It was a thing called “So Fine” – they said the Sheeks did it, but I have it by the Checkers.
In the early 80’s, you reverted back to the doo wop sound with an album on Ambient Records. How did that come about?
A good friend of mine, Marty Pekar said “Gene, I’ve got this commercial and these people want the Jive Five to sing it.” It was a Playboy’s Hot Rocks commercial and the people from Nickelodeon heard that wanted me to write some bumpers. I wrote the bumpers for the top of the hour and the Jive Five sang the background. [Editor’s note: Bumpers are brief “drop-in” audio sound clips that are used in between programs or between programs and commercials.] We put out 2 albums with Ambient Sound, “Here I Am” and “Way Back”. We did those 2 albums and the company disbanded so we moved on. [Editor’s note Marty Pekar was an advertising copywriter who founded Ambient Records and released critically-acclaimed albums on the Harptones, the Capris, Randy & the Rainbows, the Mystics and of course, the Jive Five in the early 1980’s.]
Tell me about your latest CD, “Stepping Out in Front – I Love Beach Music.”
A good friend of mine Richard Hourihan was recording Joel Katz and I was doing background work for Joel. Then Richard said he wanted to record an album on me and I responded that I wanted to do beach music. So we called my friend Bobby Jay, who was singing with the Teenagers at the time, and we asked him to produce it. He brought songs like “Jazzy Lady”, Richard came with a few songs and I came with a few songs and we put this album together. [Editor’s note: Joel Katz is a well-regarded group harmony singer from New Jersey who frequently records and produces his own and other group’s recordings at his Broadway South Recording Studio.]
Who else is singing on this CD?
Bobby Jay and Dickie Harmon from the Teenagers, Joel Katz, and the Cookies, who recorded “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Baby” and they also sang background on so many recordings in their time – too numerous to name.
Eugene Pitt passed away on June 29, 2018. We’ll remember the songs he wrote and his soulful voice for years to come…
“Gene is a fantastic singer, song writer and performer. We’ve been close friends since the early sixties.” – Lenny Welch
“Gene Pitt is one of my favorites. His voice remains as beautiful and powerful as ever. I admire him greatly. He has so much talent and yet, he has a humble, unassuming quality that makes him one of the nicest gentlemen in our business. I remain one of his biggest fans, and very proudly, one of his friends.” – Larry Chance
“We looked to America from an early age and we admired the work of Howlin’ Wolf, the writing of Willie Dixon, the playing of Muddy Waters and the singing of the Capris, the Jive Five and Ral Donner…American music that really formed our musical personalities.” – Robert Plant, accepting Led Zepplin’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, January 12, 1995