He’s urbane, witty and sophisticated and down home and hokey, all at once. Gene Pistilli is something of a musical enigma and his first album for Memphis International, I Still Get Dressed On Sunday, crosses genre borders with the ease of a seasoned smuggler. And well seasoned he is: Gene is a Nashville resident but started life in the same place that begat Frank Sinatra. Gene was born at St.Mary’s Hospital in Hoboken. His dad was a truck driver and his mom minded the house and kids and both had a love of music that was early instilled in Gene. Swing music of every stripe, from Count Basie to Spade Cooley, was a family fixation. Music is very much part of the Pistilli family DNA, Gene’s grandfather, Antonio, emigrated from Compana on the Italy’s coast south of Rome, and arrived on these shores with a violin in hand; a career playing it in bands followed.
Gene was raised in Fairview, NJ -- “not a great view, not a bad view” --, ten miles north of Hoboken where Gene recalls, “Everybody was Italian; I thought Willie Mays was a Sicilian.” His dad played guitar at family gatherings where everybody would sing “Red River Valley.” Inspired by the joy his father engendered with his guitar and by his idol and namesake, Gene Autry, twelve-year-old Gene asked for a guitar of his own. He was given one that he still treasures -- and is heard throughout I Still Get Dressed On Sunday -- a 1938 Epiphone Broadway. “It’s the second biggest model they made, the Buick, not the Cadillac,” Gene notes. He took a paper route to pay for lessons.
“I kept up my lessons but I didn’t really practice that much,” he recalls. “I was taught to play beautiful sweet ‘muzak but I wanted to play ‘Apache’ and ‘Rebel Rouser.’” He soon got together with two junior high classmates and found himself playing “Apache” (as well as “Rumble,” “40 Miles of Bad Road,” “Night Train,” and the whole gamut of twangy rock ‘n roll instrumentals of the era) at Friday school dances. When he got to Cliffside Park High, he was asked to join the Darnells, a band whose repertoire was a combination of R&B (“’Shout’ was always on the set list’) and English Invasion stuff. “We were crazy about the Stones and Beatles so we changed the name of the band to Chips & Company because we thought it sounded English.”
Encouraged by his mother, Gene had started writing poetry when he was young so the leap to songwriting was not a huge one. Chips & Company won a battle of the bands at Palisades Park, their prize being a national tour. The tour was initially a disorganized fiasco but their publicist saved the day and booked gigs for the guys and introduced them to Robert Mitchum whose houseguests they were at least one night. After gigging at amusement parks throughout the East, they secured a recording deal with ABC Paramount. Two songs written by Gene were recorded. One was “Walk Tall” which, according to its composer, “wasn’t really released, it escaped.”
His music career didn’t look too promising at the time and Gene considered taking a job with his father erecting cyclone fences but soon fell in with a young music publishing “gofer” in New York named Terry Cashman. The two wrote “There’s Nothing Else On My Mind,” that was released as the follow up to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” Though it wasn’t a hit, the two kept at it and, after some more misses, they scored with “Sunday Will Never Be The Same,” Spanky and Our Gang’s 1967 mega hit. His potential fence building had been completely and finally forgotten.
Thereafter, Gene and Terry were joined by a former promo man named Tommy West. The three were soon providing songs for Al Martino and Eddie Arnold and then decided to write, produce, sing and record on their own. Initially they recorded as The Buchanan Brothers and scored a hit, “Medicine Man,” in 1969, with Gene on lead vocal. They later recorded as Cashman, Pistilli and West and went on to produce an album by a husband and wife duo, Jim and Ingrid Croce. Their record was not a hit and Gene had grown restless. Splitting from Cashman and West, he bumped into a group called The Manhattan Transfer and was invited to join. Manhattan Transfer and Gene Pistilli, as they were billed, got a deal with Capitol and recorded an album entitled Jukin’.
Gene’s tenure with Manhattan Transfer was short lived; He got married and bid Manhattan and Manhattan Transfer goodbye and headed for California. He stayed in LA for six years where he wrote “I Sold My Soul To Rock ‘N Roll,” sung by Bette Midler in The Rose. He also provided Bette’s stage showstopper “Pretty Legs and Great Big Knockers.” While in LA, he hooked up with Walter Murphy with the two collaborating on an R&B group called Uncle Louie. Their non-hits, “Full Tilt Boogie,” and “I Like Funky Music,” are the source of rap samples to this day. Harry Belafonte and Mama Cass recorded Pistilli songs, but his career wasn’t moving as he thought it should so he first moved back to New York and then to Nashville with his wife and their two kids.
He thought Nashville would be a good place to be a writer. Initially he was wrong. “For the first two years, I couldn’t get anybody to even hear my demos.” A song he had written entitled “Too Gone Too Long” inspired by the types of songs his family used to sing back in Fairview would be his breakthrough. Martha Sharp, a Warner Bros. A&R executive liked the song and had Randy Travis cut it. It was a huge country hit and one of the top performing ASCAP songs of both 1988 and 1989. Travis recorded more of his material, as did Gene Watson. For Asleep At The Wheel he provided “How The West Was Swung” (with A@TW’s Ray Benson returning the favor by providing liner notes on Gene’s album). Gene was thrilled that it was also recorded by Roy Rogers on his last ever session. Gene’s “Texas To A T” was recorded by another singing cowboy, Herb Jeffries, a/ka The Bronze Buckaroo, the former Ellington band singer who rode the range in such films as “Harlem on The Prairie.”
The concept behind I Still Get Dressed On Sunday is readily explained by Gene, “I’m trying to do a combination of Tommy Duncan [of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys] and Frank Sinatra [of Hoboken, NJ].” In fact, when the idea for the album was first floated, Gene toyed with the idea of calling himself Hank Sinatra, Jr. He was talked out of it and adopted the sobriquet “Hoboken Saddletramp” to convey the idea of the cross-cultural nature of his approach to Western Swing. This is underscored by the instrumentation that includes sax, clarinet and trumpet. Though they could be found in various Western Swing recordings, Gene says their presence here veers more to the “swing” side than the “western.”
Full disclosure: despite Gene’s musical orientation, his horsemanship leaves something to be desired. He likes to recall the time that his daughter’s riding class, after he was observed seated on a fine equine mount, voted him, “father who looks best behind the wheel of a Cadillac.”
|Release Date||Nov 23, 2015|
|Record Label||Memphis International Records|
|Number of Discs||1|
|Box Lot Quantity||30|