Eugene Pitt, seated, and the other members of the Jive Five in an undated publicity photo.Sterling Press, from the book "Doo Wop"
By Daniel E. Slotnik
Eugene Pitt, the lead singer of the Jive Five, a doo-wop group that reached the Top 10 in 1961 with “My True Story
” and endured long past doo-wop’s heyday by mingling their sound with ascendant genres like funk, disco and soul, died on June 29 at his home in Newberry, S.C. He was 80.
The cause was complications of diabetes, his daughter Starr Pitt said.
Mr. Pitt formed the Jive Five in the late 1950s with Jerome Hanna, Thurmon Prophet, Richard Harris and Norman Johnson — four friends with whom he sang on the streets of Brooklyn. Like many young vocalists of the era, they sang doo-wop, the romantic, harmonic brand of pop music that became popular alongside early rock ’n’ roll and contributed to the sound of soul.
Mr. Pitt’s rich, rangy voice became the group’s centerpiece, sometimes soaring to a falsetto over the deeper harmonies of the others. The group was often billed, on record and in concert, as Eugene Pitt and the Jive Five or the Jive Five featuring Eugene Pitt, and Mr. Pitt remained the leader, and sometimes the only original member, as others came and went.
Their first and biggest hit was “My True Story,” a lament of lost love written by Oscar Waltzer and Mr. Pitt and punctuated by Mr. Pitt’s keening repetition of the word “cry.” In 1961 the song reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and No. 3 on the pop chart. It became the Jive Five’s signature for the next five decades.
Interest in doo-wop had begun to wane by the early 1960s, but the Jive Five remained popular throughout the decade with soulful songs like “A Bench in the Park
” and “What Time Is It?
” They reached the Top 40 in 1965 with the single “I’m a Happy Man
.” The group also toured the United States, sharing bills with acts like Tom Jones, the Shirelles and Chubby Checker.
“The Jive Five at that time was the only group that survived through the British invasion,” Mr. Pitt said in an interview for the website Soul Express Online
In the 1970s Mr. Pitt, with the Jive Five and others, recorded funky songs like “I Want You to Be My Baby
” and disco numbers like “Samson
” — sometimes under variations of the Jive Five name, like Jyve Fyve, and sometimes under different names altogether, like Ebony, Ivory & Jade.
“We changed our name, because we figured that Jive Five was an old doo-wop name, and we wanted to come out fresh,” Mr. Pitt said.
By the early 1980s the Jive Five were applying their vocal harmonies to more modern compositions. Their 1982 album, “Here We Are,” featured songs with a classic rock sound like “Hey Sam
,” upbeat soul songs like “He’s Just a Lucky Man
” and a crooning cover of Steely Dan’s
” that amplified its wistfulness.
“ ‘Here We Are’ shows the same stylistic flexibility that led the Jive Five to score ’60s chart successes in both vocal group (‘My True Story’) and pop-soul styles (‘I’m a Happy Man’),” Joe Sasfy wrote in a review in The Washington Post in 1982. “Most important, the Jive Five’s imaginative vocal arrangements and Eugene Pitt’s intimate lead vocals show the band’s ties to a more innocent past and its desire for a more viable artistic future.”
The Jive Five kept performing for decades, most recently in 2016.
Eugene Pitt was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 6, 1937, to Christal C. Pitt and Mammie Obye Pitt. His mother died when he was young, and his father, a longshoreman and gospel singer, taught Eugene and his many siblings how to sing and harmonize. Some of them performed as a gospel group in local churches when they were children, and Mr. Pitt’s brothers Frank and Herbert joined him in a later edition of the Jive Five.
Mr. Pitt began singing secular music on Brooklyn street corners before he graduated from Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He sang in two local groups, the Akrons and the Genies, before starting the Jive Five.
Mr. Pitt’s marriage to Emma Spencer, the sister of Casey Spencer, a longtime member of the Jive Five, ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Starr, he is survived by five other daughters, Sheila Pitt, Tawanna Davis, Kasey White, Shoshone Johnson and Tamma White; four sons, Eugene Jr., Eric, Lamont and Rashard; six sisters, Mildred Alexander, Margaret Atkins, Dorothea Dowling, Juanita Rhodes, Unise Ann Pitt and Christa Pitt; his brother Herbert; 25 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, the Jive Five recorded memorable jingles
for the children’s television network Nickelodeon, introducing a new generation to doo-wop’s sound. In 2009 Mr. Pitt released a solo CD, “Steppin’ Out in Front ‘I Love Beach Music.’ ”.
His most high-profile record in recent years was a 2013 album of doo-wop hits, sung by Aaron Neville and produced by Don Was and the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, on which Mr. Pitt sang backup. The album, titled “My True Story,” included a cover of Mr. Pitt’s biggest hit.
Follow Daniel E. Slotnik on Twitter: @dslotnik