Tick-tock. Listen to the clock. It’s five o’clock, but the singer, Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five from Brooklyn, New York, is already geared up, projecting three hours into the future. He has a date, and what you hear in his voice is all the pent-up anticipation and anxiety that leads to that instant when the girl opens the door and the rest of the night is stretched out in front of you, all the possibilities. Three hours to go, and then two, then one: the record marches forward, the group reminding Pitt, keeping track for him, like they’re in the room with him as he’s dabbing the Brylcreem and slapping on Old Spice. “Better hurry up,” they tell him in the bridge, and he realizes he needs to put his tie on; he wants to make a good impression. Tick-tock; his heart beats to that rhythm, or maybe quicker. Finally, it’s time for love. Does any vocal group R&B record capture the urgency, the drama of waiting? What is she going to be wearing? Where will the evening end? “What Time Is It,” by the team of Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer (“My Boyfriend’s Back,” “I Want Candy”), is one of the high points of the early ‘60s vocal group resurgence, Eugene Pitt’s crowning moment.
Eugene Pitt passed away this week. Coincidentally, I’d just been talking about the Jive Five with a friend the day before, raving about their I’m a Happy Man LP on United Artists. They are fading away, all those voices, the singers who expressed all our longings and desires. The other night, at a book promotion event for his memoir, Seymour Stein teared up when he sang a line from the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite (I’ll Remember),” and if that music – which, I keep reminding people, was never called doo wop when it was new, or even when the songs were being played as “oldies but goodies” – meant anything to you when you were young, it only takes a few bars to make you misty. I remember being ten years old and hearing the Jive Five’s “My True Story” on the radio and wondering, what is happening here? What is the singer (Pitt) so broken up about? “Cry, cry, cry,” was the constant refrain (the words “My True Story” are nowhere in the song), and the characters, Sue, Earl, Lorraine, how were they entangled? “Names have been changed dear,” Pitt confesses at the end, “to protect you and I.” There was mystery in it. What wasn’t he telling us?
I could riff on other records Pitt was at the center of, going back to the Genies’ “Who’s That Knocking,” flashing forward to the UA period of “I’m a Happy Man,” then to their incarnation as the Jyve Fyve. To their cover of Elton John’s “Come Down in Time” on Avco, and their endearing 1982 album Here We Are! on Ambient Sound Records, with guests Arlene Smith’s Chantels on “Don’t Believe Him Donna,” and an odd stab at Fagen and Becker’s “Hey Nineteen.” I have a strong affection for “Hully Gully Calling Time” (“Do the Frank Sinatra!!”) and F-G-G’s “Rain” (and their “Every Day Is Like a Year” that came out as a Pitt solo single on Beltone), and I know I’ll be pumping “Do You Hear Wedding Bells” when I tie the knot in the fall, because there aren’t too many records from that era that so giddily celebrate the prospect of marriage. But the one I keep returning to is “What Time Is It” from the summer of 1962, when I was too young to even contemplate what it would be like to ask a girl out, let alone put on a tie and summon up the courage to ring her doorbell. Tick-tock, listen to the clock. Eugene Pitt was taking that brave leap, so nervous that he has to ask the other four guys the time every hour. How much longer? How much longer now? The record builds: “The moment’s here at last,” and as his friends swoon behind him, he leaves them behind. He’ll take it from here.