|The Allen Brothers/Peter Allen|
There are few stories in Australian popular music as remarkable as that of singer, songwriter and pianist Peter Allen. Though it ended tragically early, his amazing career took him from a country pub in northern New South Wales to stardom on Broadway and as a recording and concert artist he achieved international fame and popularity. As a composer, his songs (many written with longtime collaborator Carole Bayer Sager) became worldwide hits both for Peter and for other artists, and they earned him both a Grammy award and an Academy award, and many of these fine songs are now regarded as standards, of popular music.
For his first decade as a professional musician, from 1960 to 1970, Peter Allen was half of the duo The Allen Brothers. Like many "brother" acts of the Sixties, they were of course not related. Peter (whose real name was Peter Allen Woolnough) was born on February 10, 1944 in the country town of Tenterfield, NSW. He had a difficult childhood - his father was an abusive alcoholic, and one of the stabilising influences in his life was his beloved grandfather George, who ran the local saddlery.
As an escape from his troubled home life, Peter developed a passionate interest in music. Prodigiously talented, he soon learned piano and was playing at the local pub by the time he was ten, entertaining the locals with his spirited Fats Waller and Jerry Lee Lewis-styled song-and-dance performances. In his mid-teens he moved to Sydney, where he began playing in pubs. Here he met up with singer-guitarist Chris Bell and with the help of Chris, father they established themselves as the folk-pop duo The Allen Brothers.
In early 1960 they were spotted by a friend of Brian Henderson, the host of the TV pop show Bandstand and as a result they became regular members of the so-called "Bandstand Family for the next two years. Bandstand was an important training ground for Peter, who became a skilled television performer, and it also brought them into contact with other up-and-coming acts like The Bee Gees and Olivia Newtown-John, with whom Peter became lifelong friends.
The Allen Brothers were soon signed by Lee Gordon and they issued two singles on Gordon's Leedon label, Bells Bells Bells/Summer Clouds (April 1960) and There's No Need/Busy Lips (June). They then moved to EMI's Pye subsidiary, for whom they recorded four singles: First Kiss/My Secret (July 1960), Pretty Keen Teen/There's No Need (September), Too Much/Ever Since (October) and No Hesitation/Knocking on the Right Front Door (shared with The Barry Sisters) (December). First Kiss reached #11, Pretty Keen Teen #14 and No Hesitation #19 on the Sydney charts, but First Kiss was their only Melbourne chart entry, reaching #32 in August 1960.
The Allen Brothers then switched to EMI's HMV label for three more singles: No Fooling/Be An Angel Darling (December 1961), Baby Loves Me/Firefly (February 1962) and There's Never Been a Girl Like You/Ain't Misbehaving' (August). But Peter was clearly already looking well beyond Australia, even in those early years. The pair left Australia in April 1962 for what was supposed to be a three-week booking in Tokyo, performing a Las Vegas-style nightclub act. It was so successful that they toured around Asia for next two years, playing in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong.
The big break came during their stay in Hong Kong. While performing in the Starlight Room at the Hong Kong Hilton in May 1964 The Allen Brothers were spotted by superstar Judy Garland, who was so impressed that she took them under her wing, arranged bookings for them and brought them to London as her opening act. She also introduced Peter to her daughter Liza Minnelli and the two were subsequently engaged. The Allen Brothers made their American debut at the Diplomat Hotel in Miami in December 1964, after which they based themselves in New York. For the rest of the 1960s, they performed in clubs around the US, notably at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Clubs.
On March 3, 1967, Peter and Liza were married. Although such matters were rarely if ever discussed in the media in those days, Peter's sexuality was apparently no secret within the industry, and he and Chris Bell were rumoured to have been an "item" for several years. If Liza was aware of this, it did not dissuade her. Her father, the famous film director Vincente Minelli, was reportedly bisexual, so it's unlikely that she would have been shocked by the idea. It would be unfair to characterize it simply as a marriage of convenience, but the union undoubtedly proved of immense help to Peter's career, not least because it automatically made him an American citizen, enabling him to settle in the US permanently.
Meanwhile, The Allen Brothers career continued with moderate success. They signed to Mercury and recorded the album Chris & Peter Allen's Album #1. Two Allen Brothers, singles were released in Australia during this period, on different labels: Middle Of The Street/I Owe Everything To You came out on Ampar in 1966 and Ten Below/Just Friends on Philips in 1968.
Although the duo was well-established as a cabaret act, Peter was becoming disenchanted with the conventional side of show business, and he was greatly attracted to the vibrant Greenwich Village music scene and off-Broadway theatre. He had been encouraged to write by Liza, and during the late 60s and early 70s he developed his songwriting and his stagecraft as a solo performer, playing mostly in small clubs. He gradually picked a cult following for his flamboyant stage act, which provided an interesting contrast to the sensitive and introspective nature of many of his songs.
The end of the decade brought about dramatic changes in Peter's life. On 22 June 1969 his mother-in-law Judy Garland died in London, aged only 47. Her death was found to have been the result of an accidental barbiturate overdose, but it came as no surprise. Like so many stars, the unfortunate Garland had been trapped in a destructive cycle of amphetamine, barbiturate and alcohol dependence since her years as a teenage movie star, and many appearances during her last years (including her 1964 Australian tour) were marred by her drug problems. Peter and Liza separated at the end of 1969 (they were divorced in 1974) and the Allen Brothers finally broke up in early in the new year. Chris Bell reportedly quit showbusiness and became a pilot.
On June 24, 1970, Peter played his first solo show as at the famous Bitter End nightclub in Greenwich Village. He wrote songs for the La Mama Theatre Company (the inspiration for the Melbourne theatre of the same name) and he made his less-than-auspicious Broadway debut on January 12, 1971 in Soon, a rock opera that ran for only three performances.
Peter excelled at writing introspective ballads and bittersweet love songs, and he was fortunate that his development as a composer coincided with the singer-songwriter trend of the early '70s, exemplified by the likes of Elton John, James Taylor and Carole King. Peter began to write more commercially-oriented material and scored a job as a staff writer at Metromedia Records, where he met and began working with songwriter Carole Bayer-Sager. This productive partnership would produce some of Peter's best and most successful songs.
Peter and Carole's first major collaboration was Jennifer, a song written for a US telemovie called Getting Together that was performed by singer-actor Bobby Sherman. Sherman recorded it for Metromedia and it became Peter's first hit song for another artist, making the US Top 40 in the autumn of 1971. On the strength of this success, Metromedia commissioned Peter to record his self-titled debut album later that year. It included two songs co-written with Sager, Don't Cry Out Loud and I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love, both of which would become major hits in later years when covered by other artists. It was followed by the album Tenterfield Saddler in 1972, which included the title track, Peter's moving autobiographical tribute to his grandfather, George Woolnough.
Peter returned to performing in 1973 with an appearance at the popular New York nightclub Reno Sweeney's. His notoriety grew and it wasn't long before singers on the New York club circuit were picking up on songs from his albums. He also began writing for major recording artists like Olivia Newton-John (an old friend from their Bandstand days) and Helen Reddy. Peter's major commercial breakthrough as a writer came with Olivia's recording of I Honestly Love You, a song co-written with Brill Building legend Jeff Barry. It was a #1 US and Australian hit in October 1973 and subsequently won two Grammy Awards in 1974. Its success earned Peter a contract with A&M Records, for whom he recorded his third album, Continental American, which included his own version of I Honestly Love You and another classic Allen-Sager collaboration, Everything Old Is New Again.
After more than a decade away from home, Peter returned home to Australia in September 1975, supporting Helen Reddy on her tour of Japan, Hong Kong and Australia. If he was remembered at all, it was probably only for his Bandstand days and his much-publicised marriage to Minnelli, but as a solo performer and songwriter Peter was unknown in his homeland. But the Reddy tour marked a turning point for Australian audiences, with Peter consistently outperforming the better known headliner, earning glowing reviews and winning over audiences with his dynamic showmanship and vivacious personality.
On his return to the USA, however, there was a temporary setback when A&M sent Peter out on one of the most spectacularly mismatched double bills in history: A&M placed him as the support act on a US tour slot by his label-mates, the outrageous Los Angeles art-rock band The Tubes. Not surprisingly, it was a disaster. But Peter soon bounced back and his career really began to pick up after he signed with powerful manager Dee Anthony who also managed Peter Frampton, The J. Geils Band and Gary Wright.
In 1976, Peter recorded his breakthrough album Taught By Experts which includes his most famous song, I Go to Rio, and another classic Allen-Sager collaboration, Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage, his poignant ode to Judy Garland. Rio was completely ignored in Australia on its first release. The turnaround in Australia came about a year later when A&M re-released it, this time accompanied by a vibrant promotional video. It was picked up by the ABC's television pop show Coundown who gave it tremendous support. Thanks to Countdown's huge national audience the song shot to #1 on the Australian charts and Rio's success demonstrated conclusively both the enormous influence of Countdown and the rapidly growing importance of music videos as a means of marketing new music.
Now a genuine star in his own right, Peter returned to Australia in September 1977 for a wildly successful tour, which ended with a free concert in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens. His next single, a cover of the perennial The More I See You b/w I Honestly Love You reached #11 in Australia in October, while Taught by Experts also made the Top 10.
Peter's next LP was the in-concert double album It Is Time for Peter Allen (October 1977). Culled from performances on his successful 1977 US tour, it is perhaps his strongest all-round recording, capturing him at his best, in performance, showcasing the cream of his material, and also highlighting what an excellent pianist he was.
Peter's first and only film role was in 1978. Unfortunately, he could hardly have chosen a worse vehicle. Luckily his part was a small one and he escaped the odium that attached to the film and tainted the careers of its stars. Peter made a cameo appearance in the fantasy film musical Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and George Burns.
On paper, the Pepper project looked like a surefire success. It was directed by Michael Schultz, who had scored a cult success in 1976 with the disco musical Car Wash; the soundtrack consisted entirely of new versions of classic Beatles songs performed by an all-star cast. It starred two of the hottest acts of the day, supported by a host of fine performers including Aerosmith, Earth Wind & Fire, Alice Cooper and Billy Preston, with cameos galore by movie and music stars including Frankie Valli, Frankie Howerd, Steve Martin, Barry Humphries (as Dame Edna), Paul Nicholas (Tommy), Donald Pleasance, Keith Carradine, Carol Channing, Bonnie Raitt, Anita Pointer (The Pointer Sisters), Helen Reddy, Johnny Rivers, Tina Turner, Wolfman Jack, Gary Wright and of course Peter himself.
But the reality was disastrously different. Even before filming began the Bee Gees could see what was coming and they asked (unsuccessfully) to be taken off the project. Despite the wealth of talent involved (including Beatles producer George Martin) the Pepper film turned out to be a chaotic, embarrassing mess. Released in the middle of 1978, it was universally derided by critics and a catastrophic failure at the box office. Still widely considered to be one of the worst musical films ever made, it effectively wrecked Frampton's career and severely damaged the credibility of the Bee Gees. They later described it as the worst thing they were ever involved in and publicly apologized for being in it!
It must have been a bitter irony for all concerned that an almost identical concept was used only two years later by director John Landis — although Landis had the wisdom to make his film an anarchic comedy chase. But his real masterstroke was in using classic soul and R&B songs as the musical thread and featuring a host of soul music legends like Ray Charles, James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Despite its excessive elements, a paper-thin plot that was almost as ridiculous as Sgt Pepper's, and the fact that the two leads (Saturday Night Live stars Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi) were almost unknown outside the USA, Landis' film, The Blues Brothers (1980) became a massive cult hit, one of the most successful musical films of all time.
Luckily the failure of the Pepper movie didn't dent Peter's success, which continued later in the year when singer Melissa Manchester scored a US Top Ten hit with a cover of the song Don't Cry Out Loud, the song Peter had originally been recorded on his 1971 debut album. Peter subsequently recorded a new version on his fourth A&M album, I Could Have Been a Sailor, released in February 1979.
The successes kept on coming, taking Peter to new heights in 1979-80. I Could Have Been a Sailor became his first LP to make the American charts, soft-rock group Pablo Cruise scored a hit with a version of I Go to Rio and Rita Coolidge made the Top 40 with I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love (another Allen-Sager ballad from Peter's first LP) at the end of the year.
1980 saw Peter fulfil a long-held ambition by headlining in his own hit show, Up in One: More Than a Concert, which he also toured extensively. Later in the year Peter toured Australia with Up in One, and his return home provided the inspiration for another of his best known songs, the expatriates' anthem I Still Call Australia Home. Although (or perhaps because) its strong resemblance to Waltzing Matilda, the song caught on almost immediately. It has since become an unofficial Australian anthem largely due to its use as advertising jingle by QANTAS. During the Australian Up In One tour, Peter often finished the show by telling the audience "I still call Australia home". According to the Powerhouse Museum curator Peter Cox, Peter had no intention of writing a piece by that title until he was approached by a Festival Records executive, who suggested it would make an evocative song of particular appeal to expats like Peter himself. He wrote it during an intermission and sang it for the first time on the tour's closing night in Melbourne. It was so well received he recorded it for Festival Records. Later in the year Peter and his old friends Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton-John — plus a 400-voice choir — performed it for the Elizabeth at the Royal Command Variety Performance held at the Sydney Opera House.
Peter's fifth A&M album, Bi-Coastal, appeared at the end of 1980 and it made the American charts. Although his high-camp theatricality left little doubt about his sexuality, the media predictably seized upon the title, which Peter coyly explained away as referring to the fact that he divided his time between New York and Los Angeles. The single Fly Away also made the US pop charts. In 1981, he headlined at Radio City Music Hall, where he danced with the Rockettes and rode a camel during I Go to Rio. As well as I Could Have Been a Sailor and the single I Could Have Been a Sailor/Tenterfield Saddler (January 1980), A&M released the Tenterfield Saddler album for the first time in Australia in early 1980.
Three singles were lifted from the Bi-Coastal album — Bi-Coastal/Simon (September 1980), Fly Away/Planes (January 1981) and One Step Over The Borderline/I Could Really Show You Around (May 1981). By this time Peter was so popular that he could play to full houses at such famous venues as the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, and New York's Copacabana Club and Radio City Music Hall.
One of Peter's biggest achievements came in 1981 when his old friend and colleague Carole Bayer-Sager collaborated with the legendary Burt Bacharach (whom she later married) and singer Christopher Cross to write a theme song for the film comedy Arthur, starring Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud. During the writing Carole recalled the phrase "When you get caught between the moon and New York City " which came from an unrecorded song that she and Peter had written years before. It became the first line of the chorus of Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) which was a huge international hit for Cross in late 1981 and earned Allen, Cross, Bayer-Sager and Bacharach the 1982 Academy Award for Best Original Song.
In August, The Very Best of Peter Allen had reached #9 on the Australian charts. Its success was in no small measure due to the inclusion of I Still Call Australia Home, which ironically, A&M had been unwilling to include! Meanwhile Peter toured North America before returning to headline again at Radio City in September. He also travelled to the UK to play the Pirate King in a British television production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.
When his A&M contract expired, Peter to moved to Clive Davis, Arista Records, for whom he released his ninth album Not the Boy Next Door in March 1983 to coincide with another Australian tour. It reached #24 on the Australian chart and yielded the singles Not the Boy Next Door and You Haven't Heard the Last of Me. In America, the singles You Haven't Heard the Last of Me, Once Before I Go, and You and Me (We Wanted It All) all made the adult-contemporary charts. Peter continued to tour extensively, released another LP Making Every Moment Count and returned to New York for a run of sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall in September, that were recorded for the 1985 Arista album Captured Live at Carnegie Hall.
During the 1984 shows, Peter performed several numbers from a musical he was writing, Legs Diamond, based on the Warner Bros. gangster film The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960); the film was loosely based on the life of Depression-era New York gangster and murderer John "Legs Diamond, who was gunned down in 1931. But it would be four years before Peter achieved the long-cherished dream of having his musical produced on Broadway.
After another Australian tour in August 1988, Peter opened in Legs Diamond at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on December 26, 1988. The lyrics and music were by Peter, from a book by Harvey Fierstein and Charles Suppon; it starred Peter in the lead role with Julie Wilson, Joe Silver, Peter Allen, Brenda Braxton, Randall Edwards, Jim Fyfe, Christian Kauffmann, Pat McNamara and Raymond Serra. Regrettably, Legs Diamond proved to be the only major failure of Peter's career. It was slammed by the critics and ran only 64 performances, although a cast album was recorded and released on RCA. Bitterly disappointed but undaunted, Peter went back to what he did best, and he subsequently returned to Australia for two more successful tours in January 1990 and January 1992.
Tragically, the '92 tour was to be his last — Peter fell ill soon after and was diagnosed with AIDS-related throat cancer. He returned to Australia for treatment but died in Sydney on June 19, 1992. He was posthumously inducted into the Australian Hall of Fame at the sixth annual Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards ceremony in 1993.
Ironically, though his own musical was a failure, Peter's music and life were the source for Australia,s most successful musical. In 1998 The Boy From Oz (The Peter Allen Story) opened in Sydney. Written by Nick Enright and directed by Gale Edwards, it starred Todd McKenney as Peter, with Robyn Arthur, Jill Perryman, Murray Bartlett, Lisa Callaghan, Deb Mitchelmore, Cherine Peck, Garry Scale, Angela Toohey and Chrissie Amphlett (Divinyls) as Judy Garland.
The show was a runaway success — it played for two years and at
the 1998 ARIA Awards the soundtrack album won Best Original Cast Recording.
It would surely have delighted Peter to know that plans are afoot to present
it on Broadway in 2003 with rising Australian star Hugh Jackman in the
Spencer, Chris & Zbig Nowara
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