Peter Allen, born Peter Allen Woolnough (February 10, 1944 – June 18, 1992) was an Australian songwriter and singer. He was born in 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 Bell's father they established themselves as the folk-pop-cabaret duo The Allen Brothers.
Start of career
In early 1960 they were spotted by a friend of Brian Henderson, the host of the Australian version of American 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 him into contact with other up-and-coming acts like the The Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John, with whom Peter became lifelong friends.
The Allen Brothers
The Allen Brothers were signed to a recording contract by entrepreneur 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, arranged by Eric Jupp), "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).They were moderately successful in Sydney, with "First Kiss" reaching #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). The duo 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 had a sexual relationship. 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 Records 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 Records in 1968.
Although the duo was well-established as a cabaret act, Peter was by then 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 up a cult following for his flamboyant stage act, which provided an interesting contrast to the sensitive and introspective nature of many of his songs.
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 drink and 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 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 including fellow Australian expatriates Olivia Newton-John (his 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 in his home country, it was probably only for his Bandstand days and his much-publicised marriage to Minnelli, but as a solo performer and songwriter Peter was virtually 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 a disastrusly mismatched US tour, supporting another A&M act, the outrageous Los Angeles art-rock band The Tubes. But Peter soon bounced back and his career 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, but the turnaround came about a year later when A&M re-released it, this time accompanied by a simple but vibrant promotional video. It was picked up by the ABC's television pop show Countdown. 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 video 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 Botanic 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. Inexplicably, the album has never been released on CD.
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 his excellence as a pianist.
Peter's first and only film role was in 1978, a cameo appearance in the fantasy film musical Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and George Burns, which is widely regarded as one of the biggest film flops of the decade.
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 her version of "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".
Despite (or perhaps because of) 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, Allen 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 dashed the song off 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 Queen Elizabeth II 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 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 would later marry) 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 remembered 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 on the LP. 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 & 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), which in turn 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, 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 stayed in Australia for treatment, and then returned to his home in San Diego, California, where he died 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, although his own musical was a failure, Peter's music and life were the inspiration for Australia's most successful musical. In 1998 The Boy from Oz (The Peter Allen Story) opened in Sydney. Using Allen's largely autobiographical songs as the score, the book was written by Nick Enright and directed by Gale Edwards. The premiere season starred Todd McKenney as Peter, with Robyn Arthur, Jill Perryman, Murray Bartlett, Lisa Callaghan, Deb Mitchelmore, Cherine Peck, Garry Scale, Angela Toohey and featured former rock singer Christina Amphlett (ex-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. In 2003 it opened on Broadway, becoming the first Australian musical ever to be performed there. In this production, Allen was played by Hugh Jackman, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal in 2004.