Peter Allen (1944 -1992) was, and remains, Australia’s Elton John. People may know his songs, generally co-written with Carole Bayer Sager and Adrienne Anderson: “I Honestly Love You”, “Arthur’s Theme” (for which he shared in an Oscar), “I Go To Rio”, “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love”. People generally don’t know Peter Allen, though. To my surprise, many of his albums have not yet been subject to wide re-release on CD, including his I Could Have Been A Sailor , which I consider to be one of the most perfect albums ever made. Marvin Hamlisch, composer of the acclaimed scores for The Way We Were and The Sting, among many others, must have thought so, too, since he co-produced it. I would regularly buy copies of the album from the time of its 1979 release, and give them to friends.
You can hear the orchestration of Marvin Hamlisch on “Paris At 21”, a song solely written by Allen, and which demonstrates his beautiful and bittersweet take on life:
You can see and hear Allen’s performance style here, on his version of “I Go To Rio”:
I saw him twice. Once, in 1976, travelling from Ottawa alone to see him at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto. Took time off a particularly demanding articling position; had to see him. Spoke with him briefly, between sets. Wondered where I could get his second album, Tenterfield Saddler, originally released in 1972. He said that it was out of print and that he didn’t know how to get it now. Mentioned this at the beginning of the second set, with apologies.
Saw him a second time, in 1981, when living in Toronto. Saw him at the famed Imperial Room of the Royal York Hotel. You paid big prices, but saw performers, such as Tony Bennett, in an indescribably beautiful and intimate setting, seating perhaps 200, at most, in my memory; turns out it seats up to 500. Had a choice of dinner and show or show alone; could afford the show alone. Went with my fiancée and, sixteen years later, ex-wife. Skipped accounting professional night school course at York University for this one. Seeing Peter Allen again was just too important. Class attendance quite religious at this time; near perfect attendance commencing as of law school and in rejection of too many wasted undergraduate opportunities.
Once again, he was electrifying. So much energy. Elton John may have had a better voice, but Peter Allen sure could dance, using the piano as his dance partner.
After the show, my fiancée and I went to a small lounge at the Royal York, situated near the Imperial Room. Soon afterwards, Peter Allen came in with a group, for a post-performance drink. By this time, I had purchased a copy of Tenterfield Saddler; it had been acquired by his new label, A&M Records, and re-released in 1978. I went up to him, introduced myself as the person asking about Tenterfield Saddler at the Colonial in 1976, and congratulating him on the fact that it had been finally re-released. He remembered our earlier conversation. He was pleasantly surprised at the album’s re-release; he didn’t know, or at least didn’t know that it had been re-released in Canada. Turning to his apparent manager/handler, he said, smiling, “Is this true?!”.
The title song of Tenterfield Saddler is about Peter Allen’s very rough childhood in the rural Australian town of Tenterfield. I didn’t know at the time that I first heard the song that it was completely autobiographical. The saddler was Allen’s grandfather. Allen’s father, apparently suffering from post-traumatic stress after service in World War II, had shot himself, when Allen was a young boy. The consistently bittersweet quality to his take on things makes a lot more sense:
“Tenterfield Saddler” has become an Australian standard, regarded as almost a song of a nation.
Peter Allen died in 1992, of AIDS-related cancer. A substantially complete and illustrated discography of Peter Allen is accessible here.
Peter Allen heard, saw and sang about it. Major diamond.
Postscript, July 27, 2011: Another of Allen’s timeless songs is “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, originally written for his late mother-in-law, Judy Garland. Allen had been married briefly to Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli:
Actually, one of two songs with Judy Garland elements. The more formal dedication being in relation to “Quiet, Please, There’s A Lady On The Stage”:
Postscript, February 20, 2016:
Nice cover by Dusty Springfield: