Peter Tork obituary: folk and blues singer who became a pop sensation

Keyboard player and bassist for the hugely successful 1960s pop group the Monkees

Peter Tork with  The Monkees,   Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz,  at a press conference in London in 1967. Photograph:  Mike McLaren/Central Press/Getty Images

Peter Tork with The Monkees, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz, at a press conference in London in 1967. Photograph: Mike McLaren/Central Press/Getty Images

 

The Monkees – Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork – were the first video-based pop act, the first manufactured boy band and one of the most enduring and successful pop groups of the 1960s. Tork, who has died aged 77, was their keyboard player and bassist, who described his on-screen role as being the kind-hearted “dummy”.

The brainchild of the producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, The Monkees TV show, featuring the band the pair had created, was picked up by NBC in 1966 and became an instant success. The fictional band were loosely modelled on the Beatles, and the show’s timing was perfect, first airing shortly after the release of Revolver and Eleanor Rigby had indicated that the lovable moptops were growing away from their younger fans.

A spin-off single from the series, Last Train to Clarksville, went to No 1 in the US later that year. The Monkees’ first, self-titled album did the same, and suddenly Rafelson and Schneider’s “prefab four” became serious rivals to the Beatles, at least in terms of record sales.

In 1967 the Monkees outsold everyone, including the Beatles. They had several international hits including I’m a Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday and Daydream Believer, and three more million-selling albums. Yet in 1968 the TV series was pulled after its second season saw declining viewing figures. An adventurous, satirical film, Head, was savaged by critics and flopped at the box office. Tork left the group at the end of the year.

Born in Washington, Peter was the son of John Thorkelson, an economics professor, and his wife, Virginia (nee Straus). While at high school in Wisconsin, he was given a ukulele by the folk musician Tom Glazer. At Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, he managed to secure work as the college DJ as well as playing the guitar and ukulele in various folk ensembles. Having flunked out of college, he shortened his name to Tork and decided to move to Greenwich Village in 1962, where he would spend the next three years immersed in its folk scene.

In New York, Tork initially sang humorous songs written by his brother Nick, and played for donations at venues such as the Playhouse Cafe, the Cyclops and the Dragon’s Den. Progress was slow, but by February 1964 he was at Carnegie Hall as part of the New York City folk festival, sharing a stage with Johnny Cash, Phil Ochs and Mississippi John Hurt. He married his girlfriend, Jody Babb, that summer, but they had separated by the end of the year. Among various brief musical unions, he teamed up with Stephen Stills in 1964.

“Running parts for 4 insane boys”: The Monkees in 1968. Photograph: The Kobal Collection/NBC
“Running parts for 4 insane boys”: The Monkees in 1968. Photograph: The Kobal Collection/NBC

After hitchhiking to Los Angeles in 1965, he answered a Raybert Productions advert in the Hollywood Reporter looking for “Folk & roll musicians-singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21.” Four hundred hopefuls applied, including Stills, who turned it down but recommended his friend Tork to the producers, Rafelson and Schneider. At this point, Tork was washing dishes but, along with Jones, Nesmith and Dolenz, he passed the screen test for the Monkees in November 1965. The four became fast friends, and the penniless Tork stayed on the couch of the newly married Nesmith’s compact apartment.

Initially, the Monkees contributed little more than vocals to their records; the music was played by the cream of LA’s session musicians. Tork played the guitar on Papa Gene’s Blues, but none of his songs made it on to the first two Monkees albums and his voice was considered too folky for the target, pre-teen audience. All he was given was the “Ringo” slot, a novelty song called Your Auntie Grizelda. He contented himself with occasional guest spots at local venues, appearing on stage with Buffalo Springfield and singing the Monkees’ Take a Giant Step at a Dino Valenti show.

The Monkees’ instant fame gave them leverage, though, and when they strongly aired their musical frustrations in early 1967, their record label, Colgems, allowed them to make an album on their own. Headquarters featured Tork’s vocal on Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s fragile Shades of Gray, while his composition For Pete’s Sake was one of the album’s highlights and would be used over the end credits on the show’s second season. When it became clear that Headquarters was a one-off and further recordings would once again be with session players, Tork became disillusioned.

In February 1968 he played solo in front of 7,000 people at an anti-war rally at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, alongside Nina Simone, Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer. He recorded further songs for the Monkees, now accompanied by Buffalo Springfield’s drummer, Dewey Martin, and occasionally by their guitarist, Stills. Tork was by now famous in LA for throwing lavish, endless parties populated by naked starlets as well as musicians including David Crosby, Mama Cass and Jim Morrison.

In December that year, tired of the pressure and the workload, Tork bought himself out of his Monkees contract for a reported $160,000, which left him penniless again. He sold his house to Stills and moved into a $25-a-month basement room in Crosby’s house with his pregnant girlfriend, Reine Stewart (daughter of the actor James Stewart), to whom he was later briefly married. Tork set up a new band, Release, but it did not take off, in spite of his well-known friends, and the group split up, having failed to get a record deal.

Broke and drifting across America, Tork was sentenced to four months in El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma in 1972 for drug possession. After release, he moved back to California and began teaching social studies and English at Pacific Hills school, Santa Monica; he married another teacher, Barbara Iannoli, and they had a son, divorcing in 1987. Tork was once again content to play with short-lived groups including the New Monks and Cotton Mouth – the former got as far as releasing a single in 1982, a cover of the Monkees’ (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.

The Monkees TV series continued to be repeated throughout the 1970s and 1980s, creating further generations of fans and leading to demand for a reunion. Jones and Dolenz were keenest for this to happen, Tork was eventually convinced in 1986, and the three toured the US to mark the group’s 20th anniversary. A year later, Rhino reissued the band’s entire catalogue and, in 1988, a new album called Pool It!

Peter Tork of The Monkees performing at Town Hall, New York in June 2016. Photograph: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images
Peter Tork of The Monkees performing at Town Hall, New York in June 2016. Photograph: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

In 1994, Tork released his only solo album, Stranger Things Have Happened, which featured brief appearances by Dolenz and Nesmith; a Monkees album, Justus - with all four original members – was released in 1996. Jones died in 2012, just after the group’s 45th anniversary tour, and later in the year Nesmith was finally convinced to reunite with Tork and Dolenz for an American tour celebrating the 45th anniversary of Headquarters. A further album, Good Times!, and tour, marked their 50th anniversary, followed by a festive album, Christmas Party, in 2018.

Tork would eventually become reconciled with his past. “I did think for a long time that it was a mistake to be involved and I didn’t want anything to do with [The Monkees]. Hey, it really was my life and I really did learn a lot. Any mistakes I made was because I didn’t know better.”

Tork is survived by his fourth wife, Pam (nee Grapes), whom he married in 2013, a daughter, Hallie, from his second marriage, a son, Ivan, from his third, and a daughter, Erica, from another relationship. – Guardian

Peter Tork (Peter Halsten Thorkelson), actor, singer and songwriter, born 13 February 1942; died 21 February 2019