Peter Tork

Peter Halsten Thorkelson[1] (February 13, 1942 – February 21, 2019), known professionally as Peter Tork, was an American musician, composer and actor, best known as the keyboardist and bass guitarist of the Monkees.

Peter Tork
Peter Tork 1966 (cropped).JPG
Tork in 1966
Born
Peter Halsten Thorkelson

(1942-02-13)February 13, 1942
DiedFebruary 21, 2019(2019-02-21) (aged 77)
Occupation
  • Musician
  • singer
  • actor
Years active1964–2019
Spouse(s)Jody Babb (divorced)
Reine Stewart (divorced)
Barbara Iannoli (divorced)
Pamela Grapes
(
m. 2014)
Children3
Musical career
Genres
Instruments
Labels
Associated acts

Tork grew up in Connecticut and in the mid-1960s was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, where he befriended musician Stephen Stills.[2] After moving to Los Angeles with Stills, he was recruited for the musical television sitcom The Monkees. The success of the show made him a teen idol between 1966-68. He would later record his debut solo album, Stranger Things Have Happened in 1994, touring with his blues band Shoe Suede Blues.

Early lifeEdit

Although Tork was born at former Doctors Hospital in Washington, D.C.[3] in 1942,[4] many news articles incorrectly report him as having been born in 1944 in New York City—the date and location listed in early Monkees press releases. He was the son of Virginia Hope (née Straus) and Halsten John Thorkelson, an economics professor at the University of Connecticut.[5][6] His paternal grandfather was of Norwegian descent, while his mother was half German Jewish and half Irish ancestry.[7][8][9][10]

Tork began studying piano at the age of nine, showing an aptitude for music by learning to play several different instruments, including the banjo, acoustic bass, and guitar. He attended Windham High School in Willimantic, Connecticut, and was a member of the first graduating class at E. O. Smith High School in Storrs, Connecticut. He attended Carleton College before he moved to New York City, where he became part of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village during the first half of the 1960s. While there, he befriended other up-and-coming musicians, such as Stephen Stills.

The MonkeesEdit

 
Tork (right) with the Monkees in 1966

Stephen Stills had auditioned for the new television series about four pop-rock musicians but was turned down because the show's producers felt his hair and teeth were not photogenic.[11] When asked if he knew of someone with a similar "open, Nordic look", Stills recommended Tork.[12] Tork got the job and became one of the four members of the Monkees, a pop band of the mid-1960s created for a television sitcom. He was the oldest member of the group.

Tork was a proficient musician before he joined the Monkees. Though other members of the group were not allowed to play their own instruments on their first two albums, he played what he described as "third chair guitar" on Michael Nesmith's song "Papa Gene's Blues" on their first album. He subsequently played keyboards, bass guitar, banjo, harpsichord, and other instruments on their recordings. He co-wrote, along with Joey Richards, the closing theme song of the second season of The Monkees, "For Pete's Sake." On the show, he was relegated to acting as the "lovable dummy," a persona he had developed as a folk singer in New York's Greenwich Village.[13]

The DVD release of the first season of the show contains commentary from various band members. In it, Michael Nesmith states that Tork was better at playing guitar than bass. Tork commented that Davy Jones was a good drummer, and had the live performance lineups been based solely on playing ability, it should have been him on guitar, Nesmith on bass, and Jones on drums, with Micky Dolenz taking the fronting role (instead of Nesmith on guitar, Tork on bass, and Dolenz on drums). Jones filled in briefly for Tork on bass when he played keyboards.

Recording and producing as a group was Tork's main interest, and he hoped that the four members would continue working together as a band on future recordings. However, the four did not have enough in common regarding their musical interests. In his commentary for the DVD release of the second season of the show, Tork said that Dolenz was "incapable of repeating a triumph." Dolenz felt that once he had accomplished something and became a success at it, there was no artistic sense in repeating a formula.

 
Jones and Tork, 1966

In 1967, free from Don Kirshner's restrictions, Tork contributed instrumental flourishes such as the piano introduction to "Daydream Believer" and the banjo part on "You Told Me", as well as exploring occasional songwriting with the likes of "For Pete's Sake" and "Lady's Baby."

Tork was close to his maternal grandmother, Catherine McGuire Straus, staying with her sometimes during his Greenwich Village days and after he became a Monkee. "Grams" was one of his most ardent supporters and managed his fan club, often writing personal letters to members and visiting music stores to make sure they carried Monkees records.

Six albums were produced with the original Monkees lineup, four of which reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart. This success was supplemented by two years of the television program, a series of successful concert tours across America and abroad, and a trippy psychedelic movie, Head, which is considered by some to have been a bit ahead of its time.[14] However, tensions, both musical and personal, were increasing within the group. The band finished a Far East tour in December 1968 (where his copy of Naked Lunch was confiscated by Australian Customs[15]) and then filmed an NBC television special, 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee, which rehashed many of the ideas from Head.

No longer getting the group dynamic he wanted, and pleading "exhaustion" from the grueling schedule, Tork bought out the remaining four years of his contract at a cost of $160,000, leaving him with little income.[16] In the DVD commentary for the 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee TV special – originally broadcast April 14, 1969 – Dolenz noted that Nesmith gave Tork a gold watch as a going-away present, with the engraving "From the guys down at work." Tork kept the back, but replaced the watch several times in later years. Jones noted at the time that "Peter's soul left us two and a half years ago. He was a banjo player from Greenwich Village who was made into an actor and finally decided that he didn't want to be a Marx Brother forever. His heart was back in the Village, that's all."[16] Dolenz reflected on Tork's departure as well, saying "Three of us more or less play ourselves in the series. The odd one out is Peter Tork. Offstage he's a real serious guy who thinks a lot about things like religion and problems in the world. But in the show he throws off all that and becomes a dumb-but-likable character who is always doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. He kind of moons around with a lovesick expression on his face — not like the real Peter Tork at all."[16]

Post-MonkeesEdit

During a trip to London in December 1967, Tork contributed banjo to George Harrison's soundtrack to the 1968 film Wonderwall. His playing was featured in the movie, but not on the official Wonderwall Music soundtrack album released in November 1968.[17] Tork's brief five-string banjo piece can be heard 16 minutes into the film, as Professor Collins is caught by his mother while spying on his neighbor Penny Lane.

Striking out on his own, Tork formed a group called Peter Tork And/Or Release with then-girlfriend Reine Stewart on drums (she had played drums on part of 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee), Riley "Wyldflower" Cummings (formerly of the Gentle Soul)[18] on bass and – sometimes – singer/keyboard player Judy Mayhan. Tork said in April 1969, "We sometimes have four. We're thinking of having a rotating fourth. Right now, the fourth is that girl I'm promoting named Judy Mayhan." "We're like Peter's back-up band," added Stewart, "except we happen to be a group instead of a back-up band." Release hoped to have a record out immediately, and Tork said that they did record some demos which he may still have stored away somewhere.[19] According to Stewart, the band was supposed to go to Muscle Shoals as the backing band for Mayhan's Atlantic Records solo album Moments (1970), but they were ultimately replaced.[20][21][22] They mainly played parties for their "in" friends, and one of their songs was considered for the soundtrack to Easy Rider, but the producers – who had also produced Head – eventually decided not to include it.[23] Release could not secure a record contract, and by 1970, Tork was once again a solo artist. As he later recalled, "I didn't know how to stick to it. I ran out of money and told the band members, 'I can't support us as a crew anymore, you'll just have to find your own way.'"[24]

Tork's record and movie production entity, the Breakthrough Influence Company (BRINCO), also failed to launch, despite such talent as future Little Feat guitarist Lowell George.[3] He sold his house in 1970, and he and a pregnant Reine Stewart moved into the basement of David Crosby's home.[25] Tork was credited with co-arranging a Micky Dolenz solo single on MGM Records in 1971 ("Easy on You" b/w "Oh Someone"). An arrest and conviction for possession of hashish resulted in three months in an Oklahoma penitentiary in 1972.[26] He moved to Fairfax in Marin County, California, in the early 1970s, where he joined the 35-voice Fairfax Street Choir and played guitar for a shuffle blues band called Osceola. Tork returned to Southern California in the mid-1970s, where he married, had a son and took a job teaching at Pacific Hills School in Santa Monica for a year and a half. He spent a total of three years as a teacher of music, social studies, math, French and history, and coached baseball at a number of schools, but enjoyed some more than others.[17][27]

Tork joined Dolenz, Jones, Boyce, and Hart onstage for a guest appearance on their concert tour on July 4, 1976, in Disneyland. Later that year, he reunited with Jones and Dolenz in the studio for the recording of the single "Christmas Is My Time of Year" b/w "White Christmas", which saw a limited release for fan club members that holiday season.

Tork returned to the film world in 2017 in the horror movie I Filmed Your Death, written and directed by Sam Bahre.[28]

Sire RecordsEdit

A chance meeting with Sire Records executive Pat Horgan at the Bottom Line in New York City led to Tork recording a six-song demo, his first recording in many years. Recorded in summer 1980, it featured Tork, who sang, played rhythm guitar, keyboards, and banjo. He was backed by Southern rock band Cottonmouth, led by guitarist/singer/songwriter Johnny Pontiff, featuring Gerard Trahan on guitar, keyboards, and vocals, Gene Pyle on bass guitar and vocals, and Gary Hille on percussion.

Horgan produced the six tracks, with George Dispigno as engineer, which included two Monkees covers, "Shades of Gray" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday". The four other tracks were "Good Looker", "Since You Went Away" (which appeared on the Monkees' 1987 album Pool It!), "Higher and Higher", and "Hi Hi Babe". Also present at the sessions were Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde, and Tommy Ramone. The tracks were recorded at Blue Horizon House, 165 West 74th Street, home of Sire Records, but Seymour Stein, president of Sire, rejected the demo, stating "there's nothing there". Tork recorded a second set of demos in New York City, but little is known about these, other than the fact that one track was yet another version of "Pleasant Valley Sunday" with an unknown rock band and featured a violin solo.

During this time, Tork appeared regularly on The Uncle Floyd Show, broadcast on U-68 out of New Jersey.[29] He performed comedy bits and lip-synced the Sire recordings. Floyd claimed Tork was the "first real star" to appear on the show. (Later, Davy Jones, the Ramones, Shrapnel, and others would follow in his footsteps.)

In 1981, he released the single "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" (b/w "Higher and Higher") with the New Monks. He also did some club performances and live television appearances, including taking part in a "Win a Date With Peter Tork" bit on Late Night with David Letterman in July 1982.[30]

Monkees reunions, other bands and activitiesEdit

In 1986, after a 1985 tour with Jones in Australia, Tork rejoined fellow Monkees Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz for a highly successful 20th anniversary reunion tour (Nesmith was not interested in a reunion). Three new songs were recorded by Tork and Dolenz for a greatest hits release. The three Monkees recorded Pool It!. A decade later, all four group members recorded Justus, the first recording with all four members since 1968. The quartet performed live in the United Kingdom in 1997, but for several years following, only the trio of Tork, Dolenz and Jones toured together. The trio of Monkees parted ways in 2001 following a public feud, but they reunited in 2011 for a series of 45th anniversary concerts in England and the United States.

Since 1986, Tork had intermittently toured with his former bandmates and also played with his own bands, the Peter Tork Project and Shoe Suede Blues. In 1991, he formed a band called the Dashboard Saints and played at a pizza restaurant in Guerneville, California. In 1994, he released his first album length solo project, Stranger Things Have Happened, which featured brief appearances by Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith. In 1996, he collaborated on an album called Two Man Band with James Lee Stanley. The duo followed up in 2001 with a second release, Once Again.

In 2001, Tork took time out from touring to appear in a leading role in the short film Mixed Signals, written and directed by John Graziano.

In 2002, Tork resumed working with his band Shoe Suede Blues. The band performed original blues music, Monkees' covers (blues versions of some), covers of classic blues hits by greats such as Muddy Waters, and shared the stage with bands such as Captain Zig. The band toured extensively in 2006-2007 following the release of the album Cambria Hotel.[31] Tork also had a pair of appearances in the role of Topanga Lawrence's father "Jedidiah Lawrence" on the sitcom Boy Meets World.[32] In his second appearance in 1995, he joined Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz in episode 8 of the 3rd season (entitled "Rave On"), although they did not appear as the Monkees (Tork was again cast as "Jedidiah Lawrence", while Davy Jones was "Reginald Fairfield", and Dolenz' character was "Gordy".) At the program's climax, the three took the stage together to perform the Buddy Holly song "Not Fade Away" and the Temptations' "My Girl". As an inside joke, actor Dave Madden (best known as band manager Reuben Kincaid on The Partridge Family), cameoed as a manager who appeared, wanting to manage the "new" group, telling them that they "could be bigger than the Beatles." Purportedly, both Mike Nesmith and Pattie Boyd (former wife of Beatle George Harrison) attended the taping.[33]

Tork was also a guest character on 7th Heaven. In 1995, he appeared as himself on the show Wings, bidding against Crystal Bernard's character for the Monkeemobile. In 1999, he appeared as the leader of a wedding band in season 1 episode 13, "Best Man", of The King of Queens.[34]

In early 2008, Tork added "advice columnist" to his resume by authoring an online advice and info column called "Ask Peter Tork" at the webzine The Daily Panic.[35]

In 2011, he joined Dolenz and Jones for An Evening with The Monkees: The 45th Anniversary Tour in 2011.[36]

 
Tork in 2016

In 2012, Tork joined Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith on a Monkees tour, in honor of the album Headquarters 45th anniversary, as well as in tribute to the late Davy Jones. The trio would tour again in 2013 and 2014.[37] In 2016, Tork toured with Dolenz as The Monkees, in what would be his final tour before his death in 2019. Nesmith also played at some of the concerts.

Personal lifeEdit

In later life, Tork resided in Mansfield, Connecticut.[38] He was married four times, with marriages to Jody Babb, Reine Stewart, and Barbara Iannoli all ending in divorce. From 2014 until his death, he was married to Pamela Grapes.[39] He had three children: a daughter, Hallie, with Stewart; a son, Ivan, with Iannoli; and another daughter, Erica, from a previous relationship with Tammy Sestak.[40]

Illness and deathEdit

On March 3, 2009, Tork reported on his website that he had been diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare, slow-growing form of head and neck cancer. A preliminary biopsy showed that the cancer had not spread beyond the initial site. "It's a bad news / good news situation," explained Tork. "It's so rare a combination (on the tongue) that there isn't a lot of experience among the medical community about this particular combination. On the other hand, the type of cancer it is, never mind the location, is somewhat well known, and the prognosis, I'm told, is good." Tork underwent radiation therapy to prevent the cancer from returning.[41]

On March 4, 2009, Tork underwent successful surgery in New York City.[42] On June 11, 2009, a spokesman for Tork reported that his cancer had returned. Tork was reportedly "shaken but not stirred" by the news and said that the doctors had given him an 80% chance of containing and shrinking the new tumor.[43]

In July 2009, while undergoing radiation therapy, he was interviewed by The Washington Post: "I recovered very quickly after my surgery, and I've been hoping that my better-than-average constitution will keep the worst effects of radiation at bay. My voice and energy still seem to be in decent shape, so maybe I can pull these gigs off after all." He continued to tour and perform while receiving his treatments.[44] Tork documented his cancer experience on Facebook and encouraged his fans to support research efforts of the Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation.[45] His cancer returned in 2018, and he died at his home in Mansfield on February 21, 2019, eight days after his 77th birthday.[39]

Micky Dolenz expressed his grief via Twitter, saying "There are no words right now...heartbroken over the loss of my Monkee brother, Peter Tork."[46]

Michael Nesmith made the following statement:

"Peter Tork died this AM. I am told he slipped away peacefully. Yet, as I write this my tears are awash, and my heart is broken. Even though I am clinging to the idea that we all continue, the pain that attends these passings has no cure. It's going to be a rough day. I share with all Monkees fans this change, this 'loss', even so. PT will be a part of me forever. I have said this before — and now it seems even more apt — the reason we called it a band is because it was where we all went to play. A band no more — and yet the music plays on — an anthem to all who made the Monkees and the TV show our private — dare I say 'secret' — playground. As for Pete, I can only pray his songs reach the heights that can lift us and that our childhood lives forever — that special sparkle that was the Monkees. I will miss him — a brother in arms. Take flight my Brother."[47]

Nesmith later commented on his often difficult relationship with Tork. "I never liked Peter, he never liked me. So we had an uneasy truce between the two of us. As clear as I could tell, among his peers he was very well liked. But we rarely had a civil word to say to each other." Nesmith admitted, however, that the moment he learned of Tork's death, "I broke into tears. What are you going to do?"[48]

FilmographyEdit

FilmEdit

Year Title Role Notes
1968 Wild in the Streets Ticket Buyer (Uncredited)
1968 Head Peter Credited as Peter Tork
1995 The Brady Bunch Movie Himself
1996 Hide and Seek Himself (Uncredited)
1998 Daydream Believer Himself (Uncredited)
2000 Hendrix Himself (Uncredited)
2006 Cathedral Pines Mr. Geary
2006 The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose Himself Documentary
2007 The Junior Defenders Himself (Uncredited)
2008 The Wrecking Crew Himself Documentary
2013 Babe's & Rickey's Inn Himself Documentary
2017 I Filmed Your Death David Lyndale

TelevisionEdit

Year Title Role Notes
1966 American Bandstand Himself (telephone interview) 1 episode
1966-1968 The Monkees Peter 58 episodes
1966-1997 Today Himself 4 episodes
1967 Dream Girl of '67 Himself 5 episodes
1967-1968 Top of the Pops Himself 5 episodes
1968 The Joey Bishop Show Himself 1 episode
1969 33⅓ Revolutions per Monkee Himself (TV Movie)
1969 Happening '68 Himself 3 episodes
1980-1982 The Uncle Floyd Show Himself 6 episodes
1982 Late Night with David Letterman Himself 1 episode
1986-1996 Good Morning America Himself 3 episodes
1986-2000 Showbiz Today Himself 3 episodes
1986-2001 Entertainment Tonight Himself 4 episodes
1987 The Sally Jessy Raphael Show Himself 1 episode
1988 Midday Himself 1 episode
1989 Aspel & Company Himself 1 episode
1989 Good Morning Britain Himself 1 episode
1989 A.M. Los Angeles Himself 1 episode
1989 The Pat Sajak Show Himself 1 episode
1989 Nashville Now Himself 1 episode
1992 California Dreams The Surf Guru Season 1, Episode 10: "Romancing the Tube"
1994 The Steven Banks Show Himself Season 1, Episode 1: "Rock Auction"
1994 The Geraldo Rivera Show Himself 1 episode
1995 Wings Himself Season 7, Episode 6: "She's Gotta Have It"
1995 Mike and Maty Himself 1 episode
1995 Boy Meets World Jedediah Lawrence 2 episodes
1996 The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Himself 1 episode
1997 Hey, Hey, It's the Monkees Himself (TV Special)
1997 Noel's House Party Himself 1 episode
1997 The Clive James Show Himself 1 episode
1997 Kenny Live Himself 1 episode
1997 Access Hollywood Himself 1 episode
1997-2000 The Big Breakfast Himself 2 episodes
1998-2001 7th Heaven Chris 2 episodes
1999 The King of Queens Band Leader Season 1, Episode 13: "Best Man"
1999 E! True Hollywood Story Himself Season 3, Episode 29: "The Monkees"
2000 The List Himself 1 episode
2000 Behind the Music Himself Season 3, Episode 36: "The Monkees"
2001 Live! with Kelly Himself 1 episode
2001 Total Access 24/7 Himself Season 1, Episode 7: "1007 7th Heaven"
2001 The Early Show Himself 1 episode
2007 Biography Himself Season 21, Episode 30: "The Monkees"
2011-2015 Loose Women Himself 2 episodes
2012 Inside Edition Himself 1 episode
2013 Welcome to the Basement Himself 1 episode
2013 Good Day L.A. Himself 1 episode
2014 The Sixties Peter Season 1, Episode 1: "Television Comes of Age"

Song listEdit

Songs written or co-written by Tork include the following:

With the Monkees

with James Lee Stanley

with Shoe Suede Blues

  • "Ain't Your Fault"[65]

Solo

  • "Get What You Pay For"[66]
  • "Sea Change (Take Me Down)”[66]
  • "Miracle"[66]
  • "Tender Is"[66]
  • "God Given Grant" (with Tork’s brother, Nick Thorkelson)[67]

DiscographyEdit

Solo:[68][69]

With the Monkees:[69]

With James Lee Stanley:[69]

  • Two Man Band (1996)
  • Once Again (2001)
  • Live/Backstage at the Coffee Gallery (2006)

With Shoe Suede Blues:[68]

  • Saved by the Blues (2003)
  • Cambria Hotel (2007)
  • Step By Step (2013)
  • Relax Your Mind (2018)

ReferencesEdit

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