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The Allen Brothers, then Peter Allen alone

Peter Allen Woolnough (1944-92) was born in Tenterfield in rural NSW. His father and uncles were away at the war in 1944-5 so he was raised mainly by the women in his family, even after the war. As he grew up, Peter escaped from his troubled home life by devel­op­ing a precocious talent in music, encouraged by his mother.

At 13 his father suicided so Peter and his mother had to settle in Lismore in far north NSW. In 1958 he left school at 14 and was soon playing at dances and clubs in beach towns near Lis­more. While on the Gold Coast, he met anoth­er aspiring young perf­orm­er, singer-guitarist Chris Bell and established them­selves as The Allen Brothers, a folk-pop nightclub duo. They had copied the Everly Brothers.

The Allen Brothers, Chris (left) and Peter (right)

They made their first TV appearance on ATN-7’s show Teen Time in 1959. They moved to Sydney where they were spotted by Brian Hend­erson, compare of the TV pop show Bandstand, and became regulars on the show. Via this early live TV experien­ce, they met other young Australian performers eg Olivia Newton-John.

Johnny O’Keefe signed the Allen Brothers to his label and produced their first recordings in Apr 1960. The Allen Brothers switched labels again in 1961, releasing singles on EMI's label. In Ap 1962, they performed in a Las Vegas-style night­club in Tokyo and then toured all around S.E Asia.

Judy Garland had given triumphant performances at the Sydney Stadium, but her 1964 Mel­bourne show was a disaster. On her arrival in Hong Kong she almost overdosed on tranquillisers. While she recovered, the Garl­and went to the Hong Kong Hilton, spotted the Allen Brothers and became their manager. Garland hired them as her opening act for a concert at the London Palladium and introduced Peter to her daughter Liza Minnelli. In 1965 The Allen Bros premiered with Garland in On Broadway Tonight.

Peter's gay sexuality was no secret within the industry, but if Liza was aware of it, they happily married any­how in Mar 1967. Hopefully the marriage prov­ed of immense help to Peter permanent residence-wise.

The Allen Brothers signed an album deal with Mercury Records in 1968 and recorded their debut LP. In June 1968 Minnelli made her first visit to Australia, accomp­an­ied by the men, and they played a hugely successful sea­son in Sydney.

By the late 1960s the Allen Brothers were well-established as a cabaret act, but Peter loved the vibrant Greenwich Vill­age music scene and off-Broadway theatre. Beginning with an opening for rising star Bette Midler, Allen be­came more famous in New York’s cabaret revival of the early 1970s.

In Jun 1969 Judy Garland died in London, aged only 47, after she had fallen into a destructive blear of drugs and alcohol.

Peter and Liza separated late in 1969 and the Allen Brothers broke up in early in 1970; Chris Bell permanently quit show business and went elsewhere. Texan Greg Connell, a male model and light designer, was Peter’s great love from 1970 on. [Tragic­ally Connell also died from AIDS in 1984].

In June 1970 Peter played his first solo show in a Greenwich Vill­age nightclub. During this per­iod he excelled at writing reflective ballads and bitter­sweet love songs; he was fortunate that his com­posing career coincided with the singer-songwriter vogue of the early 1970s eg Elton John. At Metromedia Music, he met and successfully worked with songwriter Carole Bayer-Sager.

During 1971 Allen returned to Australia for a Bandstand reunion. It included two songs co-written with Bayer Sager, Don't Cry Out Loud and I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love, both of which later became big hits. It was followed by the album Tenterfield Saddler in 1972, which included Peter's tribute to his grandfather (and was my favourite).

Peter returned to performing in 1973 in popular New York night clubs. He quickly built up a cult following, partly because of his flamboyant stage antics, and it wasn't long before other singers were choosing and performing his songs, including his close Australian friends Olivia Newton-John and Helen Reddy.
The boy from Oz : the Peter Allen story 
written by Stephen MacLean
published in 1996

In 1976 Peter record­ed an album that included the most important single of Peter's career, I Go to Rio (1976). The video simply showed Peter in his loud Hawaiian shirt, playing his piano, dancing around the studio with marrac­c­as. The clip went to air in Australia on the TV show Countdown, and thanks to Countdown's huge national audience, "Rio" topped the Australian charts in July 1977.

He made his London cabaret debut and this led to his first film role, in 1978. It was the fantasy film musical Sgt Pep­p­er's Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and George Burns. The sound­track consisted of Beatles songs, perform­ed by an all-star line up, including Helen Reddy, Tina Turner and of course Peter Allen.

In 1980 a visit to Australia led to the creation of one of the best-known of his songs, I Still Call Australia Home. Peter wrote the song during the performance and sang it for the first time on the tour's closing night in Melbourne. Singing in Sydney with a 400-voice choir, Peter performed the song with Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton-John as the concert's grand finale. It caught on and became an unofficial Australian anthem.

By this time Peter was drawing full houses at major US sites like Radio City Music Hall, where he headlined during 1981. His high-camp theatricality left little room for doubt about his gay sexuality.

Famous composer Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager’s husband, had been hired to write the score for a new comedy film, Arthur, in 1981. Carole and Burt collaborated on the theme song for the film when Carole used a phrase from one of Peter's old songs in the chorus: When you get caught between the moon and New York City. Arthur’s theme song became a huge international hit single.

Peter returned to Australia for a season in Jan 1990, and another season in Jan 1992 but he was very ill from AIDS-related throat cancer. He returned to America, but he deter­iorated and died in June 1992, aged 48. Oh how I miss you, Peter. Ditto Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton John.

In 1998 The Boy From Oz show opened in Sydney and was successful for 2 years. The show premiered on Broadway in 2003 with Hugh Jackman in the title role. How perfect!


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