Peter Allen was born Peter Richard Woolnough in Tenterfield, New South Wales, Australia. He was the grandson of George Woolnough, whom Allen immortalised in his song "Tenterfield Saddler". Allen began his performing career with Chris Bell as one of the "Allen Brothers", who were a popular cabaret and television act in the early 1960s in Australia. Mark Herron, the husband of Judy Garland, discovered Allen while he was performing in Hong Kong. He was invited to return with them to London and the United States, where he performed with Garland. (Picture: Gregory Connell AIDS Quilt)
Allen commenced releasing solo recordings in 1971, but throughout his career achieved greater success through his songs being recorded by others. Allen scored his biggest success with the song "I Honestly Love You", which he co-wrote with Jeff Barry and which became a major hit in 1974 for Olivia Newton-John. Her single reached number one in the United States and Canada and won two Grammy Awards, for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Newton-John. Allen also co-wrote "Don't Cry Out Loud", with Carole Bayer Sager, popularised by Melissa Manchester in 1978, and "I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love", also co-written with Bayer Sager and popularised by Rita Coolidge in 1979. One of his signature songs, "I Go to Rio", co-written with Adrienne Anderson, was popularised in America by the group Pablo Cruise.
Allen and Chris Bell as the Allen Brothers, 1967
Peter Allen and Gregory Connell AIDS Quilt
Gregory Connell, AIDS Quilt
Peter Allen, AIDS Quilt
In 1976, Allen released an album Taught By Experts, which reached number one in Australia, along with the number one singles "I Go To Rio" and "The More I See You". Although his recording career in the U.S. never progressed, he performed in Atlantic City and Carnegie Hall. He had three extended sold-out engagements at New York City's Radio City Music Hall, where he became the first male dancer to dance with The Rockettes and rode a camel during "I Go to Rio." This performance was broadcast live and exclusively on subscription television service WHT The Movie Network.
His most successful album was Bi-Coastal (1980), produced by David Foster and featuring the single "Fly Away," which, in 1981, became his only U.S. chart single, reaching #55 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Allen co-wrote the song "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Christopher Cross, for the 1981 movie Arthur. The song reached number one in the U.S., and the songwriters won an Academy Award for Best Song. One lyric for the song: "If you get caught between the moon and New York City" was adapted from an earlier song that he and Bayer Sager co-wrote. Allen and Bayer Sager also co-wrote "You and Me (We Wanted It All)," which was recorded by Frank Sinatra. A video of Sinatra singing the song at Carnegie Hall was included as part of the Sinatra: New York package, released in late 2009.
Allen performed on Australian Television at many important occasions: in front of Queen Elizabeth II in 1980 at the Sydney Opera House, before Prince Charles and Princess Diana, once in Melbourne and again in Sydney, at the opening of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, where he unveiled for the first time his Australian "Flag" shirt, and the 1980 Australian Rules Grand Final in Melbourne. His "Up In One Concert" of 1980 was a huge ratings success across the country. When Australia won The America's Cup, he flew to Perth to sing before an audience of 100,000. In 1988 he opened for Frank Sinatra at Sanctuary Cove, Queensland. In America he appeared at the 30th Anniversary of Disneyland. He returned to recording on Arista with an album entitled "Not the Boy Next Door" (1983). In 1990 he recorded his final album on RCA, Making Every Moment Count, which featured Melissa Manchester and Harry Connick Jr.
One of his songs, I Still Call Australia Home, became popular through its use in television commercials, initially for National Panasonic, and since 1998 for Qantas Airlines. This has since become an unofficial anthem for Australians abroad.
He made his Broadway debut on 12 January 1971, in Soon, a rock opera that opened at the Ritz Theatre and ran for three performances. He starred in his own one-man revue on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre, "Up in One: More Than a Concert" (1979), which ran for 46 performances.
Allen recorded a live album called "Captured Live at Carnegie Hall" where songs from his musical Legs Diamond, were previewed. Legs Diamond opened on Broadway at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on 26 December 1988, with a book co-written by Harvey Fierstein. The musical ran for 64 performances and 72 previews. After Legs Diamond closed he returned to concert work, touring with Bernadette Peters during the summer of 1989. Peter and Bernadette also performed in the early 1980s on the Academy Award broadcast in an extended musical tribute to Irving Berlin.
Allen was born in Tenterfield, a small Australian country town where his grandfather, George Woolnough, worked as a saddler. He grew up in nearby Armidale NSW, where he lived from about 6 weeks of age until the age of 15. This is also where he first learned piano and dance. His father Dick became a violent alcoholic after returning from World War II. He shot and killed himself when Peter was still young. George never understood, nor got over this devastating event. Soon after this the family moved to Lismore to live. This tale is told in the song "Tenterfield Saddler". On 26 November 2005 an extension of the Tenterfield library was opened and named the "George Woolnough Wing".
Allen married Liza Minnelli in 1967; they were divorced in 1974.
Becoming more comfortable with his homosexuality from the 1970s to 1984, Allen had a long-time partner, Gregory Connell. Connell was a fashion model from Texas who designed the sound and lighting for Allen's shows and sang backup on his rendition of "I Go to Rio." Connell died from an AIDS-related illness in 1984 at their home in California.
Shortly before his death from an AIDS-related throat cancer, he gave his last performance in Sydney on 26 January 1992. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea.
A documentary titled "The Boy From Oz" about Allen was produced after his death, featuring clips from his performances as well as interviews with performers who worked with him.
A stage musical based on his life, also titled The Boy from Oz, opened in Australia in 1998. Using his largely autobiographical songs, the production starred Todd McKenney as Allen and Christina Amphlett of rock group Divinyls as Judy Garland. In 2003, the musical 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. Jackman performed this role again two years later when the show toured large arenas in Australia under the title "The Boy From Oz: Arena Spectacular".
The Tenterfield Saddler shop in Tenterfield, Australia has a collection of memorabilia about Peter Allen.
The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (June 10, 2007)
Amazon: The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America
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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year and winner of a Lambda Literary Award, The Gay Metropolis is a landmark saga of struggle and triumph that was instantly recognized as the most authoritative and substantial work of its kind. Filled with astounding anecdotes and searing tales of heartbreak and transformation, it provides a decade-by-decade account of the rise and acceptance of gay life and identity since the 1940s. From the making of West Side Story, the modern Romeo and Juliet tale written and staged by four gay men, to the catastrophic era of AIDS, Charles Kaiser recounts the true history of the gay movement with many never-before-told stories. Filled with dazzling characters — including Leonard Bernstein, Montgomery Clift, Alfred Hitchcock, and John F. Kennedy, among many others — this is a vital telling of American history, exciting and uplifting.
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