Updated: January 20, 2022
IN MEMORY OF MUSICIAN PETER TORK
Peter Tork was born at the former Doctors Hospital, in Washington, D.C. Although he was born in the District of Columbia in 1942, many news articles incorrectly report him as born in 1944 in New York City, which was the date and place given on 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. His paternal grandfather was of Norwegian descent, while his mother was of half German Jewish and half Irish ancestry.
He 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. Tork 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.
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 would not photograph well. When asked if he knew of someone with a similar "open, Nordic look", Stills suggested Tork should audition. 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. Tork was the oldest member of the group.
Tork was a proficient musician, and though other members of the group were not allowed to play their own instruments on their first two albums, he was an exception, playing 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 television show, he was relegated to playing the "lovable dummy", a persona Tork had developed as a folk singer in New York's Greenwich Village.
The DVD release of the first season of the show contains commentary from the various bandmates. In it, Nesmith states that Tork was better at playing guitar than bass. In Tork's commentary, he states that Jones was a good drummer and had the live performance lineups been based solely on playing ability, it should have been Tork on guitar, Nesmith on bass, and Jones on drums, with Dolenz taking the fronting role, rather than as it was done (with 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 major 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 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.
Tork, once free from Don Kirshner's restrictions, in 1967, contributed some of the most memorable and catchy instrumental flourishes,[according to whom?] 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 grandmother, staying with her sometimes in 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 went to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. This success was supplemented by two years of the television program, a series of successful concert tours both across America and abroad, and a trippy-psychedelic movie, Head, which is considered by some to have been a bit ahead of its time. 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) and then filmed an NBC television special, 33? 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. In the DVD commentary for the 33? Revolutions per Monkee TV special originally broadcast April 14, 1969 Dolenz noted that Nesmith gave Tork a gold watch as a going-away present, engraved "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 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." 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."
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. 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 neighbour Penny Lane.
Striking out on his own, he formed a group called 'Peter Tork And/Or Release' with girlfriend Reine Stewart on drums (she had played drums on part of 33? Revolutions Per Monkee), Riley "Wyldflower" Cummings (ex The Gentle Soul) 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. 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. 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. 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 any more, you'll just have to find your own way'."
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. He sold his house in 1970, and he and a pregnant Reine Stewart moved into the basement of David Crosby's home. 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. 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 and 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.
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.
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/vocals, Gene Pyle on bass guitar/vocals, and Gary Hille on drums/percussion.
Horgan produced the six tracks ,which included two Monkees covers, "Shades of Gray" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday", with George Dispigno as engineer. 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 of The Pretenders, and Tommy Ramone of the Ramones. 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 a 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. 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.
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. 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 the next several years only the trio of Tork, Dolenz and Jones toured together. The trio of Monkees parted ways in 2001 with a public feud; but, 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, Tork 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, Tork 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), and 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".
Tork also had a pair of appearances in the role of Topanga Lawrence's father "Jedidiah Lawrence" on the sitcom Boy Meets World. In his second appearance, in 1995, he joined Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz in episode 8 of the 3rd season (titled "Rave On"), although they did not appears as the Monkees (Tork was again cast as "Jedidiah Lawrence", while Davy Jones is "Reginald Fairfield" and Dolenz' character is "Gordy"). At the program's climax, the three take the stage together to perform the Buddy Holly song "Not Fade Away" and the Temptations' "My Girl". As in 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 ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith and Pattie Boyd (ex-wife of Beatle George Harrison) attended the taping.
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.
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.
In 2011, he joined Dolenz and Jones for An Evening with The Monkees: The 45th Anniversary Tour in 2011.
In 2012, Tork joined Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith with 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. In 2016, Tork toured with Dolenz as the Monkees. Nesmith also played at some of the concerts.
Tork resided in Mansfield, Connecticut. He was married four times, with marriages to Jody Bab, Reine Stewart, and Barbara Iannoli ending in divorce. From 2014 until his death, he was married to Pamela Grapes. He had three children: a daughter, Hallie, with Stewart; a son, Ivan, with Iannoli; and another daughter, Erica, from a relationship with Tammy Sestak.
On March 3, 2009, Tork reported on his Web site that he had been diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare, slow-growing form of head and neck cancer. A preliminary biopsy discovered 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.
On March 4, 2009, Tork underwent successful surgery in New York City. 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.
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.
Tork documented his cancer experience on Facebook and encouraged his fans to support research efforts of the Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation.
The cancer returned in 2018. Tork died of complications from the disease on February 21, 2019, at his home in Mansfield, Connecticut. He was 77.