WHEN he returned to Australia in 1971 after being based overseas across the late 1960s, performer Peter Allen would have been forgiven for wondering if his career was over. But an unexpected piece of family history became the inspiration this boy from the bush needed to succeed on the world stage.
It had been a very long journey home for the ‘Boy From Oz’. Work offers were getting scarce for Peter Allen by the early 1970s. His mentor Judy Garland, who’d opened doors on both sides of the Atlantic for the young performer, was dead. His wife, Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, had asked for a divorce.
Allen had been performing for two decades and was at the age when many former child stars find themselves washed up. Even Australia didn’t appear to have many work prospects looming on the horizon for him that year.
His first self-titled album had bombed and gigs to promote it had been hosted by a Manhattan venue known as The Bitter End, which would have seemed terribly ironic to the man who’d been introduced to enormous audiences in the company of iconic musicians throughout the late 1960s.
According to Allen’s biographer, journalist Stephen MacLean (author of The Boy From Oz) it was an offer to perform in Australia that led Peter to “look his past in the eye”.
Ensconced at his mother Marion’s Bondi unit in that 1971 winter, Allen spent hours writing on the rooftop overlooking the ocean.
“One day, while Marion was out at work,” MacLean wrote, “Peter found himself fossicking about the flat. In the course of this he came upon an aged newspaper clipping from his near-forgotten birthplace of Tenterfield.”
The snippet recorded that Peter’s grandfather George Woolnough, whose High Street saddlery was already renowned, had a library at the University of New England named after him.
Memories came rushing at the 27-year-old performer. Key to his life experience to that point was the shooting suicide of his father and the grief that led to his immediate family’s gradual departure from the Australian bush. The fast-paced city had been Allen’s home since the mid 1960s, but his country roots held the seeds of an idea for this budding songwriter.
Emboldened by his modest start in New York, Peter Allen took this family history up to that Bondi rooftop and penned a new song.
‘Tenterfield Saddler’ was the result, a ballad that has bridged Australian bush poetry and international show-business ever since he recorded it in 1972.
‘Applause rolled on and on’
Mixing lyrical rhymes in a tale about long journeys down a country track replete with kangaroos and cockatoos, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ is every inch a bush ballad in the tradition of Banjo Paterson.
It brings to the fore a lesser-known character in the cast of bush legends: the saddler, responsible for the safety and comfort of your ride, but also a storyteller.
Like all the best bush yarns, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ has a dark side. In his grandson’s lyrics, the saddler holds the key to everyday life in a country town, but what George Woolnough couldn’t unlock were the reasons his son had died at his own hand.
It is the suicide at the heart of ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ that gives it a place alongside one of Australia’s most enduring ballads ‘Waltzing Matilda’. In that song’s climax, the hero of the story, a swagman, drowns himself to avoid capture for sheep rustling.
When Allen recorded his song for the 1972 album of the same name, it made a small splash in the American music industry, which labelled the track a folk song. But what this quirky ballad did, according to Stephen MacLean, was get Peter Allen noticed as a songwriter.
After a move to California in the early 1970s, despite having the barest of credentials, Peter Allen kept penning songs. He worked hard at his craft with other emerging writers and allowed the results to be recorded by artists on the brink of bigger singing careers.
In 1974, he eventually landed a hit when Olivia Newton-John released ‘I Honestly Love You’, co-written with Jeff Barry. The track garnered Allen his first of two Grammy Award nominations.
When he trialled the song at a live performance, long before Newton-John’s international number one single, Allen recalled: “Everything stopped. Even the waiters didn’t move. The air was still and when I finished you could have heard a pin drop. Then they all began to applaud and the applause rolled on and on.”
Allen went on to write with a range of collaborators, including Carole Bayer Sager. The two were part of the team that won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Original Song with ‘Arthur’s Theme’ from the soundtrack of the Dudley Moore film Arthur.
Yet Allen’s bush ballad ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ eventually took its place in the annals of songwriting. As fame saw him tour internationally, it became an audience favourite and graced the Australian charts multiple times. Bette Midler reputedly requested the song every time she saw him perform, and sang it at his memorial service.
By the end of his life in 1992, a result of AIDS-related throat cancer, lyrics about travelling had become a Peter Allen hallmark. Even his Oscar-winning track has at its heart the memorable chorus, “When you get caught between the moon and New York City”, a line Allen dreamed up while his flight was in a holding pattern over John F. Kennedy Airport, according to MacLean.
But it was his enduring 1980 homecoming ballad ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ that saw the boy from the bush – who’d spent his life wandering – finally embraced by a nation.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.