"THE PIED PIPER"
ALAN CLAYSON SHOWS YOU JUST WHERE IT'S AT!
A New Jersey radio presenter, Doug Elliott, has commissioned Crispian St. Peters and I to work on an album of him singing obscure 1960's favourites. Like the man who paid to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall for just one night, Mr. Elliott has the wherewithal to fulfill a dream.
The project also involves Tim Adams, leader of the Runaways - an ensemble of Rapiers persuasion. After much to-ing and fro-ing of telephone conversations, Tim, Crispian and I met for the first time in licensed premises within Victoria Station in September to discuss how best to spend Doug's money. A topic not raised by Crispian was why he wasn't mentioned, even in passing, in my publication "Beat Merchants" - but then why should he as I wasn't even a name to him before this Doug Elliott business?
Like most people, I didn't know that much about him either. Cursory research will not flesh out greatly raw facts from 'The Guinness Book Of Hit Singles' that he had three Top-50 entries in 1966. You'll have some hunt too for a St. Peters compilation and any sleeve notes that throw light on the artist. Therefore, I'm glad to have the chance to make amends for my own neglect - and those of other pop chroniclers - with a career summary of the man born Robin Peter Smith on 5th April 1939 in Swanley, Kent.
Known privately by his middle name, he lives there today, despite the gradual encroachment of postwar development that has changed a country town into part of the conurbation that extends from the London suburbs along the River Medway towards the coast of the so-called "Garden Of England". Television too has made it impossible to go back to an old way of life that was epitomised in the Smith household by musical evenings.All the family were accomplished on various instruments, and Peter's speciality came to be guitar after buying one secondhand for ten shillings (50p).
In his late teens, he was making his own models for use on stage, having made a public debut with a skiffle outfit, the Hard Travellers, entertaining the staff at a local hospital. The group leaned towards country-and-western, although their repertoire also embraced the expected classic rock and Top Twenty preferences as well as one or two of Peter's first offerings as a composer. His muse for the likes of 'Jilly Honey' and 'Darling J' was a girlfriend who subsequently married someone else.
Some numbers survived into the 1960's when he emerged as a mainstay of the Beat Formula Three who, when talent scouts - looking for the New Beatles fanned out beyond the northern and midland shires, were discovered by David Nicolson, then an EMI publicist. Singling out Peter as the trio's X-factor, he coughed up for demos to be made, and suggested that 'Peter Smith' didn't have quite the same ring to it as, say, Cliff Richard, Shane Fenton or Ringo Starr. As a result, Smith was nearly re-christened Crispin Blacke - to go with a saturnine image akin to that of Dave Berry. This was dropped when Nicolson and Smith, after much vexing debate, settled on 'Crispian St. Peters'. Gone too were the other members of the Beat Formula Three in favour of a new backing combo - and five years from Crispian's age
Thus packaged, Crispian St Peters, was signed to Decca on a lease contract in 1965. This commenced inauspiciously with two flops 'At This Moment" and, despite heavy plugging on pirate radio, "No No No." Then Nicolson stumbled upon a better vehicle for his boy's chart breakthrough in "You Were On My Mind', a US million-seller for We Five, a folksy ensemble connected genealogically to the Kingston Trio. In a frantic effort to find the cash to get a St. Peters version out before the original left the runway in Britain, David decided to share his stake in Crispian with Kenneth Pitt, best known nowadays as the former manager of Manfred Mann, David Bowie and other luminaries.
Nicolson's judgement about "You Were On My Mind" proved correct, and who could begrudge Crispian's success - and empathise with his disappointment - when the record's passage to the Number One spot was blocked only by the Overlanders with "Michelle" during 1966's wet spring. That April, he touched the ceiling of his domestic impact with a slot in 1966's "NME Poll Winners Concert".
At this extravaganza at the Empire Pool, Wembley the largely female audience went as indiscriminately crazy over Crispian as it did over all male performers on a bill that included the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Cliff and the Shadows, Dusty Springfield, the Fortunes, Roy Orbison, you name 'em.
Conspicuously absent from the event was P. J. Proby who was busy falling from grace after the famous trouser-splitting incident at the Luton Ritz. Briefly, Crispian, rather than Tom Jones, was prime candidate to fill the market void. This backfired, however, when St. Peters was dubbed the 'Cassius Clay of Showbusiness' after his comments about how he was going to be bigger than both Elvis and the Beatles three years hence were reported in the NME. When the self-deprecating bloke I met in London last month told me that this was the misconstruing of flippant remarks, I believed him.
Though such coverage was to damage St. Peters in the long term, it seemed initially as if no harm had been done. Another US cover, "The Pied Piper" by the Changin' Times, climbed almost as high as its predecessor, after changing the "I'll show you where life's at" hookline to the trendier "I'll show you where it's at".
Any small signs of commercial danger were also mitigated by Crispian's level of popularity overseas - particularly in Australasia, the Far East and, crucially, the United States where a peak of #4 with 'The Pied Piper' was followed by Crispian returning 'You Were On My Mind' to Billboard's Top-40. Into the bargain, his LP, "Follow Me', was eliciting a quota of Xeroxes of Crispian St. Peters compositions by such disparate individuals as US 'vocalist Darrell Glenn (with "But She's Untrue"), Ken Dodd (with the hitherto unissued "Willingly") and Marty Kristian, whose "I'll Give You Love" - also produced by the composer - was as big a smash Down Under as "The Pied Piper".
But soon must come the time when fades the fairest flower - and a foreseeable slide downhill started after "Changes" bid its restless farewell from the lower reaches of the Top-50. "Your Ever Changing Mind" taped in New York, was but one attempt to relaunch him by either going back to the drawing board with "Free Spirit" - another from the Changing Times (alias Steve Duboff and Artie Kornfield, a song writing team) - or reinventing Crispian as a C&W singer, even changing his name to 'Country Smith' for one 1968 release.
He stuck with country for most of a 1970 album entitled "Simply Crispian St Peters" and was well-placed to make hay in the country-pop sunshine with an arrangement by guitarist Big Jim Sullivan of "Take Me Home Country Roads." However, after this lost a chart bout to Olivia Newton-John, all directions pointed to the 60's nostalgia circuit and interrelated remakes of his hits.
In 1985's Heroes and Villains 60's Spectacular at London's Dominion Theatre, Crispian was as pleased as the audience that he was so fondly remembered, but recent ill-health has meant cutting back on stage work, and a concentration on writing and arranging songs for others. Even as his sixth decade approaches, the secret history of Crispian St Peters might yet prove to be as interesting as that optimum year when he performed in front of the world.