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Peter Tork, endearingly offbeat bassist and singer in the Monkees, dies at 77

Peter Tork, endearingly offbeat bassist and singer in the Monkees, dies at 77

Musician became a teeny-bopper sensation as a member of the group
Peter Tork, endearingly offbeat bassist and singer in the Monkees, dies at 77
The Monkees, in 1966, featured, from left, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith.
Photographer: the washington post

Peter Tork, a blues and folk musician who became a teeny-bopper sensation as a member of the Monkees, the wisecracking, made-for-TV pop group that imitated and briefly outsold the Beatles, has died. He was 77.

His death was confirmed by his sister Anne Thorkelson, who did not say where or how he died. Tork was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer affecting his tongue, in 2009.

The two remaining members of The Monkees, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith, are scheduled to perform on March 10 at the Palace Theatre in Albany. That show is still on, according to Palace officials Thursday.

If the Monkees were a manufactured version of the Beatles, a “prefab four” who auditioned for a rock-and-roll sitcom and were selected more for their long-haired good looks than their musical abilities, Tork was the group’s Ringo, its lovably goofy supporting player.

On television, he performed as the self-described “dummy” of the group, drawing on a persona he developed while working as a folk musician in Greenwich Village, where he flashed a confused smile whenever his stage banter fell flat. Off-screen, he embraced the Summer of Love, donning moccasins and “love beads” and declaring that “nonverbal, extrasensory communication is at hand” and that “dogmatism is leaving the scene.”

A versatile multi-instrumentalist, Tork mostly played bass and keyboard for the Monkees, in addition to singing lead on tracks including “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again,” which he wrote for the group’s psychedelic 1968 movie, “Head,” and “Your Auntie Grizelda.”

At age 24, he was also the band’s oldest member when “The Monkees” premiered on NBC in 1966. Not that it mattered: “The emotional age of all of us,” he told the New York Times that year, “is 13.”

Created by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, “The Monkees” was designed to replicate the success of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!,” director Richard Lester’s musical comedies about the Beatles.

The band featured Tork alongside Michael Nesmith, a singer-songwriter who played guitar, and former child actors Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, who played the drums and sang lead, respectively. Like their British counterparts, the group had a fondness for mischief, resulting in high jinks involving a magical necklace, a monkey’s paw, high-seas pirates and Texas outlaws.

“The Monkees” ran for only two seasons but won an Emmy Award for outstanding comedy and spawned a frenzy of merchandising, record sales and world tours that became known as Monkeemania. In 1967, according to one report in The Washington Post, the Monkees sold 35 million albums — “twice as many as the Beatles and Rolling Stones combined” — on the strength of songs such as “Daydream Believer,” “I’m a Believer” and “Last Train to Clarksville,” which all rose to No. 1 on the Billboard record chart.

Almost all of their early material was penned by a stable of vaunted songwriters that included Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, David Gates, Neil Sedaka, Jeff Barry, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. But while the band scored a total of six Top 10 songs and five Top 10 albums, they engendered as much critical scorn as commercial success. In one typical review, music critic Richard Goldstein declared, “The Monkees are as unoriginal as anything yet thrust upon us in the name of popular music.”

Detractors pointed to the fact that the band, at least initially, existed only in name. While the Monkees appeared on the cover of their debut album and were shown performing on TV, their instruments were actually unplugged. The songs were mostly done by session musicians — much to the shock of Mr. Tork, who recalled walking into the recording studio in 1966 to help with the group’s self-titled debut.

He was “mortified,” he later told CBS News, to find that music producer Don Kirshner, dubbed “the man with the golden ear,” didn’t want him around. “They were doing ‘Clarksville,’ and I wrote a counterpoint, I had studied music,” Tork said. “And I brought it to them, and they said: ‘No, no, Peter, you don’t understand. This is the record. It’s all done. We don’t need you.’ ”

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