Dan Peek: Singer and songwriter who co-founded America, the 1970s soft-rock trio who started life in Britain
Thursday 28 July 2011
Often dismissed by British critics as soft rock one-hit wonders, America wrote and demoed their best known song, the highly evocative "A Horse With No Name", not in Laurel Canyon but at Arthur Brown's home studio in rainy Dorset, and recorded its sun-kissed harmonies not in Los Angeles but at Morgan Sound Studios in North London in 1971. Comprising Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek, three US Army brats attending London Central High School while their fathers were stationed at the US Air Force base at RAF West Ruislip, Middlesex, in the 1960s, they were discovered by Jeff Dexter, the host and promoter of underground events at London's Roundhouse, and his friend Ian Samwell, who produced their eponymous debut, as well as "A Horse With No Name", a stand-alone single subsequently added to the album.
Their success in the UK and the rest of Europe prompted the trio's label, Warner Brothers, to launch America in the US with resounding success: "A Horse With No Name" replaced Neil Young's "Heart Of Gold" at the top of the charts there in March 1972. Over the next five years, the group scored a further eight Top 40 hits in the US, including the beatifically blissful "Ventura Highway" and "Tin Man", penned by Bunnell – the writer of "A Horse With No Name" – "I Need You" and "Sister Golden Hair", the ballads composed by Beckley, and "Don't Cross The River", "Lonely People" and "Today's The Day", written by Peek, who leaned more towards country music and easy listening.
"It was a Cinderella story, but once it happened, it turned into a freight train," Peek reflected last year. "I was a spectrum drug abuser, alcoholic, you name it. I tried everything. I tasted every possible thing. I had a spiritual compass, but I abandoned it completely." The multi-instrumentalist and gifted lead and harmony singer left the band in 1977 after the release of Harbor, their fourth album, made with the Beatles' producer George Martin.
Peek cleaned up his act, became a born-again Christian and a mainstay of radio stations featuring the emerging genre of Contemporary Christian Music with his albums All Things Are Possible (1979), Doer Of The World (1984) and Electro Voice (1986). In 2004, he published an autobiography, An American Band: The America Story. Beckley and Bunnell continued as America and made an impressive return to the charts in the early 1980s with "You Can Do Magic" and '"The Border" after signing to Capitol Records. They are currently touring the US and are about to release an album, Back Pages.
Born in Panama City, Florida in 1950, Dan Peek came from a musical family on his mother's side and often sang with his brothers and sisters. Since his father was an Air Force officer, Peek and his family lived all over the US, and also in Japan, Pakistan and eventually Britain.
By 1967, when he met Beckley and Bunnell, who shared his peripatetic background and love of music, Peek played guitar, piano and harmonica and had begun writing songs. He joined Beckley in a band called the Daze, and after a year at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, returned to the UK in 1970 and teamed up with him and Bunnell. Their inspired choice of name referenced the Americana jukebox in the cafeteria on the base where they had previously worked, as well as the homeland they had seen little of, and instantly got them noticed. "We wanted to set ourselves apart and not be seen as English guys trying to do American music, but instead accentuate that we were an American band," Peek explained.
Dexter found them various gigs, including a bottom-of-the-bill slot at a Christmas show featuring Patto, Elton John and headlined by The Who at the Roundhouse, which led to offers from DJM Records, Atlantic and the British arm of Warners, the company they signed to. Having turned a demo for "Desert Song" into "A Horse With No Name" at Samwell's behest, America found themselves with a worldwide hit and on a US tour supporting the Everly Brothers, whose heady harmonies had inspired their own sound. Comparisons with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young became par for the course, especially when they joined the same management company, run by industry heavyweights David Geffen and Elliot Roberts, and relocated to Los Angeles, where they rubbed shoulders with Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and the Eagles, another soft rock group who cut their first album in London.
America produced their follow-up, Homecoming (1972), which featured the apposite Peek composition "California Revisited" and charted on both sides of the Atlantic, but after the relative failure of their third studio album, Hat Trick (1973) they hired Martin, who insisted the trio return to the UK to record Holiday at his AIR Studios in April 1974. With "Tin Man" – inspired by The Wizard Of Oz – and Peek's "Lonely People", co-written with his wife Cathy, both making the Top 5, the million-selling album restored their fortunes, and the America-Martin partnership purple patch continued with Hearts (1975), which includedPeek's Caribbean-flavoured minor hit "Woman Tonight" – and Hideaway (1976) – featuring Peek's lovely "Today's The Day" which topped the Adult Contemporary Charts and was their last major hit for Warners.
Despite his espousal of the rock'n'roll lifestyle he eventually eschewed, Peek wrote thoughtful lyrics and had something of George Harrison about him. The central role he played in the America story and his contributions to their extensive 1970s repertoire have sometimes been overlooked, with radio programmers concentrating on "A Horse With No Name", "Ventura Highway" and "Sister Golden Hair", the obvious recurrent oldies written by his bandmates.
Daniel Milton Peek, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist: born Panama City, Florida 1 November 1950; married 1973 Catherine Maberry; died Farmington, Missouri 24 July 2011.
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