Gordon Waller: Musician who enjoyed success in the US as part of Peter and Gordon
Thursday 23 July 2009
Gordon Waller was the lead singer of the 1960s pop duo, Peter and Gordon. In 1964, they had a UK No 1 with "A World Without Love", but as with the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits and the similarly named and styled Chad and Jeremy, they had greater success in America.
Waller's father was a GP in Pinner, but during the War his mother moved to Scotland to give birth to Gordon, who was born in Braemar in the Grampians on 4 June 1945. He attended Westminster School, where he befriended Peter Asher, who was a year older and whose father was also a doctor. Waller changed Asher's tastes from jazz to rock'n'roll and soon they were playing social occasions with acoustic guitars.
Asher left to study philosophy at London University, but Waller was still at boarding school when they secured a two-week, late night engagement at The Pickwick Club in Great Newport Street – the club was owned by Harry Secombe. Every evening, Waller would climb over the school gates, and returning on one occasion he put a spike through his foot causing permanent damage.
On Secombe's recommendation, the recording manager Norman Newell heard them and signed them to EMI's Columbia label. His initial thought was to release the folk song, "500 Miles", as a single, together with their own composition, "If I Were You", but he did not know of the ace up their sleeve: a direct line to Paul McCartney.
Peter Asher was living at home in Wimpole Street and so was his actress sister, Jane – with their flame-coloured hair, they were the carrots of Wimpole Street. Jane was seeing Paul McCartney and he stayed with the Ashers when he was in the city. Peter Asher liked his song, "A World Without Love", and McCartney had no plans to use it with the Beatles as John Lennon mocked its opening line, "Please lock me away". Peter and Gordon recorded it, double-tracking their voices for a fuller sound. Their harmonies were good but lacked the razor sharpness of the Everly Brothers. In truth, they were likeable but wooden performers, simply playing and singing their songs.
Ironically, the single knocked the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" from the No 1 position, and it repeated its success in America. The noted songwriter, Doc Pomus, was to describe "A World Without Love" as his favourite Lennon and McCartney composition: possibly it is the one that is closest to a classic Brill Building song of the early Sixties.
McCartney wrote their melodic follow-up, "Nobody I Know", which again did well, but his third song, "I Don't Want To See You Again", was weaker and a poor seller, although it still made the US Top 20. Befriending the American hitmaker and songwriter, Del Shannon, Peter and Gordon were given the superbly catchy "I Go To Pieces", a fine record on which Waller played 12-string guitar. Inexplicably, it failed to make the UK charts but did reach the US Top 10.
The duo returned to the British Top 10 with a revival of Buddy Holly's romantic "True Love Ways" and a full-blooded treatment of Phil Spector's "To Know Her Is To Love Her", on which each voice was recorded four times. A cover of Barbara Lewis's "Baby I'm Yours" made the Top 20, and, highlighting their international appeal, they recorded in French, German and Italian.
Paul McCartney wanted to know if his songs were strong enough to sell without his name and offered them "Woman", which listed the fictitious Bernard Webb as its writer. This was muddled thinking as there had been several songs which hadn't sold despite "Lennon and McCartney" on the label. In any event, it was hardly a Webb of deceit as it was soon revealed that it was McCartney's song. The single made the Top 30 – and McCartney did himself a disservice as it is among his best songs.
In 1966, Mike Leander wrote and produced their novelty single, "Lady Godiva", which was censured by the Mayor of Coventry, who should have had better things to do. Really, it was a cynical attempt to exploit the American interest in British eccentricity and was following Herman's Hermits' success with music hall material. In the same vein, Peter and Gordon recorded the ultra-silly "Knight In Rusty Armour" and the quaint "Sunday For Tea". They also sang the happy-go-lucky theme for the Michael Winner film about Swinging London, The Jokers, starring Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed.
Their first LP, Peter And Gordon, had been a big seller in 1964 and they released a further five albums in the UK. In addition, they recorded albums specifically for the US market including Peter And Gordon Sing And Play The Hits Of Nashville, Tennessee (1966), In London For Tea (1967) and Hot, Cold And Custard (1968).
With a strong wit, Waller was more charismatic than their bland image implied. From time to time, his wild partying made the news and he had a succession of girlfriends including Jenny Dunbar (whose brother, John, married Marianne Faithfull and was to start the Indica Bookshop with Peter Asher and Barry Miles) and the American songwriter Sharon Sheeley, the former girlfriend of Eddie Cochran.
Feeling cheated by their management, the duo stopped performing in 1968 with Asher working for the Beatles' Apple label and discovering, and then managing, James Taylor. Waller began his solo career with the magnificent "Rosecrans Boulevard", written by Jimmy Webb, but it failed to chart. Calling a solo album, ...And Gordon, was simply ridiculous.
Waller played Pharaoh as a pastiche Elvis Presley in the musical Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in both the West End and on tour. Moving out of the record business, he became a landscape gardener. He did solo shows from time to time and as the years went by he appeared at Beatles festivals in America.
Always a heavy drinker, Waller had lost his looks by the time Peter and Gordon reformed in 2005 for a benefit concert for Mike Smith of the Dave Clark Five. They performed "I Want Love" at a show to honour Elton John's songwriting and earlier this year they appeared at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake for the 50th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death. They had other shows planned, including arena concerts, but they did not come to the UK as promoters found the price tag of £20,000 too high.
Gordon Trueman Riviere Waller, singer: born Braemar, Scotland 4 June 1945,; twice married (two daughters); died Connecticut 16 July 2009.
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