Peter Tork, the affable, moptopped bassist for The Monkees who starred in their mid-’60s TV show and toured the world with the group, died today. He was 77. His sister Anne Thorkelson confirmed the news but did not provide details. Tork had been diagnosed with tongue cancer a decade ago.
The Monkees were the made-for-American-TV group that attacked video and audio airwaves in 1966 at the height of Beatlemania. The NBC series aired only two seasons but won the 1967 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series and also launched the group to radio stardom. Their first hit was “Last Train to Clarksville,” which started a run of five consecutive Top 3 singles stateside. The song also was the first of three chart-toppers followed by “I’m a Believer” — which also hit No. 1 in the UK — and “Daydream Believer.”
Born Peter Thorkelson on February 13, 1942, in Washington, D.C., Tork became immersed in the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene. There he befriended Stephen Stills, who had tried out for a new TV show about a fictitious pop band but didn’t get the gig. The future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer suggested Tork to producers, and The Monkees had its bassist.
His lovable goofball persona on the series helped propel the band’s popularity. The show was a ratings hit, but it was AM radio that solidified the Monkees’ enduring fame. The quartet — which also featured singer Davy Jones, guitarist Michael Nesmith and drummer Micky Dolenz — hit No. 1 in the U.S. with its first four albums, all of which went multiplatinum.
The teen-idol Monkees’ string of hits also included “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Valleri” and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” The TV show’s catchy “(Theme from) The Monkees” also was released as a single in some territories and remains a singalong standard.
Tork played multiple instruments on later recordings, though the band infamously was barred from playing on their first two LPs — a controversy that would linger around the band for years. He co-wrote “For Pete’s Sake,” which was the closing song for the show’s second season.
The TV show wrapped in 1968, but the group kept recording and touring for another few years. Jimi Hendrix was the opening act for their 1967 jaunt, to the dismay of many parents who took their teenyboppers to see the Monkees. The “Purple Haze” guitarist famously hated the headliners as a band, and backlash against them took hold in earnest as the Summer or Love ebbed.
The following year saw the release of Head, the Monkees’ psychedelic period-piece answer to the Beatles film Help! Directed by Bob Rafelson — who co-wrote the film with a then-rising multihyphenate named Jack Nicholson — the plot-challenged pic starred the four Monkees in a host of capers. It was not a commercial hit, and its soundtrack stalled in the 40s of the Billboard 200.
The group would reunite numerous times over the ensuing decades and toured often in various incarnations, Tork, Nesmith and Dolenz played live shows together as recently as 2016. Jones died in 2012.
Tork remained in show business after the Monkees’ breakup, forming his own groups and touring and recording. He appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in the NBC show’s early months and was a good sport when the host staged a mock contest called “Win a Dream Date with Peter Tork.”