How on earth did Donald Peers end up with a big chart hit and an appearance on the nation’s premier pop show at the end of the 1960s? Graham Tomlinson takes a look.
It is the last week of February, 1969. 7.30pm, BBC1. Top of the Pops is just starting. The programme’s space-age logo fills the screen and a voice confirms that ‘Yes, it’s number one – it’s Top of the Pops!’ before the camera pulls back to reveal a studio full of groovers swaying to Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)’.
The chart rundown – Top 20 only in those days, but comprising the familiar combination of big numbers and photos of the stars – includes Sam and Dave, The Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac and The Move. Stuart Henry is introducing the show, resplendent in a garish jumper, white roll neck and chunky gold neck chain, and promises ‘all sorts of good things’ in the next half hour. Those ‘good things’ open with Cliff Richard’s stop-start ‘Good Times (Better Times)’ and will go on to feature Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ (as interpreted by Pan’s People) and a promo film for Glen Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’. But the programme also includes something more extraordinary even than the simultaneous appearance in the charts of two bona fide classics: namely, a huge star of the past making an unlikely return. It’s Donald Peers singing ‘Please Don’t Go’.
Donald Peers, the radio star of the late 1940s, beaming away in front of a geometrically-styled set as he sings a slowie in waltz-time with a familiar sounding melody. ‘Just this once, I beg you just once,’ Donald croons, ‘forgive me for what I’ve done,’ smiling all the while.
The record had been released in the run-up to Christmas 1968, and almost unbelievably, was at number four in the charts in the week of his Top of the Pops appearance. ‘Please Don’t Go’ would eventually spend a week at number three in early March, before a graceful exit from the Top 40 in the spring.
Peers had committed himself to a full-time career in show business in 1927. How on earth did he end up with a big chart hit and an appearance on the nation’s premier pop show at the end of the 1960s?
Donald Peers was born in Ammanford in July 1908 in circumstances he describes in his 1951 autobiography Pathway as ‘desperately poor’. His father was English but had left his native Kent to work and travel around the world. In Chicago in 1894 he met Mary Rees, a young woman from Ystalyfera who had been sent to Missouri to seek a cure for her rheumatic illness. They married the same year and at the behest of Mary’s family returned to settle in South Wales.
As a boy, Peers came under two very strong influences: the faith of his father, who had become a member of – and a preacher in – the church of the Plymouth Brethren, and the more worldly influence of his mother’s family, who owned and ran a newspaper called Llais Llafur (The Labour Voice) and a small theatre and cinema in Ystalyfera called The Coliseum. On visits to his mother’s family, Donald was fascinated by an ancient HMV gramophone, the sounds emerging from which became a source of ‘intense happiness’ for him. He sang at Sunday School and acted in school productions but, like his father before him, left for new horizons at the first opportunity. In Donald’s case, he fell in with a couple of painting contractors and left home to start work with them the day before his sixteenth birthday.
As Donald’s employment took him to different parts of Britain, he was able to gain an education as an entertainer by frequent visits to local theatres. He found a regular gig singing through a megaphone and playing banjolele with a dance band at Catterick Camp, but when his contract work took him to Lowestoft in 1927 he left the paint brushes behind after joining a touring concert party production called Tons of Fun. In the same year, he bluffed his way into a first BBC radio broadcast by phoning a producer for an audition and telling him he was an entertainer recently returned from South America and hence somewhat out of touch.
Work followed with the usual ups and downs of a career in show business. In 1932, Peers managed only seven weeks of paid employment, but in 1938 and 1939 he appeared for a record 82 consecutive weeks in a programme broadcast by Radio Normandie. In 1940 he joined the Royal Army Service Corps, although he continued to be in demand as a singer and his greatest success was to come at the end of that decade. He’d had a BBC radio show of his own entitled The Cavalier of Song in each of the years 1947 and 1948, but it was the third series starting in February 1949 that took his popularity to a new level. His listeners simply adored him. By March he was being mobbed by female fans, and on one appearance in Cardiff he had to go about his business in disguise because an excitable crowd had stripped him of his clothes the previous night. Donald – by all accounts a pleasant, sympathetic character – was naturally delighted by his success, if as surprised about it as everyone else. Following the popularity of his radio series and a solo performance at the Royal Albert Hall, the Sunday Express declared him ‘The Phenomenon of 1949’.
Having taken more than twenty years to reach the peak of his profession, Peers’ career from this point became more fragmented, in part because of an operation on his throat later in 1949 which meant six months without singing. In Pathway, he writes of a ‘deep and secret longing to be an out-and-out actor’, but his film appearances were not a success. In 1942 he had appeared in The Balloon Goes Up, a typical wartime effort combining a cast of music hall stars and a strong propaganda message. In the film, Peers offers up a few cheery songs in uniform and while he isn’t exactly required to act, his final scene gives him the opportunity to wrestle a fifth columnist to the floor. Ten years later, he starred in a film which had presumably been written for him: Sing Along with Me, in which he plays David Parry, a Welsh grocer whose song writing skills win him a competition and a move to London. The reviewer for Monthly Film Bulletin was unenthusiastic, concluding that the film had ‘a trivial plot’ with ‘pleasant but unmemorable songs’ and ‘an unconvincing and embarrassing romantic interest.’
Nevertheless, as well as being a star in Britain, Peers became hugely popular as a singer in Australia in the 1950s and lived there for two years until 1956. His preferred choice of material was what he called ‘cheer-up songs’, but by the time he returned to Britain, popular music had moved on and his signature tunes, ‘In a Shady Nook’ (which Peers had sung in that first 1927 radio broadcast) and ‘Powder Your Face with Sunshine’ were sounding decidedly old-fashioned. He managed to extend his career by performing on the thriving northern club circuit, and ended up presenting several series of TV programmes introducing new show business talent – including on a BBC Wales show in 1962 a young hopeful called Tom Jones.
Peers recorded a handful of singles during the 1960s, but with limited success. ‘Please Don’t Go’ was the result of his approaching the songwriting partnership of Jackie Rae (‘Happy Heart’) and Les Reed (‘It’s Not Unusual’, ‘The Last Waltz’ and many others) to come up with something for him. ‘We couldn’t think of what to write for him,’ Reed admitted, ‘so we stole a classic and wrote a lyric to it,’ the classic in question being Offenbach’s ‘Bacharolle’, which Reed adapted for the song’s melody.
You can still find Donald Peers’ Top of the Pops performance on the internet as one of the few surviving clips of that week’s episode. If you watch it, you might conclude that it’s a bit old hat: hammy at the very least, and – unsurprisingly, given the lyrics – rather sentimental. None of which explains the song’s huge popularity at the time, even if Peers had maintained a presence on television in the decade that preceded it. So what is it about the song, and about Donald Peers as a performer, that accounts for their improbable success?
BBC4’s repeats of consecutive episodes of Top of the Pops have reminded us of the bizarre diversity of the charts, in which glib assertions about, for example, the dominance of punk in 1977 melt away in the face of waistcoat-wearing soul acts, men with light perms and an endless round of novelty records. In the case of the late 1960s, we might want to remember the period as a highpoint of psychedelia, but the people buying the singles were making hits out of much safer material. In the charts at the same time as Donald Peers in late 1968 and early 1969 were Val Doonican, Malcolm Roberts and Des O’Connor. At number five in the week of Peers’ Top of the Pops appearance was the emperor of schmaltz himself, Engelbert Humperdinck, whose ‘Release Me’ had kept The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’/’Strawberry Fields Forever’ off the top of the charts in 1967 and who ended that year as Britain’s best-selling artist. ‘Please Don’t Go’ is another example of such conservative tastes; with its introductory vocal chorus, delicate string arrangement and stately 3/4 time signature, it’s a song that Donald Peers could have recorded at almost any point in his long career.
As for Peers the performer – well, his success had never had much to do with his looks. Watching his Top of the Pops performance today, the singer looks like a chubby-faced cross between Karl Malden and Derek Batey, albeit a very well-dressed one. But in that same sniffy Monthly Film Bulletin review of Sing Along with Me there’s a clue to his popularity. The film itself was evidently a stinker, but the reviewer allowed that the star’s ‘greatest quality seems to be the establishing of an air of intimacy with his audience, which is difficult in the cinema but can be done on television.’ At the height of his popularity in 1949, much was also made of Peers’ sincerity as a vocal performer, and it may have been these qualities, together with his generosity in encouraging younger acts, that came across in his TV work. Why else employ someone so apparently out of touch with the current scene?
Of course, not everyone liked his old-fashioned style. In 1968, Tony Palmer made a brilliantly provocative TV film about pop music called All My Loving for the BBC’s Omnibus series. Two years later, he wrote a book on the same subject called Born Under a Bad Sign in which he gave free rein to his enthusiasms and his dislikes. Poor Donald Peers falls heavily into the latter category. Palmer writes sneeringly of him as ‘the Ancient Briton of Song’, and rages that his 1969 hit ‘sobbed with tears of acid’ and ‘pleaded for self-pity’.
Even if we can’t bring ourselves to be quite as furious about the singer as Tony Palmer (and ‘tears of acid’ seems particularly harsh), the fact remains that Donald Peers and his ilk are unlikely to come back into fashion any time soon. Engelbert Humperdinck is the exception that proves the rule: he has entered yet another decade of popular success, helped by some canny career moves and by not taking himself too seriously. Vinyl-fetishising hipsters may be scouring the nation’s charity shops for the Next Big Thing, but all those Ken Dodd and David Whitfield albums languish untouched and anyone stumbling across a dusty old Donald Peers 78 probably isn’t going to take a blind punt.
After the success of ‘Please Don’t Go’, Donald Peers made the Top 40 only once more with the aptly titled ‘Give Me One More Chance’ in 1972, and this after recovering from a severe back injury he suffered while performing in Australia. When he died in 1973 in Brighton, the subheading to his obituary in The Times was ‘Singer who kept coming back’. There may not be any more comebacks for Donald, but in the chart history of 1969 – and for us today, via the miracle of YouTube – there he remains, immortalised at the end of a second 20-year pathway to success. In slightly fuzzy, monochrome glory and engaging his audience with a likeable smile. And the groovers in the studio look happy enough to sway along with him.