Country Queen Colleen Peterson
Canada has had no shortage of fantastic female singers over the past eighty years or so. There were solo performers, ensemble singers, session singers and everything in between. The chart success of Canadians such as Shirley Matthews, Pat Hervey, Joni Mitchell and Catherine McKinnon in the mid-1960's paved the way for a number of girls and inspired them to pick up a pen, a microphone, an instrument, or some combination of the three. The dreams of stardom, big stages and adoring fans ensnared Colleen Peterson as it did so many other young Canadian girls.
Colleen Peterson was born in Peterborough, Ontario on November 14th, 1950. Born a little later than many of her contemporaries, Colleen wasted no time getting involved in music; starting singing and performing at a young age. Her family moved to Ottawa in 1961 when she was 10 years old. She had become infatuated with the guitar and saved up all her money over the next two years to afford her first. Her development on the instrument would be more or less uneventful until she began high school. Here, she would get involved with the music program and would begin quickly developing her guitar playing alongside her budding singing talents.
While still in high school in 1966 (then only 16 years old), she began performing in coffeehouses and clubs around Ottawa, which at the time, was a vibrant music scene for many genres. Coffeehouses were dominated by folkies and country singers; here, Colleen fit right in. She began to attract attention from many groups, as well as a few other emerging solo talents on the coffeehouse scene. David Wiffen and Bruce Cockburn would take note of her talents, but would eventually be grabbed up by the newly founded band “Three’s A Crowd.”
Colleen had enough success to make her way to Toronto in late 1966 for a number of performances at a few notable coffeehouses; most importantly the Riverboat where she had a brief run in with “Three’s A Crowd.” Colleen got on well with the members, who were particularly taken with her performance. She may not have known it then, but within a few months, she’d be singing with the group when Donna Warner had to take a break due to poor health.
1967 saw Colleen gaining popularity quick on the coffeehouse/club circuit around Ottawa. A number of publications began to pay attention and articles about her were being written, fueling the hype. Her star rose to such a degree that year that she was awarded the RPM Gold Leaf Award for “Most Promising Female Vocalist.”
Three’s A Crowd by this point were gaining considerable popularity. They moved to Toronto in late 1966, released two singles over the following 6 months that had minor success, toured throughout Canada promoting them, performed on various music television programs of the time (including CBC’s “Let’s Go” in Vancouver) and were gaining traction in a number of markets throughout Canada. They had played a number of notable gigs in early-to-mid 1967, including the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ottawa and Expo ’67 in Montreal and had signed a new deal with Warner subsidiary Dunhill Records. This deal saw them heading to LA to record their debut album. Shortly after these sessions, Donna Warner fell ill and had to briefly leave the group. Colleen was invited to join the band.
While getting the call from “Three’s A Crowd” may have been a dream come true at the time, the relationship would last barely a year, as she was quickly replaced by a now-healthy Donna Warren; before the release of their debut album in early 1968. She briefly became a member of soon to break-up Ottawa garage rockers, Five D. After the demise of that band, she then briefly joined St Patrick Street Rooming House, before moving to New York in 1969.
Her time in New York didn’t last long. After briefly joining the 10-piece Jazz-Rock band TCB (who she’d record an album and tour with for a few months), she’d return to Toronto before the end of 1970 to join the cast of the Toronto performance of “Hair.”
In mid-1971 growing restless but wanting to perform in more theatrical productions, she’d move to Kingston, Ontario to star in the musical road production of "Love And Maple Syrup." When that musical's run ended, she formed Spriggs & Bringle with Mark Haines. After over three years of the club circuit performances, touring North America, they parted ways in early 1975.
The CBC took note of her recent successes with Spriggs & Bringle and attempted to get her into the studio to record a few songs for their LM-400 series (compilations of up and coming Canadian artists for their radio stations; ranging jazz, country, funk, rock and folk) in late 1975. All 3 of her songs were covers of Willie P. Bennett songs; "Music In Your Eyes," "Breakast Day/Nice Guy," and "I Feel The Same." She moved to Nashville in 1975; where her country career would begin to really take off!
Immediately upon her arrival, Colleen was swept in the fast-paced, no nonsense country music scene present in Nashville. She’d play around town, soaking in the culture and honing her craft, while sending out her demos to numerous labels. Her persistence would pay off when Capitol Records came knocking.
After signing a deal with Capitol in early 1976, she’d head into the studio with some of Nashville’s finest session men and recorded her debut album “Beginning To Feel Like Home” in the summer of that year. A mixture of popular covers and country-tinged originals, both masterfully performed, made up the album. One such original “Souvenirs,” made its way onto the Billboard top 40 in 1976, but surprisingly didn’t chart at home in Canada. Her follow-up single "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance/Sad Songs and Waltzes," but neither side charted on either side of the border. She made a brief return to Canada in summer of 1976 after releasing her debut album. She’d take part in a number of festivals throughout the summer including the historic “Festival Of Friends” in Gage Park, Hamilton, August 1976.
By the end of 1976 Colleen was becoming a sought after songwriter in Canada and Nashville. One example was when Anne Murray would record her song “Carolina Sun,” which would become a hit for her on both sides of the border. Colleen’s recent work for the CBC had her moving back to Toronto briefly. In spring of 1977, she received the Juno award for “Most Promising Female Vocalist” (her second time receiving such an honour).
Later that year, Colleen released her second studio album “Colleen” to moderate success. It featured a great selection of material and would further cement her transition to Country artist.
Before the end of that year, the CBC again approached her. This time she’d replace Tommy Hunter on Saturday nights for the program "The Road Show" which aired after hockey games. Her co-star was Rick Neufeld and although ratings were good for the variety program, she decided to not do a second season.
Her third album was released in mid-1978. It was, like her last, a moderate success; featuring a number of charting singles, including a cover of Del Shannon’s “I Go To Pieces” which managed to crack the top 40 in Canada, followed by a dual cover of Sam Cooke songs "Cupid/Goin' Goin' Gone," which charted but failed to come close to the success of “I Go To Pieces.” She became frustrated with how little attention and, in general, respect she was receiving from her label’s office and management staff. She began a new chapter when she decided to leave the label and re-evaluate her career.
Colleen began the 1980’s backing a number of notable artists on tour, including Gordon Lightfoot, Ry Cooder, and Tom Waits. She’d also record backing vocals and guitar on a pair of albums released by the Charlie Daniels Band. This found her heading into further session work, recording with Waylon Jennings, Murty Stuart, and Roger Miller (among others). She’d also resume writing for other artists, writing material for Anne Murray, Ronnie Prophet, and Sylvia Tyson.
Her successes would continue through the middle of the decade, as she continued to have recording successes with her single “I Had It All,” which cracked the top 40 in 1986. This gave her an opportunity to tour which she gladly accepted. She’d appear all across the country over the following year including notable appearances at festivals, such as her returns to the Mariposa Folk Festival as well as the Montreal Expo.
With renewed passion and success she signed a new deal with Book Shop Records in 1988 and recorded her fourth album “Basic Facts.” This album contained four top 40 hits with "Weather The Storm, Gently Lay Me Down, Basic Fact of Love” and her duet with Gilles Godard "If You Let Me Down Easy." This huge success opened up doors in regards to touring and would keep her busy for the next few years.
The 1990’s would be a bittersweet decade for Colleen. Starting off with the release of her fifth album in 1991 “Let Me Down Easy,” which featured singles that only barely charted. The lackluster performance of her album and the subsequent dates she embarked on to promote it, was enough to have her briefly exit the music business. She’d be courted back when asked to perform for a special one-off concert at Toronto’s Harbourfront in 1993 with Cindy Church, Caitlin Hanford, and Sylvia Tyson. The four women would later appear again on CBC Radio's "Morningside" program and then on the PBS special, "A Prairie Home Companion." They all enjoyed the collaboration and this would hatch the idea to record an album as a group. Named simply “Quartette,” they’d release their debut album in late 1994.
1995 saw her oversee production of the perfectly timed retrospective compilation of her material; titled “What Goes Around Comes Around.” This compilation also featured a number of new or unreleased songs.
As previously stated “What Goes Around Comes Around” was perfectly timed. Colleen would be diagnosed with cancer in early 1996; shortly after Quartette’s second album was released. Her condition continued to worsen and she was unable to perform with Quartette to promote their recently released album. She handpicked her close friend and co-writer of many of her songs over the years, Gwen Swick, to fill in for her. Unfortunately, Colleen would succumb to her condition on October 9th 1996.
We lost a fantastic, influential singer that day. Someone who’s various moves through the industry was always encouraged and was usually met with some level of success. A good portion of her early work has been remastered and reissued on CD, so thankfully her legacy isn’t in danger of being forgotten in vinyl limbo like so many of her Canadian contemporaries. She was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. Three years later, the Colleen Peterson Songwriting Fund was established by the Ontario Arts Council to help aspiring creative minds. There may be no more fitting way for her influence and legacy as a fantastic songwriter to be felt than to support and nurture the growing talent of future generations of musicians.
WRITTEN & RESEARCHED BY: AARON LUSCH
Born: November 14, 1950 in Peterborough, ON
Died: October 9, 1996 in Toronto, ON
1977 JUNO Award for "Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year"
1977 - "Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year"
1977 - "Country Female Vocalist of the Year"
1978 - "Country Female Vocalist of the Year"
1979 - "Country Female Vocalist of the Year"
1989 - "Country Group or Duo of the Year" (Colleen Peterson & Gilles Godard)
1991 - "Country Group or Duo of the Year" (Colleen Peterson & Gilles Godard)