Crispian St. Peters recording in 1964

One Enduring Hit
‘Pied Piper’ Crispian St. Peters
April 5, 1939-June 8, 2010

Crispian St Peters, whose lone U.S. hit, 1966’s “Pied Piper,” was one of the decade’s catchiest pop tunes and captured the playful spirit of  the early British Invasion, died on June 8 following a long illness. He was 71 and had been beset by health problems in his later years.
Born Robin Peter Smith on April 5, 1939, to parents who ran a nursery in rural Swanley, he grew up in a musical family in which a number of relatives played instruments and sang, and music was a constant. After leaving school at 15, he worked as a cinema projectionist and in a paper mill. Like many of his generation of British musicians, he was inspired by the skiffle music of Lonnie Donegan (as were a couple of fellows named John Lennon and Paul McCartney), and formed the Hard Travellers skiffle group. Following a stint in Britain’s national service—during which he had seen a concert by rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Gene Vincent, which spurred him to start writing his own songs—Smith formed the Beat Formula Three. An EMI executive spotted them and negotiated a recording contract with Decca, as well as suggesting Smith change his name to Crispin Blacke. Smith came up with Crispian St. Peters as an alternative and went with it. The group’s first two singles (“At This Moment” and “No No No”) flopped. Nicolson then brought St. Peters an American disc he had been sent, “You Were On My Mind” by the We Five (the song was written by Sylvia Fricker of Ian and Sylvia). Unimpressed with the song, Peters declined to record it, but was persuaded to do so by his mother, whom Nicolson had appealed to for help. Among the band members on the track was Jimmy Page, pre-Yardbirds. Released at the end of 1965, “You Were On My Mind” rose to #2 on the British charts, but failed to chart in the U.S.

Crispian St. Peters, ‘Pied Piper,’ live at the New Musical Express show, 1966

According to Dave Laing of The Guardian, St Peters gave an interview to New Musical Express in which he opined that his songs were better than those of the Beatles and that his stage show made Elvis Presley seem like the Statue of Liberty. “He later claimed that it was all tongue in cheek,” Laing wrote, “and the mild furor helped the sales of his next record, ‘The Pied Piper,”’ which was co-written by Artie Kornfeld, later an organizer of the Woodstock festival. In England the record was promoted by pirate radio stations, which helped it to reach No 5 in the British charts. In the U.S. the single was St. Peters’s biggest hit, peaking at #4 in 1966.

St. Peters apparently took full advantage of his pop star status in swinging London, and later recalled that he was often referred to as “the Cassius Clay of pop because me and PJ Proby were always arguing.”

St. Peters had no further hits in his homeland or in the U.S. His “Pied Piper” followup, a version of Phil Ochs’s “Changes,” peaked at #47 in Britain, #57 in the U.S. A 1967 reissue of “You Were On My Mind” actually did better than the 1966 release, rising to #36 on the U.S. charts, although failing to chart in the U.K.

After his star faded, St. Peters performed at pubs, clubs, hotels and cabarets, and also continued recording, with his most active period coming in the ‘90s, when he released four albums; 2000’s  Songs From the Attic was his final release. St. Peters is survived by a daughter, Samantha, and a son, Lee.

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