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Originally from Peterborough, Ontario, Collen Peterson moved with her family to Ottawa when she was 10. By 13, she’d saved enough green stamps to buy her first guitar, which she learned to play while getting involved in music at Ridgemont High School.
In 1966, and only 16 years old, she began performing in coffeehouses around town, and attracted the attention of other emerging folk artists such as David Wiffen and Bruce Cockburn. Her stock rose high enough she won an RMP Gold Leaf Award in ’67 for most promising female vocalist, and joined Cockburn and Wiffen (along with Richard Patterson and Dennis Pendrith) in the last incarnation of popular Ottawa folk band, 3’s A Crowd. Replacing Donna Warren, she appeared with them at the Mariposa Folk Festival and at Montreal’s Expo ’67 celebrations.
But that gig lasted barely a year, and she was then briefly a member in Five D, and then St Patrick Street Rooming House, before moving to New York. There, she joined the ten-piece ensemble called TCB. But after one album, she moved back to Toronto to join the cast of the Canadian production of “Hair” in 1970. A year later, she moved to Kingston to star in the musical road production of “Love And Maple Syrup.” When that musical’s run was over, she formed Spriggs and Bringle with Mark Haines. After over three years of the club circuit and touring North America, they parted ways, and she moved to Nashville.
While playing around town and soaking in the country vibes, she was sending out demos and pounding on doors. Her persistence eventually paid off with a deal with Capitol Records. With a host of studio musicians, she released her debut solo album, BEGINNING TO FEEL LIKE HOME in the summer of ’76. Songs like the covers of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road” and Joan Baez’s “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” were mixed with some of her own original tunes, including “Souvenirs,” which made it to top 40 on Billboard’s country chart, although it failed to chart at home. A second single was released, “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance” b/w a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” but neither made the top 40 on either side of the border.
That same year, she had three tracks appear on a CBC Radio production album – a cover of Willie P Bennett’s “Music In Your Eyes,” “Breakast Day/Nice Guy,” and “I Feel The Same” (written by Chris Smithers), along with Bim, Hudson Carr Poole, and The Musical Friends. Peterson was also already becoming a highly sought-after songwriter, cemented when Anne Murray recorded her song, “Carolina Sun” that year, taking it to the top 40.
She moved back to Toronto for awhile, and after accepting a Juno in the spring of ’77 for most promising female vocalist, she returned with her sophomore album, COLLEEN, later that year. With returning producer Lee Hazelwood, it was again full of twang, and a mix of covers and originals, producing hits with “Dim Light Thick Smoke Loud Music” b/w “Delaney, and “Bucket To The South.” Other noteable tracks included “Beginning To Feel Like Home,” a last minute cut from her debut album, and her cover of Willie P Bennett’s “Stealin’ Away.”
That same year, CBC asked her to be the centre of their planned replacement for Tommy Hunter after the hockey games on Saturday nights, following her appearance on his show just weeks earlier. “The Road Show” co-starred Rick Neufeld and although ratings were good for the variety program, she opted not to do it a second season.
TAKIN’ MY BOOTS OFF was in the stores in August, 1978. Produced by Ben Palmers, the lead-off single was a cover of Del Shannon’s “I Go To Pieces,” which peaked at #38 on the Canadian AC chart. It was followed by another cover – Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” b/w “Goin’ Goin’ Gone,” although neither achieved the same success. Other noteable tracks included her version of Adam Mitchell’s “Maybe It’s Love (Yucatan Cafe)” and the moody “Booze The Blues Away,” written by Michael Clark. For the record, she again surrounded herself with some of the industry’s top session players, including Leland Sklar (Hoyt Axton, Carole Bayer Sager, Barbi Benton, Olivia Newton-John) on bass, and guitarists Steve Lukather (later of Toto), and Lee Ritenour.
But frustrated with the treatment she was getting from her label’s office brass, she left Capitol to re-evaluate her career and to take some time off. To keep herself busy she spent the next few years touring with the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Ry Cooder, and Tom Waits, and also appeared on a pair of albums by the Charlie Daniels Band in the beginning of the 1980s. In addition to making cameos on records by Waylon Jennings, Murty Stuart, Roger Miller, she was also writing for other artists, with Anne Murray, Ronnie Prophet, Sylvia Tyson all recording her material throughout the decade.
After seeing her stand-alone single, “I Had It All” on Cardinal Records make the top 40, she toured across Canada for the next six months, including every major festival in the country – and returned to the Mariposa Folk Festival and Expo ’86. Her next vinyl outing was in the spring of ’88 after signing with Book Shop Records, entitled BASIC FACTS. The lead-off “Weather The Storm,” “Gently Lay Me Down,” “Basic Fact of Love,” and her duet with Gilles Godard “If You Let Me Down Easy” all spent time in the top 40. The album also spawned a critic’s favourite in “1942,” a war tale of a small town’s treatment of a soldier’s sweetheart, and the sea-shanty lament, “Ghost of Maggie’s Sailor.”
Still in 1988, she also made a guest appearance on Wayne Rostad’s holiday album, CHRISTMAS IN THE VALLEY VOLUME 3. She took a job at the Songwriters Association of Canada and also began teaching music, but returned to the studios in 1991 for LET ME DOWN EASY, pressed by Intersound Digital. It produced two singles – a re-make of “Mr Conductor” from the previous album, and “No Pain No Gain.” Although neither single made the top 20, critics still praised the honesty of the lyrics, and stripped down country approach to the recording. It also featured three more re-makes from BASIC FACTS – “Basic Fact of Love,” “What A Fool I’d Be,” and “Ghost of Maggie’s Sailor.”
After a series of select dates, she retreated from the business once again, not resurfacing until she was asked to join Cindy Church, Caitlin Hanford, and Sylvia Tyson for a special concert at Toronto’s Harbourfront in ’93. The four also later appeared on CBC Radio’s “Morningside” progragm and then on the PBS special, “A Prairie Home Companion.” This all sparked the idea to collaborate on an album. Quartette released their debut in ’94, then a critically-acclaimed Christmas album.
She released a solo compilation album in ’95 through EMI called WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND. Along with an assortment of her hits over the years, the double album also several new tracks, including a cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” “Married Ladies,” the title track, “Old Fashioned Fool,” and “What’s New Tomorrow.”
But in early 1996, Peterson was diagnosed with cancer, shortly after WORK OF THE HEART, Quartette’s second album, was released. Unable to perform live while undergoing treatment, she handpicked her close friend and co-writer of many of her songs over the years, Gwen Swick, to fill in for her. Peterson succumbed to cancer while in a Toronto hospital on October 9, 1996, a month before her 46th birthday.
Her music continued to live, when Quartette’s holiday album, IT’S CHRISTMAS, was finished up and released. Then, in 1997, a compilation album was released as a fundraiser by Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. WORD FROM THE RANGE: A CANADIAN COWBOY COLLECTION contained her song, “Code of the West,” as well as “Cowboys & Rodeos” from Quartette.
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.
In 2004, her friend and longtime songwriting partner Nancy Simmonds headed up a project to release an album of unreleased demos the two had recorded over the years. Produced by David Bradstreet, a collaborator on a number of projects with both Peterson and Simmonds over the years, POSTCARDS FROM CALIFORNIA contained no singles, but did feature several critics’ favourites, including “Time Is On My Hands,” “Winds That Blow,” and “The Circle.”
With notes from David Bradstreet, Aleda Heinz, Betty King