The White Cliffs of Dover recorded to support the Royal Hospital
26th June 2020
Celebrated singer, Peter Straker, Friend to Freddie Mercury, David Bowie -and the Chelsea Pensioners records The White Cliffs of Dover to raise funds for the Royal Hospital.
Peter Straker, actor, musician and cabaret artist, has an impressive CV. He starred in the original production of the ground-breaking musical Hair and has been in productions of The Rocky Horror Show and Tommy as well as Shakespearean roles. He knew Elton John and worked with Pete Townsend, collaborated with Queen’s Freddie Mercury, who was his close confidant and counted David Bowie among his friends.
Now Peter has done us the great honour of recording The White Cliffs of Dover (video at the end of this article) to raise money for the Royal Hospital, a cause that is close to his heart:
“I’ve always liked the Chelsea Pensioners”, Peter says, “I’ve been to the Royal Hospital a few times and spoken to a few. They’re really nice and friendly. I wanted to do something local too. Chelsea is in my DNA and I lived there for many years.”
“I’ve never wanted to be pigeonholed”
Peter, who was born in Jamaica but has lived in London since he was eight, followed in the footsteps of his mother, who was a singer and performer. “I really wanted to be a proper actor, but I didn’t do the studying. I could also sing, so I decided to make it my living”, Peter says.
His big breakthrough was in the innovative Hair which, Peter says, “changed the musical genre”. Since then, he’s been involved in an eclectic range of projects:
“I’ve always wanted to try and move forward and do different things. So that’s what I tried to do so I wouldn’t be pigeon-holed. I didn’t want to be left in a box, struggling to get out!”
“I was lucky to be Freddie’s pal”
It was in the 1970s that Peter began to mingle with well-known rock stars.
“I signed with RCA records at the same time as David Bowie, so I got to know him first. Then I got to know John Reed who looked after Elton John. It was almost a social network. We knew each other and knew other people who knew each other. I was introduced to Freddie by John Reed who managed Queen for two or three years. So that’s how we became friends. He was a great influence on me because I liked what he and Queen were doing. We met socially in a restaurant and we kept running into each other. We liked each other and he came over to my flat and we’d talk. And then one day I said ‘I’d like to make another album’, and I would love you to produce it for me’."
That album – This One’s On Me – together with two of Peter’s other cult classic albums, Changeling and Real, Natural Man, have recently been rereleased in a three-CD set with reproductions of the original covers and a fascinating recollections of Freddie Mercury.
Peter remembers Freddie fondly:
“He had a great zest for life and was always a very generous and wonderful host. He loved having good parties and was able to do so with panache. I was very lucky to be one of his pals.”
The fun of that friendship is immortalised in the video for Queen’s The Great Pretender, where Peter appears alongside Freddie and Roger Deacon in drag.
“That was a wonderful night of filming. I was in Bristol at the time rehearsing Julius Caesar. I got let off from rehearsal earlier in the afternoon and drove up to London and we started filming at about midnight because we had to do all that getting ready. We finished at three of four in the morning. I lay down on Freddie’s couch for an hour and a half and I was up again to rehearse at 10 the following morning back in Bristol!”
“David Bowie had a great sense of humour”
Peter’s memories of David Bowie are equally vivid:
“I ran into him again in Montreux, when he was recording Young Americans and he used to come the studio and we’d sing and mess around together. Then when I was in London, rehearsing Tommy with Pete Townsend, we used to hang out together all the time.
When he was in the film Just a Gigolo I went to the premiere in the Café Royal. It was freezing cold and all the usual cars were in for servicing. All the driver had was his own VW – so off we went, picking up David on the way. Afterwards we went out for the night – it was fantastic, driving around in this Beetle. David had a great sense of humour and I’m happy he was my friend.”
“I wanted to do something for the veterans”
Some might be surprised that Peter decided to record such a traditional song for the Chelsea Pensioners. He told us how the project came about and why he settled on The White Cliffs:
“When I was very young, I was in The Gang Show. I remember singing The White Cliffs of Dover when I was 16 or 17 and felt it was one of the great songs. The recording was very spontaneously done. The weekend before VE Day I was sitting at home on my own during lockdown thinking, “This is ridiculous, there must be something I can do” and I went back to this beautiful song and said, ‘That’s what I want to do!”. So I called my producer Michael Allison on Sunday and said “Listen, could we do this and have it out in time for VE Day?".
I just wanted to do something and add my contribution to the veterans and the people who have fought for us. We literally did it over the phone! He put the track together on Monday and Tuesday and gave me the rough track and I recorded some of it on the Wednesday and Thursday and we had it ready for Thursday night.“
“The song’s not just for VE Day”
Peter is keen that the song should have longevity and wants it to keep on helping the Royal Hospital:
“It’s not just for VE Day though, it’s for afterwards too. I want more people to become aware of it and donate to the Chelsea Pensioners. I think the Royal Hospital is great and so beautiful. Just to go in is glorious. Although it’s a generation and a way of life we don’t see much, it’s not stuck in the past though, it’s very much now.
Lockdown has been a period of reflection and has made me think we don’t make time to enjoy things – we’re always rushing around. That’s what I like about the Chelsea Pensioners. That generation have time. We don’t look after ourselves from that point of view.”
“I hope people will listen and give to the Pensioners”
The song for the Royal Hospital has been Peter’s only recording during the lockdown period and one that he’s loved doing:
“I enjoyed it immensely, it almost happened organically. I really hope people will listen to The White Cliffs and give to the Chelsea Pensioners, even if it’s just a pound. I hope I can come and sing outside for them too, when lockdown has lifted.”