The Little Drummer Boy

Last month in the Hinterland Times we told the story of how nine year-old Queenslander, Colin Petersen became a child movie star as Smiley in the 1956 film of the same name. Before

he became an actor, Colin was already familiar with performing in public – as a seven year old tap dancer in local variety shows. Colin switched the easy rhythm of his feet to his hands, and he started to tap-tap on a cheap snare drum bought by his father. Colin picks up the story …

Eight year-old drum prodigy, Colin Petersen plays for world famous drummer Gene Krupa as he steps off the plane at Brisbane airport in 1954. The performance had been arranged by Colin’s drum tutor, Harry Lebler.

I KEPT BANGING away on this drum and Mum thought I should have lessons. She also realised that I would need a proper set of drums. In those days a drum kit was very expensive.

I had a very wealthy uncle who was a bookmaker on my mother’s side – Billy McLeod – one of Brisbane’s leading on-course bookmakers. He was already a pound millionaire in the early 1950s. Anyway Billy heard about my interest in the drums from my mum and he said to her, I want to surprise him.

I went down to Billy’s house at New Farm and I got into his big Mark 7 Jaguar. He said I have a surprise for you Col, and we set off along Brunswick Street down into the Valley. It was just before Christmas, and there was a copper on duty, directing the traffic. As we approached the intersection, the copper stopped all the other cars, came up to Bill’s Jag and said gidday Bill how yer goin?

Bill turns to me and says grab a tenner out of the glove box Col. Well, there were all these rolls of money that fell on my lap. I knew what a ten pound note looked like so I peeled one from a roll and handed it to Billy who handed it to the copper. He takes it smoothly, puts it in his pocket and Billy says Merry Christmas. As we drove off he turned to me and said, always remember to keep the coppers on side Col.

We drive into the city and Billy pulls up on the pavement outside Parlings the music shop. We walk into the shop and Billy hands a pound to a boy at the counter and says, take care of the Jag son. As we walk down the stairs I suddenly realise that he is going to buy me a kit of drums. He said, whatever you want Col just pick them out. I was seven and it’s a moment I still cherish to this day.

I started doing concerts … pre rock n’roll concerts … big jazz bands touring Australia and it was really popular with the dances of the period. So I became a bit of a novelty… this little boy playing the drums for a big jazz band. They even had me bursting out of a base drum at one stage before I started playing.

Colin Petersen interrupted his childhood stage career when he won the lead in the feature film Smiley. Guided by his mother, Colin went to England and made two more films before returning to Brisbane and attending Ipswich Grammar School.

The Gibb family came out to Australia in the same year that I finished making my third film in 1958. Much later Maurice Gibb said to me that he had seen Smiley in England with his brothers, and from then on he was constantly at his parents to come to live in Australia. Maurice said he was captivated by Australia by watching Smiley.

By the early sixties I was listening to the Beatles and I started to write songs with a friend from Ipswich Grammar. We formed a band and decided to go to Sydney. For two years we battled on in Sydney, living practically on nothing.

We played R & B – The Animals, The Pretty Things, The Who, The Stones.

I first met Maurice at a Sydney gig and I became friendly with the family. The Gibbs were recording at that time but they were doing RSL gigs, for the mums and dads mainly because the twins, Maurice and Robin, were really too young to appeal to the teenage audience that we were playing to. They simply couldn’t break into that teenage audience.

But we weren’t making any money at all. I was sleeping in my car for weeks on end. So I decided to go to England to try to get back into films.

England was a magnet in the early 1960s for Australian bands. The Gibb brothers had become The Bee Gees in Australia and even though their song, Spicks and Specks went to No 1 in October 1966 the Gibbs were on a ship for London by the end of the year. Colin met up with them in London along with fellow Australian, Vince Melouney. Vince, formerly with Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs was to become lead guitarist with the Bee Gees, Colin was the drummer. However there was no work lined up in the UK when they arrived. Nevertheless they had sent demo tapes to Beatles manager, Brian Epstein who passed them on to Robert Stigwood, and he was to become the Bees Gees manager and producer.

Colin Petersen, the Bee Gees’ drummer in 1967.

According to Wikipedia, “By 1969, the cracks began to show within the group. Robin began to feel that Stigwood had been favouring Barry as the frontman… Robin quit the group in mid-1969 and launched a solo career…”

Barry and Maurice Gibb and Colin continued as the Bee Gees, but further arguments continued as Colin raised questions about Stigwood’s conflict of interest as the Bee Gee’s manager. Stigwood also owned their recordings and publishing, and was in effect their employer. Colin believes this led to his being fired from the group in 1969.

We were on a paltry royalty. We signed a record contract with him. It was an extraordinary experience.

I lived very well in those years but I ended up with very little money in the bank. It was mainly because it was decided we would carry a 40 piece orchestra wherever we went. You see it was Stigwood’s policy to make it seem at all times that we were making a fortune. So when we went into a hotel we each had our own suite.

If you wore your clothes for more than a couple of times, Stigwood would insist you went down to Savile Row to have a new suit made. That was his thinking … if you look successful then people will say, I should listen to the Bee Gees.

I was involved in litigation over money with Robert Stigwood that went on for three years. I finally settled with them and their stipulation … signed off by the British courts … was that I would never again seek to make my livelihood as a drummer. That was the Bee Gees parting shot to me.

It was interesting though that Barry later wrote me a letter saying that it was Stigwood, not the other band members who insisted on me being sacked. He regretted it and he wanted me to know that I was a loss to the Bee Gees sound.

Despite the astonishing court injunction that stipulated Colin never again sit professionally behind a drum kit, he went on to work in the music industry, producing tracks for Irish singer, Johnathan Kelly during the 70s and later producing albums for CBS Records.

Colin has lived in Maleny for the past eight years and he looks back with mixed feelings of personal achievement, a little sadness and a resigned feeling that life will always deliver the unexpected.What happened to me, was it due to fate or initiative? There was some initiative in me going to that Smiley audition and initiative in me leaving home to set up a band. But there is fate too. With the Bee Gees it was about certain people with talent coming together to play their roles in that particular intense 60s scenario. You know sometimes in life it all gells at one particular moment … and that’s how I think it happens.

The Bee Gees in the middle sixties. Colin is second from right.