Monkees Bassist Peter Tork Dead at 77

Monkees bassist and singer Peter Tork, who played with the group since its beginning, died Thursday of unknown causes, his sister said. He was 77.

peter-tork_getty-Michael Ochs Archives : Stringer
(Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Getty)

Tork's sister, Anne Thorkelson, confirmed the musician's death to The Washington Post on Thursday. Although she did not say how her brother died, he was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer affecting his tongue, in 2009.

Tork was widely known as the lovable dimwit from the wisecracking, made-for-TV group, although in real life he was an accomplished songwriter and performer who wrote several songs for the group, including "Can You Dig It?" and "For Pete's Sake."

Tork and fellow guitarist Mike Nesmith were serious musicians of the folk and rock scenes of the early 1960s who joined child actors Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz as the vocalist and singer/drummer of the band, respectively.

While the American version of The Beatles enjoyed enormous chart and box-office success from the TV show, which was created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider and launched in 1966, the group eventually tired of not being taken seriously. Gradually, they took on instrumental and songwriting work on their recordings and made a very psychedelic 1968 album and film, Head, which was a dramatic departure from their past and baffled fans.

Tork had spoken out about his disappointment with The Monkees TV show and the fact that the songs were mostly done by session musicians — and that his and his bandmates' instruments were actually unplugged while performing on TV.

He told CBS News that he was "mortified" when producer Don Kirshner didn't want his help.

“They were doing ‘Clarksville,’ and I wrote a counterpoint, I had studied music,” Tork said. “And I brought it to them, and they said: ‘No, no, Peter, you don’t understand. This is the record. It’s all done. We don’t need you.’”

The group split up not much longer, reuniting periodically over the years. Jones died in 2012 at the age of 67 from a heart attack. James Frawley, who worked as a director for The Monkees TV series, died in January at the age of 82 after a heart attack.

While The Monkees ran for just two seasons, the series won an Emmy Award for outstanding comedy and spawned a frenzy of merchandise, record sales and world tours that became known as Monkeemania. A 1967 report from The Washington Post details that the Monkees sold 35 million albums, which was "twice as many as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined." Hits like "Daydream Believer," "I'm a Believer" and "Last Train to Clarksville" all rose to No. 1 on the Billboard record chart.

In the 1970s, Tork formed an unsuccessful band called Release, was imprisoned for several months in 1972 after being caught with "$3 worth of hashish in my pocket" and worked as a high school teacher and "singing waiter." He struggled with alcohol addiction before quitting in the early 1980s.

By then, he joined The Monkees for a major reunion tour (which they continued to do about once a decade) and performed as a solo artist.

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“This is not a band. It’s an entertainment operation whose function is Monkee music,” he told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper during a Monkees tour in 2016. “It took me a while to get to grips with that but what great music it turned out to be! And what a wild and wonderful trip it has taken us on!”

Tork's marriages to Jody Babb, Reine Stewart and Barbara Iannoli all ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Pamela Grapes; daughter Hallie, from his second marriage; son Ivan, from his third marriage; daughter Erica, from a relationship with Tammy Sustek; a brother; and a sister.