Always on the lookout for fresh new ideas, Australian music and publishing entrepreneur Gene Pierson helped kick-start the careers of many successful Aussie Pop Divas including soap-opera-turned-singer Melissa Tkautz, Australia’s first manufactured female singing group Rhapsody and the country’s first all-girl band Peaches.
Pierson gained firsthand knowledge of the music industry after having a successful recording career in the 1960s and 1970s with his hits Love Love Love, You Got to Me, Toyland and Reach Out.
During his success as a singer Pierson hosted his own weekly segment, Today Pop, in September 1970 on Channel 7’s Today Show. He also wrote for Go-Set pop paper and did an around-the-world trip for the publication, covering Elton John’s American debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and doing interviews with stars like Lou Rawls and Tina Tuner.
He went on to become one of the industry’s top promoters, managers and booking agents through his job as PR manager for Chequers night club in Sydney where he arranged press conferences for celebrities like Sammy Davis Jnr and Shirley Bassey, and where he managed Johnny O’Keefe for a short time.
Pierson also pioneered bringing rock and roll to the Sydney nightclub scene, resulting in him helping to encourage new talent and kick-start the careers of AC/DC, INXS and Air Supply.
At that time, he established his own agency, Blue Heaven, and booked top Australian bands around Sydney pubs and clubs. He later merged with Laser Label, a pop record offshoot of Kerry Packer’s Channel 9 Living Sound Label. (Pierson later bought Laser from Packer in 1979.)
It was while there that he helped pioneer Australia’s first all-girl band Peaches.
“By the early 1970s I had been through the rock-and-roll scene and saw an opening for an all-girls band when I was approached by Margaret Kirk, a base player and friend at the time,” Pierson said in 2011 in an interview with a journalist from The Cairns Post. “Margaret wanted to have an all-girl group. I thought the timing was absolutely perfect. There were so many boy bands around then.
“In those days there was really nothing for female artists in Australia, so I thought it was a great opportunity.” Kirk approached Pierson with an original song she wrote called Keep on Dancin’ but he wanted a funkier tune for their debut single, so he picked Substitute, which was a No. 1 hit overseas at the time for Clout, a South African girl group. Keep on Dancin’ was put on the B side.
Peaches’ cover of Substitute became a massive hit in Australia. It was recorded at Atlantic Studios, released through RCA Records and was Laser Label’s first No. 1 song.
Peter Hood, then owner and head engineer of Atlantic Records, said Peaches had great potential to be world-class stars. “They were really very good,” he said years later. “Margaret, the lead singer, was world-class; she was better than Suzie Quatro. We thought they would be a world-wide hit.”
Those were pre-video days, and the best television show for Aussie pop stars to showcase their talents on was Countdown, ABC’s national pop-music show from 1974 to 1987, hosted by Molly Meldrum.
“Because of its huge success on Countdown the song went to No. 1,” Pierson said. “We started a bit of a revolution where everyone started to look at girl groups and girl artists.
“Peaches became the first real all-girl group.” The band dissolved shortly after when the drummer’s American visa expired.
“In those days finding a female drummer wasn’t easy at all,” Pierson added.
Pierson first considered taking a screen star and crossing them over to become a pop star when he met Brooke Shields and her mother in 1980 when Brooke was 15 years old and had just finished the movie Blue Lagoon.
“Her mother Teri was managing her at the time and looking to develop her career, and I came into contact with them,” said Pierson, who also vocally trained Shields.
“We recorded a song with her at Atlantic Studios, a cover version of a dance track. Brooke's mother Teri didn’t like the track and after lengthy negotiations the track was scrapped.”
Peter Hood, then owner and head engineer at Atlantic Studios who worked on many recordings with Pierson including working with Peaches and Rhapsody, said they recorded a number of songs with Shields.
“We got her in the studio and recorded three or four tracks,” he recalled years later. “She was nice and she did a credible job singing.
“Unfortunately, the masters were stolen three or four years after.” Pierson’s idea of taking a TV star and crossing them over to become a pop star went by the wayside until Melissa Tkautz. Tkautz’s transition from soap opera star on the popular Australian show E Street to successful pop star was at the beginning of a time when soapie stars, like Kylie Minogue, were being transformed into pop divas.
Pierson, head of Laser Label which was a pop record offshoot of Kerry Packer’s Channel 9 Living Sound Label, approached E Street creator and producer Forrest Redlich with the idea of turning one of E Street’s young stars into a pop music star. “Melissa came from the same era as Kylie did,” Pierson said.
“Kylie had achieved a recording career from being a personality on TV and I thought we could do the same with E Street, which was the most popular rated show on Channel 10 at the time.”
After the nod from Redlich, who created the Westside Records Label, Pierson commissioned Roy Nicolson to write a song designed for Tkautz.
“I wanted a young, fresh, bubbly, dance song, and Roy came up with Read My Lips,” Pierson said.
The song became a huge hit and became one of ARIA’s Biggest Original Dance Singles, selling 800,000 copies. Pierson also produced the follow-up Sexy (Is The Word), also written by Nicolson, which also topped the Australian charts. Both were released by Pierson’s Laser Label and Redlich’s Westside Records Label and distributed through Polygram.
“Melissa became one of the first crossover soapie stars to impress the whole music industry, especially Polygram who never thought they would have the biggest-selling single,” Pierson said.
It was after the huge success of her first two hits that Tkautz accepted an exclusive contract with Polygram, ending her association with Laser and Pierson.
“They gave her a new song-writing team, new management, new everything,” Pierson said. “It was a shame because we had such a successful team of writers, musicians and publicists.”
While Thkautz went on to record numerous songs, she never had a top 10 hit again.
After the success with Tkautz Pierson decided it was time to ‘create’ a female singing duo, which is how Rhapsody came about. He visited the major modelling studios in Sydney to select two models for his new band. He chose Kymberlie Harrison and Danni Gray (later replaced by Cathy Ford), models he thought had pop-star potential.
“We (Laser Label) totally manufactured and created Rhapsody,” he said. “They were the first Australian manufactured girl group. This led to other manufactured groups, like the Spice Girls, rising in the industry.
“We took them into the studio, had a song (Cowboy Lover) written for them, taught them how to perform and how to sing. “We even designed a clothing label for them (Rhapsody, launched in Double Bay, Sydney).”
Rhapsody’s hit and video Cowboy Lover created quite a sensation in the industry, being one of the first overtly sensual video clips in Australia.
“It was very saucy and very raunchy,” Pierson said. “A lot of TV stations wouldn’t play it before 9pm because it was so controversial.”
Pierson worked with Rhett Hutchence in his Sydney video production company’s studio to create the video, which was supported by RCA. They recruited design students to help create the sultry cowgirl outfits.
“Everywhere they went they were dressed in their sexy cowgirl outfits; they never stepped out of character,” Pierson recalled. “And they grabbed the headlines wherever they went.”
They were soon in demand on major Australian TV shows like Ray Martin and Hey Hey It’s Saturday. They toured New Zealand and Australia and were featured on the cover of the August 1993 edition of Playboy Australia.
“We had some problem with Danni Gray,” Pierson recalled. “She had signed a contract with the Ford Modelling agency in New York that she had to fulfil. We had Cathy Ford fill in and tour.
“Danni was supposed to come back, but never did due to her New York commitments.”
Rhapsody soon disbanded and never recorded another song.
Pierson moved to North Queensland soon after and started up the Indigenous Australian label. Under his Indigenous Australian label he has produced over 100 albums including recordings by Ash Dargan. In 2009, he merged the label into his Lifestyle Music Group, recording a huge range of styles of music including classical, ambient, jazz, sacred sounds and world music. Under his Lifestyle Music Group label, distributed by Sony Music Entertainment, he produced the album Angel Without Wings for Australia's Got Talent runner-up Cameron (Cam) Henderson and made music history by having the first Australian Dance Chart album Don't Funk With Me by Alston Koch enter the ARIA Charts at No. 2, where it remained for seven weeks.
Pierson now lives and works out of his home in Bellenden Ker, North Queensland, with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.