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David Cassidy Only Wants to Make You Happy

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

David Cassidy

David Cassidy

Only Wants to Make You Happy

by Ronald Sklar

Time for your reality check, kids: the classic 70s sitcom, The Partridge Family, debuted on ABC forty years ago.  And its star, the teen-idol-extraordinaire David Cassidy, is now 60.

So now you know how you feel, but how does he feel?

“It doesn’t make me feel old; it makes me feel grateful,” Cassidy tells me by phone from his home in Florida.  “It means so much to me that it has had such a lasting and indelible influence and impact on so many generations. The Partridge Family changed my life. It gave me an opportunity to record and play music and sell millions and millions of records and do shows all over the world.”

In 1970, he was plucked out of relative obscurity to play the character of Keith Partridge (relative because his co-star was his stepmother, the actress Shirley Jones). Once cast, Cassidy was immediately strapped into the Rolling Thunder roller coaster of fame. And although his was meant to last only fifteen minutes, he parlayed it into four decades, and counting.

During one weekend in 1972, Cassidy sold out not one but two concerts at the Houston Astrodome. He sold out six concerts at Wembley Stadium in the UK, again over one weekend. In one day, his Madison Square Garden concert sold out. In 1974, a young girl was killed in a crush of fans at a London concert (650 fans were injured). That same year, 33,000 fans attended his concert at The Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia.

His androgynous likeness graced the covers of endless fan magazines, coloring books and lunchboxes. And the girls. Girls ran after him hard, Hard-Day’s-Night style.

“I carry the torch,” he says of The Partridge Family legacy. “I played in concerts all over the world, in stadiums and in coliseums and huge outdoor arenas. When I went all over the world they called it World War Three. There was hundreds of thousands of people.  What happened was that parents would bring their kids. The parents would be outside waiting for them. Actually, there were more people outside, cars and parents waiting for their kids to find them.  There was such chaos and madness in those days.”

David Cassidy

During those live performances, the other Partridges were nowhere to be found, even though the series was billed as “the family who plays together, stays together.” Like all television, it was an illusion rooted in reality. The well-known plot: a suburban family tries to turn a buck by singing and recording, and they actually catch on. Although Shirley Jones added her voice to the music, the rest of the characters pretended for TV; the truth was that they didn’t play, sing or record. But Cassidy did.

“I was an actor, although everybody at the studio and the network knew that I could sing and play guitar, which I did in the actual filmed screen test,” he says. “I didn’t sing, but there was an old Stratocaster there and I asked them to plug it in. Right before the first line of dialogue, as they were rolling the cameras, I played a little bit of [Jimi] Hendrix, only so that they knew that I could actually play. I had played in blues bands, very different from Partridge Family music. I had seen Hendrix four or five times.  I saw Clapton and Cream. I was an enormous Beatles fan. I had seen the Stones at the Forum in ’68. I was a big BB King and blues fan. That was the music that was in my generation as a teenager.”

Despite his eclectic and sophisticated personal tastes, Cassidy had made his mark though what was known then as “bubble-gum music.” Although once easily dismissed as too sweet and strictly for kids, Partridge Family bubble-gum is now being reconsidered and acclaimed by many critics today.

He says, “The guys who played with me, if I told you their names and gave you a list of their hits… it’s a remarkable thing to have had that education. I came out playing in garage bands, blues bands and college kind of bands, just messing around. Then I go and play and record with the likes of Gerry Goffin and Paul Anka and Wes Farrell and Tony Romeo.  I got to know Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. All of those writers were signed to Screen Gems [the studio that produced show]. These were the greatest pop song writers, and they also had a great influence on Lennon and McCartney.”

In fact, The Partridge Family’s first single, “I Think I Love You,” was a monster smash before the series even aired its first episode. Thanks to genius marketing, the Partridge Family was to be offered up as recording artists as well as TV stars (even though after Cassidy and Jones, the rest of the Family consisted of studio musicians and vocalists). The record was released months before the show premiered, climbing up the charts and getting major radio play, priming young America for the upcoming series.

He recalls, “I remember I was at an award show, called NARM [National Association of Record Merchandisers]. It gives awards for the largest selling records. ‘Let it Be’ [was also nominated in my category]. It was the Beatles’ last album, and one of my all-time favorites as well. McCartney was in the audience and they announced me [as the winner]. I stood up and there was like a hush in the room. I’m like twenty-years old, this punk upstart. I went up to the podium and I said, “I’m honored to be here. One of the great inspirations is knowing that one of my mentors is here, Paul McCartney, and I want to acknowledge him. You’re the reason that I’m doing this. Thank you all very much.’ There was mild applause because I acknowledged him. I was making records for nine months.”

The nine-months would turn into a Beatles-like magical mystery tour. It was a four-year odyssey in a three-channel world.

“There isn’t that kind of hysteria [today],” Cassidy says. “There is hysteria, don’t get me wrong, but the audience then was much more naïve. Now there is the opportunity to see somebody on line 24 hours a day, plus music videos. Back then, there was none of that. You had to sit in front of your TV, and then you go and see them live, and you actually see them walk and talk, other than watching them on the tube. It was a totally different experience. Elvis and The Beatles experienced that because the audiences were so unsophisticated and there wasn’t access to stars.”

Of course, many of the lovesick teens confused the TV character and the man. As the series’ breakout star and historic heart throb, the line between Partridge and Cassidy was irrevocably shaded.

David Cassidy’s Rolling Stone cover

Naturally, there was (and is) much more to David than there ever could be to Keith. The only way to prove this was to go to press. Rolling Stone magazine scored the coup: a Cassidy cover story that didn’t pander to the Tiger Beat crowd. It was meant to be adult, honest and raw, including his historic photo shoot, in the nude, for legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz.  The feature ran in 1972 and caused yet another frenzy.

“Another writer wrote a piece that [Rolling Stone] didn’t think was controversial enough,” Cassidy says. “Then they put a writer in named Robin Green. [Rolling Stone publisher] Jann Wenner saw me when I was playing Madison Square Garden and had dinner with me there and told me what he wanted to do. I said, ‘That’s great, I’m a big fan of Rolling Stone.’ So they came with me that weekend. I played the Garden and I played another gig. What they did was something that made me – what the intent was I think was to not make me look so squeaky clean.

“I liked women, and I was 21 or 22 at the time, but I was playing sixteen. I was playing this white knight kind of thing. One of the photographers that was on the road with me had been smoking pot or something – not in my room but somewhere near me and [the writer] conveniently said there was a smell of [pot] smoke, trying to insinuate that I was getting high, which I certainly wasn’t. At the time, I couldn’t possibly have functioned or have done what I did. And that really always, always bothered me.

“The photographs were taken two months later at my house in California. [Leibovitz] did brilliant, brilliant work and it became the largest selling issue of Rolling Stone ever at the time, until John Lennon’s death. It exploded because the pictures were fantastic. That cutout centerfold is one of the most requested photos when she does her shows and galleries, she told me. It’s a beautiful photograph, even if I take myself out of it. She’s brilliant.”

The Rolling Stone story was only a first step in a long line of steps away from Keith Partridge, if only for the good of Cassidy’s career – and sanity.

He says, “People thought that I didn’t want to do [Partridge Family reunions] because I didn’t love it. It was really quite the opposite. I wanted for me to have the kind of career that I’ve had, doing a lot of different other things. In order to do so I had to distance myself from it for a long time.”

Danny Bonaduce, Suzanne Crough, Susan Dey, Jeremy Gelbwaks, David Cassidy and Shirley Jones in “The Partridge Family.”

He managed, in fact, to create quite a distance. He won an Emmy for his role in an episode of the NBC drama Police Story, and then appeared in a spin-off series (David Cassidy: Man Undercover). He performed in musical theatre on Broadway and London’s West End. He also continued to have a thriving recording career, many of his songs becoming huge hits all over the world well past his initial Partridge exposure.

Yet to this day, his millions of multi-generational fans are still as loyal as lovesick puppies, and his fan clubs number as many members as of those for Elvis and The Beatles.

He says, “For all the times I didn’t go out and perform and didn’t sing, [my fans] are incredibly, remarkably resilient. They are devoted and I owe all of what I have, and I am underlining all, to them. Because once you become a star, without people caring about you, you’re history. And you aren’t selling tickets; you’re pumping gas.

“There is a long, long line of people behind me who I have no idea what they are doing these days. They are not able to sustain and carry on. I think to a great degree that I didn’t just keep going and going and going. I walked away from it and I chose another direction. I chose things that people didn’t expect me to do and that I had a lot of success with. And I always loved to play live.”

Cassidy’s own long and winding road was well documented in his frank memoir, Come On, Get Happy: Fear and Loathing on The Partridge Family Bus. Yet despite (or maybe because of) the marriages, the misfires, and the drama of trying to get over being a former teen idol, he uncovered a secret to success. He used it to his advantage, getting his act together and taking it on the road. Once he managed to successfully plow through the block-tackle (by appearing as characters other than Keith Partridge in theater and television), he returned once again to the exquisite pop songs that branded The Partridge Family. He still packs theaters and venues to this day, playing sell-out concerts wherever he goes.

Does it feel the same as back in the day?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t remember. I was just working 24 hours a day practically [then]. I really worked 17-18 hours a day. I mean, I was fully aware of what kind of impact I had, because I couldn’t even get to work in the morning.  [Fans were] following me outside, sleeping outside my home. The madness of it is well documented.

“It feels the same, I think. I wake up in the morning and I feel good. I love to play. I am still the same. The essence of me is the same but I’m a very different guy.”

David Cassidy and Danny Bonaduce

He has remained in touch with radio personality Danny Bonaduce, who had played his TV brother on the series and has gone on to have a colorful career as a bad boy. At Cassidy’s invitation, Bonaduce will be joining him on some future live dates.

“I issued a challenge to him,” Cassidy says. “Back in ’91, I had him open for me and we did fifteen or twenty dates together. He was brilliant.

“Danny is one of those guys who people misunderstand. He would admit that he’s done a lot to damage not just his own reputation, but his own public persona. What people don’t know that underneath it is a really good human being. He’s a very smart, very talented guy, very funny. And I saw him as a ten-year-old. He used to come in with black eyes because his father used to beat him up. Let me tell you, when you see a ten-year-old roll in with a black eye and a parent treats his son like that… he was jealous of Danny, and I’ve always loved [Danny] for that.

“Other people don’t have an idea of where someone comes from and how they become the person they become. The need for love and attention has driven him in many ways, but I will defend him as long as he does the right thing.

“I threw down the gauntlet and said, okay, you are going to come on the stage and for the very first time, you are going to play bass and sing one of our hits, and for the first time The Partridge Family will actually be performing live! This has never happened! I’m really looking forward to it.

“He played some stuff over the phone for me and I can’t say he’s gotten good, but he’s been very diligent and practicing and taking lessons. It’s a big, big deal, emotionally and for the fans. It will certainly be an amazing and emotional night for me.

These days, Cassidy is devoted to his two children, Katie and Beau, both of whom are actors. Katie is currently on Gossip Girl. He recently appeared in a series with his half-brother Patrick, called Ruby and the Rockits, which was produced by Cassidy’s other half-brother (and also a former teen idol), Shaun.

His advice for his children: “Follow your heart. Follow your dreams. Be authentic. Be yourself. Don’t try to be like anybody else. Don’t do anything in terms of your career for money; do it for the work. If you do good work, fame and money and everything else comes. Talent is the only commodity that survives, as my father [the late actor Jack Cassidy] told me. If you pursue and do good work, all the rest will come. It may take a long time as it did with my father. It may take a very short time, as it did with me.”

The road just keeps on keeping on for him.

“It was an amazing ride that lasted all these years,” he says. “I’m out playing and doing what I love to do and playing what people love.”

Copyright ©2010  All rights reserved. Posted: October 3, 2010.  

Photo Credits:#1 © 2010. Courtesy of JAG Entertainment. All rights reserved.#2 © 1991 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.#3 © 1972 Rolling Stone Magazine. All rights reserved.#4 © 1970 Sony Home Video. All rights reserved.#5 © 2010. Courtesy of JAG Entertainment. All rights reserved.

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