Davy Jones was not pop music’s first teen idol. Preceding him were Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon and Fabian, among many.
Nor was Jones the last. After the rise of Jones’ pre-fab group, the Monkees, there were dozens more, including David Cassidy, Donny Osmond, N’ Sync’s Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber.
But Jones, who died Wednesday of a heart attack in Florida at age 66, remains a pivotal pop-culture figure, arriving at a point when the marketing and the message of pop music took a crucial turn.
In “The Monkees” television show that ran from 1966 to ‘68, four actors played a rock band with no apparent income and not much discernible talent. It was meant as a joke, but an inside one that appealed to teens and pre-teens. Unlike Nelson’s stint in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” family show in the '50s, the adults in “The Monkees” were the clueless ones.
The irreverent “band” members were constantly stumbling into trouble, but quick enough on their feet to charm their way out every time. A radical visual style permeated each episode. Jump cuts and sped-up sequences gave it all a surreal quality, with ad-libbed dialogue that suggested none of the Monkees took anything seriously, least of all themselves.
The characters, culled from 400 applicants, were caricatures who developed personalities by the end of the show’s two-year run. Micky Dolenz was the singer, Peter Tork the goofball, Michael Nesmith the brooding artist. And Jones? He was the one who made the girls swoon.
He wasn’t a great singer, but he had that charming British accent – no small attribute at the height of Beatlemania. He couldn’t play an instrument, but he looked really, really cool banging a tambourine against his hip or his palm. And he had the charisma of someone who had spent most of his life on some sort of stage.
"The Monkees only happened because of Davy Jones, plain and simple. The show was built around him," said Eric Lefcowitz, author of "Monkee Business: The Revolutionary Made-for-TV Band" (Retrofuture Products), in a 2011 Tribune interview. "Davy had been a pro since basically being a small boy. He's a pure entertainer. He seems to have this almost innate ability to entertain people and put across a winning image that's very family-oriented."
Jones was a child actor in England. As a teen, he appeared with the cast of the Broadway musical “Oliver” on the nationally televised “Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964, the same episode as the Beatles’ North American debut. A year later he was hand-picked for the Monkees’ TV show, directly inspired by the Beatles madcap movie “A Hard Day’s Night.”
The TV show, overseen by aspiring directors Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider and scripted by such future luminaries as Paul Mazursky, presaged the video-driven marketing of the MTV era. There was music too, some of it expertly crafted; songwriters such as Neil Diamond (“I’m a Believer”), John Stewart (“Daydream Believer”), Carole King and Gerry Goffin (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”) contributed songs that became hits. The Brill Building team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart wrote and performed many of the songs on the Monkees’ early studio albums, with only lead vocals provided by a designated Monkee. None of that mattered to the TV group’s fans, who fueled one of the most phenomenal 13-month runs in the record business. Between October 1966 and November 1967 the Monkees released four studio albums, all of which hit No. 1.
There was an instant backlash from those horrified by the group’s lack of musical chops. In the emerging ‘60s youth movement, anything deemed “plastic” or “fake” was seen as the enemy (though other more credible groups during the era also had outside musicians play on their recordings). But the Monkees were in on the joke.
"In the early days, when we started off and were all hired to play the part of this out-of-work rock band, there was a pretty clear sense of what was going on," Nesmith once told the Tribune. But "people began to report, with great alarm, 'The Monkees are not a real band.' Which was at least bizarre. Because clearly the Monkees were not a real band. That was true, but the implication was there was something wrong with this.”
Eventually, the Monkees did become a “real” band, producing and writing their own music, but their popularity declined sharply after the last episode of the TV show aired in 1968. Some of the group’s best if most under-appreciated work occurred during this period, including the bizarre 1968 art movie, “Head,” directed by Rafelson and cowritten by Jack Nicholson, and minor pop classics such as “Porpoise Song” and Nesmith’s “Circle Sky.”
Sporadic reunion tours, most without Nesmith, popped up in subsequent decades. The band’s ‘60s legacy endures, in large measure because several of their songs transcended the “pre-fab” insults, including “Daydream Believer” and their last top-10 hit, “Valleri,” both of which featured Jones on lead vocals.
"When we first met, we were thrown together for the TV series, and we were all trying to find our own feet individually,” Jones once told the Tribune. “Boys do tend to test each other, and there were black eyes and punch-ups and all kinds of stuff going on.”
But Jones said the actors-turned-band members eventually grew closer as friends. "The jealousies I used to have, and the insecurities ... they obviously never leave you, but they're not as prominent in my makeup as they were."
Jones continued to work as a solo act, appearing in theatrical productions and concerts. He was in the middle of a solo tour when he died, leaving behind a wife and four daughters from two previous marriages.
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