David Cassidy, whose role as a teenage idol on the 1970s television show “The Partridge Family” turned him into one in real life — something Cassidy could never quite decide if he thought was a good thing or bad — died Tuesday in a Fort Lauderdale hospital. He was 67.
“On behalf of the entire Cassidy family, it is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our father, our uncle, and our dear brother, David Cassidy,” his rep, JoAnn Geffen said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “David died surrounded by those he loved, with joy in his heart and free from the pain that had gripped him for so long. Thank you for the abundance and support you have shown him these many years.”
Cassidy’s family said he died of the failure of multiple organs, including his kidneys, his liver — and, perhaps, his brain. Cassidy announced earlier this year he was ending his singing career because he was in the grip of dementia, the same disease that killed his mother.
The news that he would no longer perform was a gut punch to his fans, most of whom have been with him since the fall of 1970, when he appeared on television as the boyishly handsome, mildly hip and exuberantly tuneful Keith Partridge, the lead singer for a family rock-’n’-roll band.
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That launched the first great teenage craze of the 1970s. A month later, the Partridge Family’s first record, “I Think I Love You,” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and stayed there three weeks. Over the next 15 months, the Partridge Family would place five albums and five singles in the Billboard top 20.
It was an unlikely run for a group that was mostly fake and never played in concert, and an even more unlikely one for Cassidy, who was hired for his acting and not his singing and was never expected to sing a note.
“The Partridge Family” was a slightly goofy sitcom clearly inspired by “The Monkees,” a monstrous hit four years earlier. The Partridges were modeled on a genuine family rock-‘n’-roll band, the Cowsills, but the latter were manifestly no actors.
The idea behind “The Partridge Family” was to cast it with actors who would lip-synch songs recorded by studio musicians.
“Even though they knew I could play the guitar and I had played in bands and garage bands and was always the lead singer, they didn’t care if I could sing or not,” Cassidy would recall in 2012. “They cast me, strictly from a network studio standpoint, as an actor.”
Cassidy begged the producers to let him try a song. He recorded his vocals for “I Think I Love You” in one take during a short break in filming, and that ended any talk of lip-synching — for Cassidy, anyway. The only other cast member to perform on Partridge Family recordings was Shirley Jones, Cassidy’s TV mom (and real-life stepmother), who did some background singing. The group’s fakery, however, didn’t stop it from being nominated for a Grammy for best new artist in 1970.
As a TV show, “The Partridge Family” did pretty well, averaging 13 million viewers an episode and climbing as high as No. 11 in the Nielsen ratings. But as a marketing device for Cassidy and his singing, it was like a meteor made out of money.
There were David Cassidy lunch boxes, coloring books, bubble gum, pens, and of course all those records: 6.5 million of them in the first two years. They were mostly bouncy, hook-laden shouters like “I Think I Love You,” perfect for young fans not ready for slow-dancing. But in ballads like “Point Me In The Direction of Albuquerque,” a wasted young hippie girl’s plea for help finding her way home, or the wistful torch song “One Of Those Nights,” Cassidy’s supple voice could break hearts much older than 14.
His solo concerts were Beatlesque affairs in which armies of teenage girls — he drew more than 50,000 of them in a single day with two shows in Madison Square Garden — shouted their brains out. He had to hide in laundry trucks to be smuggled into his shows.
But Cassidy began to bridle under the combination of a heavy workload and a carefully manicured image. “I’ve had to sing when I was hoarse,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in a 1972 interview. “I’ve had them with a gun at my head, almost, saying, ‘Record, ’cause we’ve gotta get the album out by Christmas!’ ”
Even worse, he said, were reporters who expected him to be nanny to America’s teenage population. “ ‘How do you feel about the war in Vietnam?’ I’m so tired of answering that question,” he snapped. “Or, ‘Being as you have an influence on young folks today, what advice do you have for them about drugs?’ Aw, s---, man, take drugs.”
The interview — and the cover photo, which featured a carefully cropped nude photo of Cassidy — seemed designed to fling over the whole marketing applecart. Whether it did, or whether the Partridge Family’s moment had simply come and gone, Cassidy’s records disappeared from the charts by the end of the year, and a plummeting audience resulted in his TV show’s cancellation the next season.
Cassidy’s singing career remained hot overseas for several more years — a stampede at an overpacked stadium gig in London in 1974 injured 800 fans and killed a 14-year-old girl — but in the United States it faded away. He stopped performing for a few years in the late 1970s while he continued to dabble in TV production as well as a new passion, breeding and selling thoroughbred horses.
By the time Cassidy moved to Fort Lauderdale in 2002, he was ready to accept a modest amount of celebrity, acting as the grand marshal of the Winterfest Boat Parade and taking other local gigs. He was also performing again, often paired with other aging teen idols like Davey Jones of the Monkees.
But he still seemed uncertain about the aftermath of his teen idol years. Neighbors say he would sometimes open his gate for tourists who wanted autographs or a chat with the favorite singer of their teenage years.
Other times, a trace of bitterness emerged. “Once you become very famous and you become someone who is a star, when you get that label and then you become a labeled sex symbol or a labeled idol,” Cassidy said in a 2012 interview, “it’s a very difficult albatross around your neck to break out and do other things. As a public, we feel very comfortable putting people in their right place in our lives — “Oh, he’s a –’ or “She’s a –’ whatever you want to fill in.”
Over the past decade, his life seemed a continual series of misadventures with alcohol (three DUI arrests), divorce (his third) and money. At one point he claimed debts of $500,000 and income of nothing at all. A $1.35 million investment condo was foreclosed upon, a $4 million house in Harbor Beach dealt away for half that in a fire sale.
But his real worry was the dementia he saw closing in on his mother, actress Evelyn Ward. During the last couple of years before her death in 2012, she could barely communicate at all and Cassidy was usually uncertain that she really recognized him.
“We’re about to face an epidemic. We’re nearly there because the eldest baby boomers reached 65 years old in 2011,” he said after his mother died. “We’re about to face a tidal wave.” Barely three years later, the wave began to overtake him.