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1970s teen idol David Cassidy coming to Hersheypark

October 2, 2008

David Cassidy

By Mary Alice Bitts

It was 5:30 p.m. in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on the outer edge of a four-day, 100-degree heat wave. After spending the morning watching his thoroughbreds run at the racetrack, former teen star David Cassidy was just hitting stride in a lengthy phone interview when severe thunderstorms kicked in, cutting out the power in his home and deadening the phone line for a few moments. He was unfazed.

"I live in Fort Lauderdale [Fla.] most of the year," he said when the phone kicked in again, speaking with the kind of laid-back ease that defined his quintessentially cool 1970s television persona, Keith Partridge. "I'm used to this weather. I can keep going!"

The amicable tone of the the 58-year-old singer-songwriter/actor/producer cooled a few degrees when the conversation inevitably turned to his days as a teenage sensation on the runaway hit TV show "The Partridge Family."

"Do you want me to talk about the years when I was 19 to 25? Because I have a way more extraordinary life as an adult than I had in my youth," said Cassidy, a little edgy. He has referred to his teen idol status as "an albatross."

"I've had so many other fantastic endeavors through my 30s, 40s and 50s that have been so successful, and that I'm way more proud of."

His impatience is somewhat understandable. After all, it's been more than three decades since he walked off the "Partridge Family" set, and in the time since, he's had a successful solo career, a well-received Broadway comeback, a lucrative run in Las Vegas and a platinum album.

But, of course, fans flock to his shows to hear him sing his hits from the early '70s. And for a guy who recently wrote a book about his "Partridge Family" years and still makes a living performing his "Partridge Family"-era hits — as he will do for two shows Sunday, June 22, at Hersheypark Amphitheatre — his reluctance to discuss his early successes was a bit puzzling.

Perhaps it's an indication of Cassidy's evolving attitude toward his Partridge alter-ego — an attitude that seems a little ambiguous some four decades after he first took on the role.

The son of actors Jack Cassidy and Evelyn Ward, who divorced when he was a child, Cassidy grew up with his mother in New Jersey, picking up his first guitar at age 13 after seeing the Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show." In his late teens, he moved to California to be closer to his father, who had by then married Academy Award-winning actress Shirley Jones. On the West Coast, the teenage Cassidy took acting classes and started to land bit parts in television shows including "Bonanza," "Adam-12" and "Marcus Welby, M.D."

A part in a Broadway show soon followed. But it was his 1970 debut on "The Partridge Family" that made him a household name.

Based loosely on the story of the 1960s folk-rock family act the Cowsills, "The Partridge Family" told the story of a mod young widow and her five musical children, who toured in a psychedelic school bus, performing their sugar-pop songs in venues across the country.

It was, in fact, a true family act: Heading up the show were Cassidy as the family's teenage heartthrob and frontman, Keith, and Shirley Jones — who had by then divorced David's father, but who reportedly maintained a close and maternal relationship with David — as Keith's tambourine-wielding mom.

"Shirley was one of the most talented and gracious people I've ever known, and she taught me a lot about being a star," Cassidy said. "She was on the cover of Life magazine when she was 19, and I was on the cover of Life magazine when I was 19, which was really odd. My father wasn't too happy about it. He was a little bit jealous."

Perhaps even more so, given the show's immediate success. In the days before cable reached the viewing public, when families across America tuned in to the same major networks, "The Partridge Family" quickly seized top ratings, and the fictional family's first pop record, "I Think I Love You," sold 6 million copies.

Cassidy was an overnight sensation, and at 19, his winsome smile and trendy shag hairdo graced lunch boxes, comic books, coloring books, dolls and teenage girls' bedroom walls all over the country.

One of only two cast members who actually performed the music in the show (Jones sang backup; the others, including Susan Dey and notorious former child star Danny Bonaduce, lip-synched), Cassidy took "Partridge Family" music on the road in 1971 and launched a successful world tour and solo recording career.

"The people I worked with were such talents, and I soaked it up like a sponge," he said. "Every night, from age 19 to 24, for seven months a year, the band taught me everything that you can possibly learn about performing and recording."

Soon, Cassidy was among the highest-paid performers in the world, with the largest subscription fan club in history, outnumbering even Elvis and the Beatles.

But he began to weary of the pressures associated with overnight stardom and the confines of his squeaky-clean image. He expressed his dissatisfaction in a tell-all interview with Rolling Stone magazine and, furthermore, posed nude for photographer Annie Leibovitz for the magazine's cover.

It was an astonishing act of sitcomicide.

In the interview, Cassidy talked about his sex-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll lifestyle and hinted that he did not like the music he performed on the show. He has since said his comments were widely misunderstood, but the article did the trick: His identity as an edgier, hip, real-life performer was cemented, and his solo career soared.

In 1974, soon after a London performance during which 650 fans were injured in a crush at the front of the stage and one 14-year-old fan with a heart condition died, he signed a long-term contract with RCA Records. But by 1977, the music scene and his place in it had changed considerably, and he found himself at a loss.

"I turned off my radio between 1977 and 1983," said Cassidy, expressing both his dislike for the punk music that had spiked up the airwaves and his own difficulty transitioning out of the teen-idol business.

"It took me about seven years to really move forward," he said, crediting friend John Lennon, his former idol, for helping him through that adjustment.

First, Cassidy went back to acting. He received an Emmy nomination for a role in a "Police Story" episode and later appeared in the poorly received, short-lived NBC police drama "David Cassidy: Man Undercover." His actual comeback came in 1983, when he took the lead role in Broadway's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Next came his London theatrical debut in 1987 and a well-regarded performance in the New York production of "Blood Brothers," which co-starred '60s pop star Petula Clark and Cassidy's half brother and fellow pop icon Shaun Cassidy (of "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries" fame).

For the former TV pop star, Broadway marked a new, better stage of his career, and it instilled in him a bit of respect for the teen idol he had formerly disavowed.

"I had gotten nominated for an Emmy in '77 and '78 for best dramatic actor, and nobody cared. But when I came back in 1983 on Broadway, the world came to see me because I already had a lot of fans in the audience who, because of 'The Partridge Family,' responded to what I do," he said. "That's been the greatest asset in my life."

And so, decades after he expressed his frustration with the bubble gum quality of the "Partridge Family" hits, he seems to have adopted a wiser, more tolerant attitude toward the business of pop stardom, and even bristles a bit when asked if he ever grows tired of singing the 1970 hit "I Think I Love You."

"How many times did Frank [Sinatra] record 'I've Got You Under My Skin?'" he said. "If I could put a thousand different spins on ["I Think I Love You"], I would record it a thousand times. It's one of the greatest songs ever written, and like any fabulous standard, it stands the test of time."

Still, as a seasoned performer who performs a teen idol's repertoire, he appears to harbor mixed emotions. On one hand, he seems to fully embrace his spot in the annals of pop music history. After a successful stint in a science-fiction musical variety show in Las Vegas, Cassidy broke into the Top 30 once again in 1990 with the curiously titled song "Lyin' to Myself" off his self-titled comeback album, then followed it with the memoir "C'mon, Get Happy: Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus." He even recruited fellow ex-Partridge Bonaduce, an actor/comedian/disc jockey/reality-show personality, to open some of his live shows.

Yet he is careful to stress that he enjoys a lucrative and fulfilling life away from the microphone — a life that's far removed from the psychedelic bus of his youth. Cassidy raises racehorses, a hobby he's enjoyed for some 35 years, and which he says has been "just as successful as my music career."

On top of that, he's working on an album that he said is "the best record I have ever done." And nearly four decades after he made a splash in a television show with his former stepmother, he now plans to shoot a television pilot with half brothers Shaun, Patrick and Ryan Cassidy.

In a sense, the family-based project would bring him full circle.

"The script is remarkably good, and we'll probably make it in the fall with a major network. It would be a great way for me to bow out of television," he said. Not that he plans to disappear from the public eye anytime soon. One way or another, he said, David Cassidy is here to stay.

"My father once said to me, 'You've got the goods.'

"There are a lot of incredibly mediocre people in every part of the music and entertainment business that sell tens of thousands of tickets that have no talent at all, in my opinion. In my estimation, the people who are selling millions of tickets around the country that don't have the goods — you'll never see them again in five years. In my case, it's 38 years, and I'm still here.

"I guess that explains why I've been fortunate enough to go on and on."

David Cassidy will perform at 4 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 22, at Hersheypark Amphitheatre. The concert is included with admission to Hersheypark. For more information, call, 534-3900.

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