At the height of “Cassidymania,” in the early 1970s, singer David Cassidy is said to have had a fan club that dwarfed those of Elvis Presley and the Beatles combined. In his 1994 autobiography, C’Mon, Get Happy: Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus, he said he had earned $8 million in his heyday, and that his fanzines were receiving up to 25,000 letters a week from girls enamored with his TV show and solo hits. (One asked him to send her a gallstone he had passed.) At the pinnacle of his career, he was making millions. By 1986, and the collapse of his second marriage, he had $1,000 to his name. Gallstones were about all he had left to give.
But Cassidy was a showbiz survivor, enjoying the highs (an Emmy nomination for a 1978 episode of Police Story) and weathering the lows (he was the first celeb Donald Trump fired off Celebrity Apprentice, in 2011). His name retained cultural currency. Recall Hugh Grant’s confession to Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), the quintessential rom-com, one his fans grew into: “In the words of David Cassidy … in fact, uhh, while he was still with the Partridge Family … uhh, I think I love you.”
David Cassidy was born on April 12, 1950. International superstardom at age 20 made up for a turbulent itinerant childhood as the son of performers Evelyn Ward and Jack Cassidy, a talented Tony winner who never found success equivalent to his son’s, and died in 1976 at age 49. Jack’s second marriage to actress Shirley Jones brought stability to David’s life, though the wounds remained raw. (C’mon, Get Happy grapples with his father’s alcoholism, bipolar depression and bisexuality.) Following in the family tradition despite the hazards, Cassidy pursued a career in acting and music, and made his Broadway debut in a musical, The Fig Leaves Are Falling (1969). The fig leaves fell for just four performances, and he left New York for Los Angeles to make a screen test. He landed small parts, then his signature role, less for his skills than for his “more radiant epicene beauty than Paul McCartney,” in Entertainment Weekly’s estimation.
David Cassidy and The Partridge Family: Not just a job, it was family. His beloved stepmom, Shirley Jones, was his screen mother, the beloved Shirley Partridge, and she and Cassidy's character, Keith, were the only two with any actual musical ability on their famed bus, which trekked on ABC from 1970 to 1974. He aspired to be Mick Jagger, and did break the Rolling Stones’ record for most consecutive sold-out concerts performed at Wembley Stadium (six over a weekend in 1973, one more than the Stones’ five.) But his music was encased in bubblegum, and an attempt at a bad boy image by living it up and posing nude in Rolling Stone in 1972 did little to muss his family-friendly image. While he showed a different side of his talents on Broadway, performing in and later touring with the Tony Award-nominated musicals Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1983 and Blood Brothers 10 years later (with his half-brother and fellow Tiger Beat alum Shaun Cassidy), he never advanced up the rungs of the pop ladder.
What a run it was, though: Eighteen gold and platinum records, 20 million sold and the biggest hit single of 1970 with “I Think I Love You.” Not bad for what he said was 15 minutes spent in the recording booth. (Trivia: the Partridge Family was the third fictional group to have a No. 1 hit, after the Chipmunks and the Archies. Tony Romeo, who had penned hits for the Cowsills, whose family act inspired the show, wrote the song.) “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” “I’ll Meet You Halfway,” “I Woke Up in Love This Morning” and “It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)” were the Partridges’ other Top 20 hits in the U.S., moving lots of lunchboxes as the marketing reached its zenith. Cassidy scored a Top 10 solo success with “Cherish,” a cover of the Association’s standard, in 1971.
When the well ran dry, he cobbled. His pop career had a longer life in Europe, and he got the similarly meteoric George Michael to contribute backing vocals to a hit he had in the UK in 1985, “The Last Kiss.” (Michael said Cassidy was a huge influence on him when he was growing up.) He continued on TV. David Cassidy: Man Undercover, from the Police Story episode (he played a cop going incognito at crime-ridden high schools) ran for 10 episodes in 1978. He made the rounds on The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and others, with a 2013 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode giving him his final role. David, Shaun and half-brother Patrick Cassidy also collaborated on Ruby & The Rockits (2009), a short-lived ABC Family sitcom that cast him as a former teen icon unwilling to leave the past behind.
By then, Cassidy had a past to leave behind, as the headlines in the last decade came mostly from DUI arrests and his admission of alcoholism. Earlier this year he announced his retirement, which was hastened after a woozy performance and a fall from the stage at the Canyon Club in Agoura, California, in February. The footage went viral as dementia was cited as a cause. It was a sad coda.
His admirers consoled themselves with happier memories. He had the ear of director Quentin Tarantino, who said, “The first record I bought was the Partridge Family. I still listen to their records. I actually think David Cassidy is one of the most underrated vocal performers in the history of rock & roll.” Through ups and downs, Cassidy had a valued ally. “My music was never considered cool, but I’ve always felt that connection with the audience,” he said.