Music Notes: C’mon, Stay Happy

’70s pop phenom David Cassidy brings his youthful charm and talent to Birchmere.

David Cassidy performs at Alexandria’s Birchmere, Oct. 6, 2012 (Photo courtesy David Cassidy)

When one thinks about superstars in music history, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and perhaps Frank Sinatra instantly come to mind as pioneers of that highest level of fame.

One name that may not automatically come to mind (at least not as quickly as the legends above) is none other than 70’s pop culture phenom David Cassidy. At the height of his popularity, Cassidy equaled and in some ways even surpassed the level of fame those icons enjoyed. Yes, the blue-eyed heartthrob and star of “The Partridge Family” was also one of music’s most hugely hyped and globally marketed pop stars, with “Cassidymania” and fan club members outgrowing that of those four Liverpool mop-tops and those two kids from Tupelo and Hoboken, while also selling out 70,000-seat stadiums (a huge feat for an artist back then), headlining at iconic venues like Madison Square Garden (which he sold out in two minutes), and having his likeness on everything from lunchboxes and posters to dresses (yes, dresses).

Cassidy gets the fleeting nature of being a pop superstar and is grateful he could have an impact on people during the height of his career, a career that still earns him adoration from fans today.

“You’re only a fresh face once,” he told me recently. “Once you understand that and the impact, it’s an incredible thing for me now because I hear it and I get it from people almost every day. I get it back in spades. It’s a really wonderful thing to know that you’ve impacted people’s lives in a positive way. You brought light, you brought joy, you brought happiness, and a certain imagination.”

Forty-plus years after his time at the top, Cassidy still retains some of that intense pop-singer popularity. It may not be at the level it was back then, but to the surprise of many, Cassidy continues to enjoy a modestly successful career in his 60s, a career that includes singing, acting and even giving time to a cause near and dear to his heart: Alzheimer’s disease awareness.

These days, Cassidy is a very busy man, always on the go and with a rigorous tour schedule that includes a stop this Saturday, Oct. 6 at one of his personal favorite venues, Alexandria’s own Birchmere, where he takes his audience on a musical journey of his life, replete with those classic Partridge Family hits.

So whatever happened to the then-world-famous “Keith Partridge-esque” version of David Cassidy? His fame turned out to be a double-edged sword — as he became a huge star on “The Partridge Family,” his career as a pop star also rose to almost unheard-of heights. During a very candid interview on the phone from New York City, Cassidy explained why he left that part of his life behind, right at the height of his popularity:

“I walked away. What most people don’t realize or didn’t understand at the time when I was playing stadiums, I lived in this eye of the hurricane for five years. I worked 16-to-18 hours a day, seven days a week. I was mentally and physically exhausted. Literally every lunchtime I was doing interviews and photo sessions. I never had a free moment for me. So I announced that I was gonna leave it at the top. At the time, I was playing to 50,000; 60,000; 70,000 people. I’m the guy that walked away. I knew there was no way for me [to top it]. Physically and mentally I just couldn’t sustain it.

“I was really the first globally marketed individual, and I got robbed of my own identity by the marketing and the visual of watching me on that television show and comic books — everything you could possibly imagine. [The Partridge Family] was the biggest selling and most financially successful television show of all time at that moment. Much of it had to do with the many millions and millions of albums and singles. My first three or four albums were triple platinum — It’s nutty! Everywhere in the world I went, it was impossible for me to separate … to have the public perceive me as me.”

Part of achieving that level of fame was having famous friends, and none was more well-known than John Lennon. Cassidy recalls with much affection and fondness his burgeoning and eventually lasting friendship with the famous Beatle:

“John and Yoko had a friend who was a very close friend of mine, and he brought John over to my house. It was New Year’s Eve, and I remember I was in the kitchen and Susan Dey [who played Cassidy’s sister Laurie Partridge on the TV show] tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘David, there’s a Beatle in the house!’ Later, we went into my music room. We start playing, and I of course instantly go back to the early Beatles songs that I first learned. And since then he had written another 500 songs and hadn’t played with the Beatles in however long, so I re-taught him a couple of the early Beatles songs! ‘Please Please Me,’ some others. John was musically my hero, but what I also loved about him was he had a remarkable sense of humor, a great passion for life. He’s probably the most unique person I’ve ever met. To get to meet him, to get to know him, to get to play with him. And I remember one of the most amazing compliments I ever heard, they were asking John about the early days of The Beatles, and he said, ‘Oh don’t ask me, I don’t remember, ask David Cassidy, he was bigger than we were.’ I read that and I went, ‘Oh my God, how did that happen?’ It was such a great experience for me to get to know him.”

After walking away from his immensely popular career, Cassidy didn’t work for close to three and a half years. At least, not in the pop-star vein.

“I wrote and I produced music, but I didn’t try and compete with my fame. I tried to go back to what originally had made me successful — my acting. I went back and worked in class and in theater, and I began carving out a completely different career. I knew I could never compete with that time.“

Cassidy was clearly one of the better actors on “The Partridge Family” along with stepmom Shirley Jones, but that’s no surprise considering his early acting resume, which included appearances on iconic ’70s TV shows like “Ironside,” “Marcus Welby MD,” “Bonanza” and “Adam-12,” all before his turn as dreamy Keith Partridge. He was even nominated for an Emmy in 1978 for an appearance on NBC’s “Police Story.” Clearly, the acting bug cultivated by his father, accomplished actor/singer Jack Cassidy, was a talent he inherently possessed, and as his father would remind him, that’s what it was all about.

“My father gave me some advice the day I was playing Madison Square Garden. He’d been in the business at the time about 30 years, I’d been in it only about three or four years. His words to me were: ‘Talent is the only commodity that survives. Talent will survive. Someday this is all gonna go away, and it’s gonna get very difficult for you. So do not ever, ever, give up on that.’”

And give up he hasn’t. In recent years, Cassidy has overcome personal challenges including substance abuse, remaining consistently active in his musical and acting careers, and showing no real signs of slowing down. His pursuit of a lawsuit against Sony regarding the rights to his likeness continues (“It’s just a matter of, in my opinion, extraordinary greed,” he asserts), and he has also become a passionate and involved advocate of the Alzheimer’s Association, not surprising given that his 89-year-old mother Evelyn has the disease.

“What’s so sad about it, is that years ago before we were really understanding the disease, it used to be like, ‘Oh there’s crazy Uncle Eddie.’ They called it senility. Well, it’s in fact a disease. And we’re about to face an epidemic. We’re nearly there because the eldest baby boomers reached 65 years old in 2001. The truth of the matter is we should have been doing this 30 years ago. Now we’re trying to play catch-up when we’re about to face a tidal wave. Knowledge is power, we need to open the doors, and go, ‘Hey, it’s OK.’ We understand. This is a disease, you can’t help it, it’s not your fault.’ It doesn’t choose individuals with higher intellect, or by color or creed or anything else. It’s just a horrible, horrible disease. We gotta act. We gotta act now.”

David Cassidy, Sat., Oct. 6, 2012, Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305, 703-549-7500, $49.50. For tickets and more information, click here.

Steve Houk lives and breathes music. He is not only a marketing and media professional but an accomplished music writer as well as a blogger on midliferocker.com. He is also the lead singer of Northern Virginia cover band Second Wind.

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