There had been plenty of teen heartthrobs before: from Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon and Paul Anka in the 1950s to Ricky Nelson, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s.
But few of them worked the angles like Davy Jones did. The Monkees singer, who died on Wednesday near his Florida home of a heart attack at age 66, was one of the original multimedia teen dreams. Before Justin Bieber blitzkrieged his fans with movies, music, perfumes and nail polish, prior to Miley Cyrus’ triple-dipping in TV, movies and music, Jones made the girls cry every Monday night for two years during the prime-time run of “The Monkees,” and then did it again when the group hit the road and the toy-store shelves.
Unlike his cohorts in the made-for-TV band — the serious leader/guitarist Michael Nesmith, the lovable space cadet Peter Tork and goofball drummer/singer Micky Dolenz — Jones was well primed for the spotlight by the time he auditioned for the show in late 1965. He’d already starred on Broadway in “Oliver!” as a teenager, released an album and been nominated for a Tony Award.
But once he hit the screen as the impish, tambourine-bashing Davy on “The Monkees,” Jones belonged to the world. He wasn’t my favorite Monkee; that honor went, in order, to slapstick master and dreamy-voiced singer Dolenz and then to bookish, reticent schemer Nesmith.
But watching the reruns of the show as a teenager, I saw an undeniable magnetism in Jones. He had that eagerness to please and boyish charm that comes of children who’ve spent their lives on the stage. You see it now most clearly in the striving teens desperate for what they think is their one-and-only shot at stardom on “American Idol,” or in the ready-for-prime-time song-and-dance modern successor, Nickelodeon’s screen-to-stage crossover “Big Time Rush.”
The British Jones appeared firmly in his element alongside his American castmates, with the four essentially setting the template for all of reality TV to follow. Cast to play exaggerated versions of themselves in the madcap show, each Monkee had a distinct personality, with the diminutive Jones popping out as the one that made the girls swoon. In fact, his lovability became a recurring joke on the show, with the other three rolling their eyes every time Davy worked his charm on yet another comely beauty as they were left to be his hipster wingmen.
While his cohorts struggled to take the musical lead in the studio from domineering producer Don Kirshner, Jones was happy to smile and smack his tambourine, flip his pre-Bieber mop top and hop to the front to sing the occasional lead on hits such as the #1 smash “Daydream Believer.” His poise, comfort and easy charm came through on camera amid all the zany setups on the show, making him the de facto “cute one,” a transplanted doppelgänger for fellow Brit Paul McCartney of the Beatles.
The Monkees were tagged the “Prefab Four” thanks to producers’ attempts to create their own Beatles-like sensation by using studio musicians to fill in on recordings for the TV cast. When the real Fab Four retreated to the studio and retired from touring the same month the Monkees released their 1966 debut album, Jones happily took on the mantle of hip-shaking, paisley-wearing, glint-in-his-eye teen dream, even as the rest of the group looked more interested in turning on and dropping … something.
And, like McCartney, Jones became a cover boy on countless teen mags and a cha-ching maker for the Monkees machine, appearing (with his bandmates) on all the requisite spin-off products you might expect: from Halloween masks to playing cards, packages for Hot Wheels Monkeemobile toys, pens, postcards, lunch boxes, puzzles, charm bracelets, bucket hats, key chains, gum packages, hand puppets and just about anything else you can imagine.
True story: In 2010, Dolenz told me that when the Monkees toured in 1967 with their hand-picked opening act, Jimi Hendrix, the guitar legend was eventually forced to drop off the bill because his playing was often drowned out due to fans screaming Jones’ name during his sets. Think about that. Many years ago, when I read a biography of glam-rock icon David Bowie, my mind was blown when I found out that his birth name was David Jones, but that he felt compelled to adopt a stage name because, yes, he feared being overshadowed by a Monkee. I’ll give you a minute on that one, too.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned that, with the exception of their vocals, the Monkees hardly appeared on their own albums and relied on professional songwriters like Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Neil Diamond for almost all of their big hits. But who cares, right? Because when Davy boogaloo’d out front, Mickey swung his ’fro and beat the drums, Michael strummed the guitar with that impassive look and Peter offered up that adorable blank stare, the dream became real.
“First of all, it wasn’t a band,” Dolenz told me in that 2010 interview for the Cincinnati Enquirer. “It was a TV show about an imaginary band that lived in an imaginary beach house and had imaginary adventures. Because we were always struggling for success on the show I think it spoke to kids all around the world sitting in their living rooms and garages trying to be the next Beatles. The thing we left everyone with was the bizarre story of the Monkees one day going out on the road and becoming real, which Mike Nesmith used to say was like Pinocchio becoming a real boy.”
Yahoo! Music named Jones the #1 teen idol of all time in 2008, besting the likes of Cyrus, Britney Spears, “The Partridge Family” star David Cassidy, the Jonas Brothers, Backstreet Boys and ’NSYNC.
Why? Mostly because of Jones’ knee-buckling performance of “Girl” on a 1971 episode of “The Brady Bunch,” during which he agreed to be Marcia’s date to the prom. That appearance on “Getting Davy Jones,” by the way, is among the most popular “Brady” episodes of all time.
Jones never quite broke out of the Monkees orbit, playing the hits until just a week ago at a February 19 solo gig in Oklahoma. According to accounts, he still had that smile on his face, that wriggle in his hips and that glimmer in his eye. While former boy banders like Justin Timberlake seem at times conflicted over being pigeonholed for what they used to be, well into his fifth decade as a boy-star-turned-man, Jones kept the dream alive, for us, and for himself.