In the early 1970s, David Cassidy was about as famous as a person could get. He was Keith Partridge, the lead singer in The Partridge Family. He came into people's homes each week and dominated the radio with hits like "I Woke Up In Love This Morning" and "I Think I Love You" along with that memorable opening theme.
His likeness could be found on everything from posters to lunch boxes, comic books and cereal boxes, and he became the world's highest paid entertainer by the time he was 21. Through his career he's sold well over 30 million albums and has over 24 gold and platinum recordings along with an acting resume that includes roles in performances on Broadway and London's West End.
Yet, before all of his fame he was just a boy growing up in West Orange, NJ raised by his grandparents. Even though he was only living here for a few years, his time in Jersey and his family's roots here are very special to him.
Cassidy returns here on Friday, January 9th with a performance at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. New Jersey Stage spoke with him about the upcoming show and what this area means to him.
You weren't in New Jersey long, but is playing a show here special for you?
Oh God, yeah. My mom and I moved from Manhattan when I was 5 and my parents got divorced. I moved in with my grandparents and I started kindergarten and went all the way through the 5th grade in West Orange where my grandparents had lived since buying their house in 1919 I think.
Every time I go back to play anywhere in New Jersey — anywhere including Atlantic City or especially New Brunswick, places I visited when I was a kid — it's quite emotional for me and very nostalgic. It has more depth for me because of my connection with New Jersey and being so young and in such a vulnerable state of mind and emotions because my parents had been divorced. Basically my grandparents raised me because my mom was on the road a lot doing shows. She did work on Broadway quite a lot and I spent some weekends in Manhattan with her, but I feel a really strong connection to New Jersey and doing shows there has always been very memorable.
Is it true that your parents were divorced for a year or two before they told you?
Yes, it's true. Apparently they were divorced when I was about three and a half. When I was five I found out my dad was married in 1955 to Shirley. There was a certain amount of shame to being divorced and being the son of a divorced couple. I grew up in a very blue-collar area. I got teased, so what? I got over it. I've been divorced myself so I understand the concept.
But I have a strong bond with the shows I do all over New Jersey. I spent a lot of time with mom and my dad — in separate places, of course — when they were doing summer stock, which both did quite a lot of.
New Jersey still claims you as one of its own on a lot of Internet lists, so it's good that you still feel that connection.
I do. I will always feel that. I was born in Manhattan and I often talk about being a guy from New York and I still feel a very strong connection to Manhattan, but I spent much more time and more of my formative years in Jersey. Between the ages of 5 and 11 you really form yourself as a person. I had a lot of very strong religious influences from my grandparents. I was the soloist in the choir. I had to go to Sunday School and Bible School and did all kinds of Christian stuff because they wanted me to. I loved them very much and they took care of me. It was a wonderful environment that I lived in to be honest. It was very simple. There wasn't much money, but there was food on the table and they took good care of me.
Your parents were both accomplished actors. Were you more interested in being an actor or a musician?
Oh, I was definitely going to be an actor and I was an actor before I became a professional musician. I was raised with music. My grandmother was a piano teacher and an opera singer; my mother was a singer and a dancer; and my father was a brilliant singer. When I would go to visit my dad he gave me a lot of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein influences and I got into big band on my own. Bobby Darin was a huge influence on me because he was the bridge between my father's music and mine. I wasn't into Bobby Darin the "Splish Splash" guy, I was into Darin doing "Beyond the Sea" and "Mack the Knife" and all of that great stuff.
I pursued my career as a teenager in Los Angeles when I was still in high school. I was the only non-professional that got into the Los Angeles Theater Company. I moved back to New York two weeks after I graduated high school and had a part-time job in a mail room at a textile company for two dollars an hour. It was an exciting time. I was studying there and got an agent and got my first professional job at 18 in a musical on Broadway. It was a failed show called The Fig Leaves Are Falling but a CBS Films casting director saw me and flew me out to do a screen test for a movie. I didn't get the role but Michael Douglas did and Michael and I laugh about that. I saw him a year ago and we were laughing our butts off about this movie. He said, "Thank God you didn't get it, it nearly ruined my career!" But the screen test led to me getting an agent out in Los Angeles and then doing auditions and starting to do television. I did Marcus Welby MD, Mod Squad, Bonanza — all of those shows, about ten of them.
From there I started going on auditions for pilots and it was weird but I would not have had a professional music career if it was not for The Partridge Family. Although I played guitar and sang, it was just for fun in my living room. The Partridge Family introduced me to a whole new world of working with writers and the most fantastic musicians on the face of the earth. I worked with some of the greatest writers of all time. I was 19 and I was a sponge, I just soaked it up.
I've always considered myself an actor. People don't think of me as an actor anymore because I've had so much more success as an entertainer, but for me one of the highlights of my career was being on Broadway in the '90s with Blood Brothers. That's an acting role and it's a serious acting role. There's a little music in it for the character I played, but not much.
I still get offered roles from time to time. A couple times this year I got offered a few films that were really crap. And I thought I'd love to act, but don't do junk. If it doesn't spark a fire in your belly, what are you doing it for? Why would you be doing this? Just because you want to act again? Don't act in crap!
It has nothing to do with money or the budget or anything like that. It's always been about the work for me. I tell this to people when I speak at schools, I say forget about fame, forget about money. If you're taking a job for fame and thinking you just want to be famous then do something else. If you do good work the rest of it will come. If you're good and you do good work it may take you 20 years, it may even take you 40 years as it's taken many actors. I can't even tell you how many actors have struggled and then finally they make it and suddenly people go, "Oh, my God what a talent!" Well, they had that talent, they just now had the opportunity. If you're just pursuing the result which is "I want to be rich," then good luck. Good luck with that. It can be done now, but to me it's pretty empty that way.
I love to play. I love to entertain and I get more of a buzz out of doing that — making people laugh, making people cry. That's just the way it is. It inspires me to get up and play with the best band I've ever had in my life. They've been with me now for a decade and they're all master class musicians. They're ridiculously good! And they're like my second family.
What are your sets like these days? Do you only play the hits or include your own favorites?
Oh, no, I don't just do the hits. I do the hits that I like and the ones that fit. I just started doing a hit that actually sold almost two million copies of the single. It's called "Doesn't Somebody Want To Be Wanted" and it was a song I hated! I nearly quit The Partridge Family over it. But I do it now again and not because I feel pressured to do it but because I can riff on it about how silly it was for me and how much fun it is to play now. At the time, that record sold nearly 2 million copies, but I hated it. They practically had to put a gun to my head to do it.
I get a real hoot playing "Come On Get Happy". I do it quite differently, but it just makes people smile. It really makes them happy. When you reach an audience and you know you've had an impact on them, it's a beautiful thing.
But I also play some stuff people wouldn't expect because I saw Hendrix live, I saw Cream. I'll do some B.B. King. I have a very lush and deep connection with some of my musical heroes. John Lennon became a friend of mine and I played a few times with him. I played once with Paul McCartney. Those are the guys who inspired me to pick up an electric guitar and start playing and I still think that was the best band that ever lived.
I just think I was so blessed to have this plethora of remarkable talent around me that I soaked it up like a sponge as a kid and as a neophyte. Within 5 years, I had recorded hundreds of songs and had written a bunch of great songs. I started writing later with Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson and got to work with people that I had admired and was a fan of and what a gift that was. What a gift. I pay homage to all of that when I play live.
The mania that surrounded you when you were at the height of your fame. Were you better off that it happened before the world of social media?
I have no idea. That's a reality we will never know.
Do you think anyone could ever reach that level of fame again?
No, I don't think that will ever happen again. I think the world is so much more sophisticated as a result of it and I think there are so many other distractions now. I just think the world was still innocent then. We were in magazines and we watched TV and that was it. People didn't believe when I would walk into a restaurant that I actually came out of that box. That I was not just a poster or a lunch box or pillowcase or bubble gum card. They didn't believe I was real. The world is so much more sophisticated now.
Imagine walking into that restaurant with cellphones and the Internet.
There would be 20 cellphone photos of you thrown up there. It's so weird. I mean it's odd. I've been photographed sitting down at dinner with my girlfriend and hanging out with some buddies of mine and they said I was in a different place having a different experience. I thought what would be the purpose of that — how small is your life and how empty is your life to do such a thing? That's why I don't do any social media at all. I stay away from all of it. People tell me you can tweet us. Sorry, I'm not tweeting today. I have a much richer and fuller life. Go analog, that's all I can say.
I am on a cell phone and I do text. I just don't do email and I don't do social media stuff. Fortunately, my life does not revolve around how many hits I get or any of that. I like to create, I like to be with beautiful people and friends that I care about and that care about me. It's a small circle and I like to keep it that way.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.