The story line — about a man obsessed with his friend’s girlfriend — could have been lifted from a soap opera, which was fitting. When his musical melodrama ”Jessie’s Girl” cracked the Billboard Top 40 on May 9, 1981, Rick Springfield was better known as General Hospital heartbreaker Dr. Noah Drake.
The Australian-born Springfield, then 31, got the inspiration for his career-making smash from a personal experience two years earlier. ”I’d been taking stained-glass classes at the time,” he recalls, ”and there was a woman there that I fell for. I became friends with her and her boyfriend. They had no idea that I was burning for her.” Since Springfield thought the real-life beau’s name ”didn’t sing,” he replaced it with ”Jessie” — as in Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Ron Jessie, whose name appeared on one of Springfield’s favorite T-shirts. Four basic chords later, a summer sensation was born.
Boosted by Springfield’s high profile on GH, the desperate, bare-bones track steadily climbed the charts, reaching No. 1 on Aug. 1 (coincidentally, the same day MTV was launched), and helped pave the way for harder-edged chart risers like Tommy Tutone’s similarly themed ”867-5309/Jenny” and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ ”I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But Springfield wasn’t fully able to enjoy his success: On April 24, two weeks before ”Jessie’s Girl” took off, his father, Norman Springthorpe, died of intestinal cancer. ”It made it really bittersweet,” says Springfield, whose hectic schedule allowed him only three days to mourn with his family in Sydney. ”He was my big champion.”
His peers soon took over that role: In 1982 the song nabbed him a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal, beating fellow nominees Bruce Springsteen (”The River”) and Rod Stewart (”Young Turks”). Springfield churned out 15 more Top 40 singles, including ”Don’t Talk to Strangers” and ”Love Somebody” (from his 1984 movie Hard to Hold), before his recording career fizzled in 1988.
After spending much of the ’90s acting in lackluster TV series (Human Target, High Tide), Springfield — who now lives in Malibu with his wife, Barbara, and their sons, Liam, 13, and Joshua, 10 — just released his first record in more than 10 years: the introspective (but still edgy) Karma. And as he prepares to turn 50 this August, he’s put the woman who inspired ”Jessie’s Girl” squarely behind him. ”I’ve forgotten her name,” he says of the song’s titular temptress. ”I just remember his name was Gary.”
Time Capsule: May 9, 1981
At the movies: Friday the 13th, Part 2 provides a deja vu of frights. The series will go on to spawn seven more chapters.
On the radio: Sheena Easton’s ”Morning Train (Nine to Five)” ends its two-week reign at No. 1.
On TV: Farrah Fawcett’s NBC TV movie Murder in Texas tops the Nielsens.
In bookstores: James Clavell’s Noble House, about a power struggle between British and Chinese businessmen, debuts atop the best-seller list.
And in the news: After a dispute over the lowering of the country’s high income tax rates, the entire Swedish government abruptly resigns.