Before there was MTV, before “American Idol” made overnight stars of people you never heard of, there was “The Monkees,” a band fronted by a diminutive singer named Davy Jones who was so boyishly good looking that teenage girls swooned the first time they ever saw him.
That was at the end of the summer of 1966, when Jones and his three Monkee cohorts, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz, arrived on weekly television, portraying a carbon copy of another band called the Beatles.
Each Monday night for the next two years, people would tune into NBC to see the comical trials and tribulations of four young musicians who tooled around in a tricked-out car called the Monkeemobile. When they weren’t introducing two or three new songs per show, they would be busy rescuing damsels in distress or being chased by bumbling outlaws in a comical display of slapstick that has sometimes been compared to the work of the Marx Brothers.
Although all four members handled the lead vocals during their music videos, it was Jones, the onetime child star of the British musical stage, who quickly became the group’s heartthrob. With his boyish good looks and endearing British accent augmented by a strong, Broadway-trained singing voice, it was a role he would play for the rest of his life.
Jones died Wednesday of a heart attack near his home in Indiantown, Fla., just months after he, Tork and Dolenz had completed a tour marking The Monkees’ 45th anniversary. He was 66.
The Monkees had been created to cash in on the Beatles’ popularity, and although they never came close to achieving the critical stature of their counterparts, they did carve out a permanent niche in music as what Rolling Stone’s Encyclopedia of Rock ‘n’ Roll has called “the first and perhaps the best of the ’60s and ’70s prefabricated pop groups.”
Their songs were melodic, catchy, and many have endured over the years. The first two they released, “Last Train to Clarksville” and “I’m a Believer,” became No. 1 hits. So did “Daydream Believer,” on which Jones sang the lead and which Dolenz told The Associated Press four years ago remains the Monkees’ most requested song at concerts.
“Of the four actors they hired, Davy Jones was by far the most accomplished as a singer and as a performer. He was really the perfect choice,” said Rich Podolsky, author of a biography of Don Kirshner, who was The Monkees TV show’s musical director.
Born in Manchester, England, on Dec. 30, 1945, Jones had been a child star in his native country, appearing on television and stage, including a heralded role as “The Artful Dodger” in a London production of the play Oliver.
When the show came to Broadway, he earned a Tony nomination at age 16 for the role, a success that brought him to the attention of Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems Television, which created The Monkees.
Hundreds of musician-actors turned out for the auditions, but the young men who became the Monkees had no idea what ultimately awaited them.
“They had an ad in the newspaper,” Jones recalled on NBC’s Today Show last year, “and then we all showed up.”
When they put him together with Tork, Dolenz and Nesmith, the chemistry was obvious.
“That’s it,” he recalled everyone around him saying: “Magic.”