By Gordon Thompson
As the Beatles made their historic debut on American television in February 1964, the cast of Oliver!, the actor playing the role of the Artful Dodger, and other acts on the show watched from the wings as the hysteria unfolded. Davy Jones had started his acting career on British television, making his debut appearance in the venerable Coronation Street followed by the gritty Liverpool police drama, Z-Cars. His diminutive stature made him a natural to play teens, but also suggested that he could be a good jockey, and he briefly pursued this career; but when a casting call came for the Broadway version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, Jones’ youthful looks seemed ideally suited to play the charismatic child thief and the title character’s mentor. In New York, he received a Tony nomination for his portrayal; however, he had watched the Beatles dominate British media in 1963 and, as they now similarly triumphed in the North America, he saw the next stage in his career.
America’s 1964 hunger for all things British and Jones’ obvious talent brought him to the attention of Screen Gems and American television, which cast him in an episode of the medical drama, Ben Casey. And in 1965, when Screen Gems began searching for talented and attractive actors for a comedy loosely imitating the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, Jones’s profile easily rose to the top of the list. The Monkees debuted in the fall of 1966 on American television and, at 20, his boyish good looks made him an immediate fan favorite. Indeed, he ranked among the most popular male pop figures of the 1960s, his picture regularly appearing in teen magazines. But in an era when the Beatles implored you to turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream, a culture war raged over the Monkees’ authenticity. Nevertheless, Jones supplied strong vocal performances on Monkees’ recordings, especially “Daydream Believer,” the band’s last major hit, and the band with the assistance of a strong studio produced nearly perfect pieces of pop. Moreover, of the four actors who played the Monkees, Jones particularly had both the voice and the charismatic looks for a solo career.
While internal and external tensions eventually led to the end of both the television series and the band, Jones continued to perform, sometimes with fellow Monkee (and child actor) Mickey Dolenz and briefly with songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. In the post-Monkees years, he had a number brief appearances in television and film, and in the eighties, MTV reintroduced the television series and the band to a new generation of viewers.
In the nineties, a reunited Monkees toured and even last year Jones made a number of appearances with Monkees members Dolenz and Peter Tork. From his early experiences as a jockey, Jones maintained an interest in horse racing as an owner and his stable had success on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, performance remained important to Jones and he had a series of American concert dates scheduled for 2012 with his band.
Jones died this morning at his home in Indiantown, Florida at the age of 66.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry.