50 Years Ago: ‘The Partridge Family’ Blends Music and Family
The Partridge Family premiered on Sept. 25, 1970, and turned the concept of a pop band into mainstream American family-friendly entertainment.
The ABC sitcom was based on the true story of the Cowsills, a clean-cut Navy family from Rhode Island that hit big in the late '60s with a series of delirious pop singles, including "The Rain, the Park & Other Things" and "Hair." Bernard Slade created the show and brought it to Screen Gems, which had success putting rock music on the small screen a few years earlier with The Monkees.
Although The Partridge Family depicted a family band, the music - apart from vocals by David Cassidy (who played Keith) and his real-life stepmother Shirley Jones (Shirley) - was recorded by the collection of Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. It turned Cassidy into the show's breakout star.
The son of veteran actors Jack Cassidy and Evelyn Ward, David Cassidy was tailor-made for the teen-idol circuit. While in his late teens, he began making a name for himself as a guest star on dramas, but he also had aspirations for a musical career. Cassidy even auditioned for the role of Keith Partridge with a guitar in hand, only to be told it wasn't needed.
However, Jones, who was cast before the Cowsills had even been approached about turning their story into a television show, was the sitcom's linchpin. The producers could - and did - make the show without the Cowsills, but they could not have made it without Jones. Where Cassidy captured the teenage-girl audience with his crooning and doe eyes, she was the ideal sitcom mom: pretty but not sexual, conservative in style but liberal in values, charming and self-deprecating all at once.
Plus, Jones, who was 36 when the show began, had been a household name for a decade and a half as a star of stage and screen musicals - notably the film adaptations of Oklahoma!, Carousel and The Music Man - and won an Oscar in 1960 by, against type, playing sex worker Lulu Baines in Elmer Gantry. But by the late '60s, movie musicals had fallen out of fashion and she started getting more offers for television, including The Brady Bunch, which was perceived as a step down.
"My managers did not want me to take that role in The Partridge Family," she told AARP. "They told me, 'If you do this series, your movie career will be in the toilet.' And they were right, because then I became Mrs. Partridge forever. But I don't regret it, because I got to stay home and raise my kids." There was another reason why she accepted the job, one that played more into changing times. "I took the Partridge Family role because it meant I would be playing the first working mother ever portrayed on TV," she noted.
Watch the Opening Credits for 'The Partridge Family'
Not that the show was feminist. It played every angle by letting boy-crazy daughter Laurie (Susan Dey) be its progressive voice while her wisecracking brother Danny (Danny Bonaduce) would get the last word.
In terms of capturing the counterculture, it wasn't exactly The Monkees. Where that show was built on trippy narrative hooks and had wild visual style, The Partridge Family worked its way through traditional family-sitcom stories, like Laurie getting braces or their grandfather wanting to join the band.
“The show’s not meant to be realistic," executive producer Bob Claver said in 1972. "It’s entertainment. Viewers would like to be in that family." Like most high-concept sitcoms, the show wasted no time constructing a shortcut to formula. By its fourth and final season, most of the plots had nothing to do with the family band. Early episodes had the Partridges traveling to New Mexico and Detroit, but the family's Southern California suburbs would soon be its only setting.
Still, every episode had a big musical moment in the form of a montage or performance. As time went on, they could get more mileage out of Danny and manager-babysitter Reuben Kincaid (Dave Madden) bickering or a biker getting mistakenly involved in Laurie's love life.
The episode that brought out the show's best qualities and avoided sitcom temptation best was Season One's "The Soul Club," when a tour stop in Detroit left the family stranded in the inner city. A lot of humor is mined from the premise at the get-go - the perfectly mannered Partridges weren't even streetwise enough to figure out the venue they were supposed to play. Richard Pryor and Louis Gossett, Jr. entered the scene as the hapless club owners who were being threatened at knifepoint by a vicious loan shark.
There's not a lot of social awareness here, only vague hints of black American poverty in Pryor's line, "Our people don't have too much." Even euphemisms still feel edgy for a show like this, more at home with the heartwarming story of the family putting on a block party to raise money for the club. Most of the episode's back half is devoted to the party, with shots of dancing as the loan shark gets his comeuppance.
It's hard not to chuckle at Keith's declaration that he's working on "kind of an Afro thing," especially on seeing the end result: Cassidy belting a love song ("Bandala," one of the show's best tunes) with funky percussion, a cowbell, and an orchestra - as the lilywhite Partridge kids get backing from a group of local black musicians clad in radical gear.
The episode has occasionally been cited as one of the best in sitcom history. In TV Land to Go: The Big Book of TV Lists, TV Lore and TV Bests, where it placed at No. 81, Tom Hill wrote, "What was the difference between The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family? As Louis Armstrong said about jazz: If you have to ask, you'll never know, but watching this very groovy and relevant episode might help."
Watch the Partridge Family Perform 'Bandala'
The show's ability to hint at potentially contentious political issues within a normal family sitcom led to its success. The music worked the same way - even before Cassidy took over the lead vocals, the first Partridge Family album bounces between ballads, upbeat pop and a kind of late-60's rock fusion that could cajole the most conservative of parents into buying a David Cassidy lunchbox.
The legacy of The Partridge Family lives in the shadow of Cassidy's work - for the show, for its producers, for his armies of pre-teen girl fans. His tireless commitment to recording, filming and performing exhausted him. An infamous and cynical 1972 Rolling Stone profile looked at him under a microscope - from the cover photo of Cassidy in the nude to confessional interviews with him and the predators in his circuit.
Actorly aspirations from his youth would clash with the direction of the show that primed him as a goofy teen who went on a lot of dates, which made better fare for fanzines. “He’s willing to play a fool," said Claver.
Onstage he commanded a presence like Elvis Presley. But he always ended up giving in. The teen-idol industrial complex bolstered by Tiger Beat and 16 magazine, and the contracts foisted on him by executives, led to a feeling of suffocation and a lack of freedom.
Gloria Stavers of 16 told Cassidy, "If the chain fits, rattle it." Her own pessimism from years in the industry led to her telling Rolling Stone, “David’s passed his peak already."
She was right. The show went on for two more years. It ended up a Saturday-night flop, far behind the genuinely conscious All in the Family. And Cassidy, tired and disinterested with sitcom shenanigans, left Keith Partridge behind. He sold out stadiums to the point of injury to his fans, and once even a death, when a 14-year-old girl in London died. To his credit, the end didn't come suddenly, but gradually, as departure from the public eye coincided with a rise in alcohol abuse.
Watch the Partridge Family Perform 'I Think I Love You'
His 1994 book, a classically sleazy tell-all named, ironically, for the show's theme song from its second season onward, C'mon, Get Happy, lacks a lot of specific gossip outside of the revelation that he slept with Dey and salacious facts about his father. Mostly it relates the women he met or slept with on tour and recounts in exhausting detail the abuse heaped on them by him and his crew. Tim Appelo, writing for Entertainment Weekly, called the book the "straightforward testament of a has-been who never really was."
Assessments made by Cassidy's entourage at the time regarding the music of the Partridge Family hold some truth. The songs are corny and Cassidy's natural showmanship is revealing of a pop-star mentality with its own rewards (sold-out arenas) and limitations (he was never going to be a blues legend).
Kitschy and commercial as it may have been, the music has improved with time, in particular "I Think I Love You," which spent three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. It has echoes of a whole world of pop music, one that was already old-fashioned by the time the show arrived. A Partridge Family album will give you bubblegum pop for sure, but it will be quite excellent bubblegum pop, beautifully and simply written, backed by the Wrecking Crew's excellent musicianship.
But its immense success was no fluke, even if the combination of a marketing blitz and real talent resulted in exhaustion thanks to the demands of a hungry industry.