Davy Jones may not have been an innovator musically, nor was he the first teen idol. However, he played a key role in The Monkees, the 1960s made-for-TV band that once rivaled The Beatles in popularity and helped create the modern music video. Jones' February 29 death at age 66 has provoked numerous tributes, particularly from Baby Boomers who plastered Jones' grinning image on their bedroom walls, watched every Monkees episode, and swooned at the British heartthrob during his infamous 1971 Brady Bunch guest appearance. But did his teen idol status overshadow the music?
It's not surprising that Jones handled lead vocals on some of The Monkees' most dramatic and theatrical songs. After all, before winning the Monkees role, he had played the Artful Dodger in the West End production of Oliver!; moving to the Broadway production, he earned a Tony nomination for his performance. His Oliver! experience introduced him to pop stardom early on: the cast appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the same night as The Beatles' historic American TV debut. While his decent singing voice and dancing helped him land the Monkees TV show, other traits earned him the gig: his English accent, a Beatles haircut, and the “boy next door” look that producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were looking for. Indeed, his handsome features aided in propelling the show to the top of the ratings. These remain the facts—however, his vocal talents gave several Monkees songs almost iconic status, and his theatrical background enabled him to “sell” a song, to reflect all the adolescent angst his audience was also experiencing. He could also convincingly sing retro-themed tunes that mimicked vaudeville, but did it with a twinkle in his eye.
The following is an “Ultimate Davy Jones” playlist, drawing mostly from his Monkees years:
“I Wanna Be Free” (The Monkees, 1966): This ballad became Jones' unofficial theme song, and while the lyrics may seem a bit cliché (“I wanna be free/ Like the bluebirds flying by me/ Like the waves out on the blue sea”), somehow Jones manages to sound sincere. When he sings “But when I need you beside me/ Stay close enough to guide me, confide in me,” one can almost forgive him for his claim that he will not be tied down under any circumstances. “I wanna be free/ Don't say you love me, say you like me,” he croons, sealing his teen idol status. Interestingly the pilot episode features an uptempo version of the track.
“Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” (More of The Monkees, 1967): This underrated Neil Diamond-penned pop song features a catchy guitar riff and beat, but Jones' enthusiastic vocals ultimately make the track memorable. The song proves that Broadway Jones was capable of rocking.
“Forget That Girl” (Headquarters, 1967): Using a softer tone, Jones sings deftly over bandmate Micky Dolenz's strong drums, the dreamy “ah ahs” after almost every verse further stressing his Lothario image.
“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (single, 1967): Another underrated Diamond gem, the acoustic guitar riff lends a slight edge to this otherwise pop-filled track. Jones perfectly nails the heavily rhythmic lyrics, particularly in the first and second verses.
“She Hangs Out” (Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., 1967): From their best album besides Headquarters, “She Hangs Out” spins the bizarre tale of a man warning his friend about his, um, wayward sister. “Well she hangs out every night,” Jones sings, “You know you best get down here on the double/ Before she gets her pretty little self in trouble/ She's so fine.” The midtempo track even makes Jones sound a bit creepy, with him repeatedly asking his friend “How old d'you say your sister was?” and that “she can teach you a thing or two.” Not surprisingly, Jones wants this experienced woman for himself. While the lyrics may have raised a few eyebrows, Jones somehow makes the song sound relatively innocent.
“Cuddly Toy” (Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., 1967): Penned by Harry Nilsson, the track allows Jones to fully display his musical theater talent. One can visualize Jones' charming side-shuffling dance while hearing this throwback tune.
“Star Collector” (Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., 1967): Think Rick James' “Superfreak” was music's first ode to groupies? Think again: legendary songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King set the precedent. Over the psychedelic Moog (reportedly its first appearance on a rock record), Jones slyly describes a woman who is a “star collector (collector of stars)/ She only aims to please young celebrities.” Clearly he feels attracted to her, but he sings“How can I love her, when I just don't respect her?” How fascinating that a “teenybopper” group would croon a song about loose groupies—did their adolescent fans understand it? In any case, it's a landmark single for the Moog appearance as well as its seamless blend of pop and psychedelia.
“Hard to Believe” (Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., 1967): Cowritten by Jones, this midtempo ballad nicely highlights Jones' strengths: straightforward singing and the ability to convincingly deliver lines such as “I love you, I need you, I do love you.” By 1967, Jones mastered the dreamy, first-love-themed song.
“Daydream Believer” (The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, 1968): One of The Monkees' biggest and most enduring hits, Jones romps his way through this pop classic, his bright voice perfectly accenting the upbeat lyrics. “Cheer up Sleepy Jean,” he cries, seemingly believing in every word. Who else could deliver these very not-rock-and-roll words: “Oh, I could hide 'neath the wings/ Of the bluebird as she sings/ The six o'clock alarm would never ring.” His musical stage past greatly contributes to his iconic performance.
“Valleri” (The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, 1968): Need another example of Jones handling rock vocals? Look no further than this classic track, which features him singing over fuzzy, distorted guitar licks.
“Daddy's Song” (Head, 1968). From one of the weirdest movies of all time, this track could also be considered “Cuddly Toy, Part Two.” Still, Jones' endearing delivery, rooted firmly in vaudeville, makes for a fun listening experience. When he performs the song in the Monkees' film, his dancing partner is none other than Toni Basil of later “Mickey” fame.
“If I Knew” (Monkees Present, 1969): A straightforward love ballad, the track includes some lovely, unusual chord changes and a lilting Jones vocal. For an illustration of Jones' simply effective singing style and surprisingly impressive guitar playing, view this 2010 YouTube video where he briefly performs an excerpt.
“Girl” (Davy Jones, 1971): Sure, “Girl” is cheesy, sugary pop. But no one can deny its importance in popular culture. Flash back to 1971, when Marcia Brady mooned over her crush in the episode “Getting Davy Jones.” Ranked as number 37 on TV Guide's “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” list, the show features Marcia wanting to ask Jones to play at her prom. At one point she sneaks into a Jones recording session, and stares at him with dewy eyes as he records “Girl.” Marcia epitomizes every lovestruck teenage girl, and Jones perfectly fills the role of teen idol, smiling broadly while singing puppy love lyrics like “Thank you girl, for making the morning brighter/ Girl, for making the night time nicer/ Girl, for making a better world for me.”
“You and I” (Justus, 1996): The Monkees' underrated 1996 reunion album—complete with Mike Nesmith—showed that the so-called “Pre-Fab Four” had grown as musicians and singers. This Jones and Dolenz-written track exemplifies the sunny pop the group became known for, yet it still sounds contemporary. Jones' sunny voice obviously remained undimmed by time on this single.
Fans know the rest of Jones' story after The Monkees dissolved. He returned to the stage, eventually co-starring with Dolenz in a 1978 production of Nilsson's musical The Point. He also resumed his boyhood passion, horse racing, and made occasional TV guest appearances. But after MTV began rerunning old Monkees episodes in 1986, Jones, Dolenz, and Peter Tork reunited to play to new generations of fans. The group performed occasionally together, right up until 2011. Sadly, a complete Monkees reunion can never occur again. However, Jones will always be remembered for his role in a band whose complex story still fascinates over 40 years later.