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Remembering David Cassidy as 'Sleepy Keith,' Rice Krispies Endorser

By Published on .

As the world remembers David Cassidy, who died at 67 on Tuesday, it's impossible to overstate the level and intensity of his fame in the early 1970s—and the peculiar manufactured nature of it. Cassidy was part of the cast of the ABC sitcom "The Partridge Family," which was created as a vehicle for Shirley Jones, who was then already famous as a star of stage and screen—but the show made a global superstar out of Jones' real-life stepson Cassidy.

Jones played Shirley Partridge, the widowed mother of five kids who, with their mom, formed a touring musical group called The Partridge Family. Cassidy played her eldest son and the band's lead singer, Keith Partridge. Studio musicians were originally intended to entirely fake The Partridge Family sound, but Jones and Cassidy had enough talent to actually sing for show's songs (other "Partridge Family" actors lip-synced).

Cassidy was, simply, adorable, and became an overnight obsession for millions of teen and pre-teen girls. Were they in love with Keith Partridge or David Cassidy? In the pre-internet era, when star personas could be carefully controlled, it didn't really matter. And ABC actively encouraged the conflation of the TV character and the actor behind him, as seen in the Rice Krispies ad above, which starred not David Cassidy, but Keith Partridge. The song underpinning the ad is a corny marvel:

Oh we've got Shirley fixing breakfast
Wake up Keith!
Keith is turning over
Wants to sleep!
Wants to sleep!
Kellogg's Rice Krispies
Hear the roar, let it pour!
We've got sleepy Keith Partridge
Waking up, waking up!

It's not hard to understand why Cassidy soon found his Keith Partridge alter ego to be something of an albatross. Though he remained on the show during its full 1970-1974 run and sang for the eight Partridge Family albums, he also went solo in 1971, releasing hit singles that year and his first album, "Cherish," in 1972. And rather shockingly, he appeared naked (cropped below the waist) on the cover of Rolling Stone in May 1972—a bid for artistic independence and emanicipation from his Keith Partridge straightjacket.

A May 22, 1999 Independent (UK) post headlined "Crushed to death at a David Cassidy concert" ("It was 25 years ago today") read, in part,

In 1974, he announced he was to cease performing: concerts at Glasgow, White City and Manchester would be his last. "I feel burnt up inside," he told the Mail. "I'm 24, a big star ... in a position that millions dream of, but the truth is I just can't enjoy it." "Time to disappear to the drawing board for a grown-up image," interpreted the Guardian; "He's going back to the manufacturers for a refit," suggested Melody Maker.

Before the White City show, the tabloids ran photos of Cassidy besieged by hordes of fans in London. After, the pictures were of injured girls being hauled over barriers in front of the stage. The central section of the 35,000 crowd had surged forward when Cassidy appeared; many fainted, were trampled upon or were crushed. One St John Ambulance man said the scale of the injuries reminded him of the Blitz. The director of the British Safety Council called it a "suicide concert."

One of those injured at the White City Stadium show in London on May 26, 1974, was 14-year-old Bernadette Whelan, who had a preexisting heart condition. She died four days after the concert in the hospital.

"Cassidymania" had reached its tragic apex.

David Cassidy remained famous, continuing to record, tour and act though the '70s, '80s, '90's and '00s (and he was on "Celebrity Apprentice" in 2011). But he never really strayed far from his nostalgic appeal to his core female fan base, as seen in this 2001 ad for the Mervyn's department store chain. In it, Cassidy sings "Do You Believe in Magic" (a Lovin' Spoonful song that David's half-brother Shaun, another '70s teen idol, covered in 1978). The song begins,

Do you believe in magic
in a young girl's heart ...

Yes, David. We do believe.

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