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David Cassidy was the rare breakout pop star in a decade full of rock gods

The ’70s were short on fresh-faced teen idols. Partridge Family star David Cassidy was an exception.

Promotional photo for the Partridge Family, 1970.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

David Cassidy, the shaggy-haired star of The Partridge Family whose teen heartthrob appeal made him one of the most enduring male icons of the ’70s, passed away Tuesday at a Florida hospital following organ failure and a battle with dementia. He was 67.

Publicist John Geffen released a statement from Cassidy’s family to Variety:

On behalf of the entire Cassidy family, it is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our father, our uncle, and our dear brother, David Cassidy. David died surrounded by those he loved, with joy in his heart and free from the pain that had gripped him for so long. Thank you for the abundance and support you have shown him these many years.

Born in 1950 in New York, Cassidy was the son of performers Evelyn Ward and Jack Cassidy, and though he grew up out of the limelight, he ultimately followed in their footsteps. And as soon as he set out for Hollywood, he seemed destined for success: After moving to Los Angeles in 1969, he was cast as the star of the 1970 musical comedy sitcom The Partridge Family, alongside his stepmother, the Oscar-winning actress and singer Shirley Jones.

As widowed mother Shirley and her irrepressible son Keith Partridge, Jones and Cassidy played lightly fictionalized versions of themselves — two entertainers in a family full of them that decides to stick together and seek success as a group. The oldest of the four Partridge children, Cassidy managed to unite a generation of flower children with the wholesome family values of primetime TV sitcoms in America, and audiences loved it.

The same year, the show’s accompanying pop group the Partridge Family, which featured Cassidy as lead vocalist and Jones as backup, released “I Think I Love You.” The song became a No. 1 single and Cassidy’s most enduring hit, and famously appeared more than two decades later in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The song was also used as part of a famously racy series of Levi’s commercials for the company’s 1996 ad “Elevator.”

The Partridge Family ran for four years, propelling its lead actor to the height of Hollywood fame and teen idol status. Cassidy’s fan base spawned “Cassidymania,” at one point growing so intense that approximately 800 fans were injured in a mob crush at a 1974 Cassidy solo concert in London — deemed then to be his final concert before his retirement. The stampede resulted in the death of a 14-year-old girl. “I haven’t slept well since,” Cassidy told reporters shortly afterward.

Cassidy’s fame was a mark of his rare pop idol status

As this incident illustrates, Cassidy was an anomaly in his day, a rare fresh-faced teen idol breaking out in a cultural moment when generational disaffection and cultural anxieties were producing very different rock icons. When people think of ’70s singers, they tend to gravitate first to rougher rock icons like Mick Jagger or Sid and Nancy. Yet Cassidy, on the pop side of the ’70s, was one of the biggest artists of the decade.

At the peak of his fame, Cassidy was the world’s highest-paid solo artist, and he sold a whopping 30 million records over the course of his career. Still, his status as the only real teen idol of the ’70s meant that like other pop icons, he wasn’t taken seriously. The fact that his fan base — to whom he remained devoted over his lifetime — consisted primarily of women was seen as a cultural demerit.

After his first years of fame, Cassidy struggled to maintain his success. Although he received an Emmy nomination for an episode of the short-lived 1978 drama Police Story, his career waned, and he described himself as being broke by the 1980s due to shady business managers.

“I was one of the wealthiest young male entertainers in the world then, but 10 years later I had nothing to show for it. By the 1980s I was broke and had to rebuild my life,” he told the Telegraph in an interview earlier this year. Throughout the latter half of his life, he struggled with financial difficulties and alcoholism. Between 2010 and 2014, he was arrested several times on charges related to drunk driving, and entered rehab multiple times. He was married several times, ultimately divorcing each of his three wives, and filed for bankruptcy in 2015.

Cassidy continued to perform and tour throughout the latter half of his life, finding success in Broadway musicals like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the acclaimed musical Blood Brothers. Earlier this year, the star announced that he had been struggling with dementia, and would formally retire with a final concert at B.B. King’s House of Blues. On his website, he wrote, “I want every single person who will ever read this, or hear this, to know that their love and care for me, and concern for me, means everything in the world.”

On social media, celebrities spoke about Partridge’s passing, including Danny Bonaduce, his co-star on The Partridge Family:

Cassidy is survived by his family, including his stepmother Jones, his daughter Katie Cassidy, and his son Beau Cassidy — two entertainers who, like their father before them, followed in their family’s footsteps.