“Hey! Hey! We’re the Monkees!” If you were alive during the late 1960s or if you experienced the MeTV revivals over 25 years later, you are probably picturing the side-step walking of the four companions and are singing the rest of the words to the chorus.
The Monkees were one of the most successful rock and roll groups of the 1960s. Lone surviving band member Micky Dolenz headlines the 2023 edition of Abbey Road on the River at the Big Four Bridge in Jeffersonville starting this evening.
1965 was a pivotal one in the progress of rock music. Fourteen acts hit number one for the first time on the Billboard Hot 100 charts including The Temptations, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Herman’s Hermits, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five and Sonny & Cher. Record companies, concert promoters, advertisers, marketers, and television producers were trying to determine a way to cash in on the popularity and success.
The Monkees were conceived in 1965 by television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Their idea was to feature a television sitcom around the antics of a fictional music band. The pair secured the talent of music producer and promoter Don Kirshner. You may remember that name from the weekly show Don Kirshner’s Rock Concerts which aired late night on Friday evenings. Kirshner would also manage groups like Kansas and The Archies, as well as producing music for television hits I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched.
Rafelson and Schneider first thought of casting the existing group, The Lovin’ Spoonful, in the role. But John Sebastian had already signed the group to a recording contract. The exclusive rights would have eliminated Screen Gems ability to market music from the show. Instead they began to focus their attention on someone who was another guest on the Ed Sullivan Show’s first appearance of The Beatles. Davy Jones performed on the Feb. 9, 1964 show. He had been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance as the Artful Dodger in Broadway’s Oliver!
Four hundred thirty-seven others auditioned for the remaining three roles for the group. Michael Nesmith was the only one who actually saw and responded to the ad in Daily Variety. Peter Tork worked as a musician in Greenwich Village and learned of the group from his friend Stephen Stills. Micky Dolenz was an aspiring actor who had worked for a Screen Gems television series before. He learned of the audition through his agent.
In assigning instruments for the staging of the television series, it was uncertain who would play the drums. Nesmith was skilled on both guitar and bass but knew little about the drums. Tork, who could play stringed instruments and keyboard, was familiar but not enough to actually play. Jones felt he could keep a beat on the drums, but producers were afraid that his short stature would never be seen above the cymbals. That left Dolenz who only knew how to play the guitar. Tork taught him a couple of beats so he could fake it through the filming. Dolenz later took lessons to play properly.
The television series only lasted two seasons (September 1966 through March 1968) but the group continued on until the group slowly went their own ways. Tork bought his way out of the contract in 1968 and Nesmith left in June of 1970. Dolenz and Jones finished the Monkees final recording session in September of 1970.
Let’s finish our thoughts today with some Monkees trivia. The pilot episode for the television series set two records at the time. “Here Come the Monkees” was the title of the episode and the first version of it set a record for the lowest rating for a TV pilot. A re-edited second version of the same episode featured footage of the screen tests of Davy and Michael and enjoyed one of the highest test ratings at the time.
The four Monkees were each paid $450 per episode during the first season. They received a $300 raise for the second season. They enjoyed the standard royalty rates for the music when they wrote the songs, but many of their hits were composed by others. They got almost nothing for the marketing and sales of their merchandise. The Monkees name was on everything from Thermos lunch boxes to Kool-aid boxes.
Peter and Micky participated in all 58 episodes of the TV series. Davy was written out of one episode so that he could attend his sister’s wedding. Michael was written out of three shows – one for tonsillectomy, one for the birth of his son, and one to make a trip home to Texas.
The show was about to be renewed for a third season, but The Monkees wanted to change the format to an hour variety show where they would introduce new artists. NBC did not want to chance the radical change so they cancelled the series. The show was filmed on the Columbia Pictures studio lot using the sets and props from The Three Stooges. Nyuck. Nyuck. Nyuck.
After the first season ended, Davy Jones disappeared from the public eye for about two months. Teen magazines circulated several rumors about the condition of his health. Some even speculated his death. The truth came out much later that Jones had received a draft notice and began to lose weight in order to fail the physical. Believe it or not, the scheme worked.
People who tried out for The Monkees but didn’t make it include Paul Williams, Stephen Stills, Danny Hutton (of Three Dog Night) and Harry Nilsson. The misspelling of the word “monkees” is an allusion to The Beatles and their misspelled group name. Their movie A Hard Day’s Night provided inspiration for the series.
From the Catbird Seat, take advantage of the music and fun this weekend at the music festival, Abbey Road on the River. You will hear bands playing tribute to groups, music, and memories.
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