Hey, Hey, He’s a Monkee!
TSO Super Pops!
Feb. 8, 7:30 pm; Feb. 9, 2 pm
Micky Dolenz — The Voice of The Monkees
Those of us who were kids in the ’60s vividly remember the iconic TV show whose opening credits spotlighted four young musicians paling around together like they hadn’t a care in the world. And for a while, they were truly on top of the world, with a string of hits that included “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Daydream Believer,” and “I’m a Believer.” Those three songs were written by the powerhouse performers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, John Stewart, and Neil Diamond respectively. And tellingly, the first and the third numbers were sung by Micky Dolenz, who was best known on the TV series as the goofball drummer, but who had solid credentials both as a musician and an actor.
Micky, the son of actor George Dolenz (who played The Count of Monte Cristo on TV in 1956) and actress Janelle Johnson, who had several small parts in films before she retired from the profession, began his career as the star of the 1950s series Circus Boy, set in a travelling circus in the late-1800s. When the show went off the air in 1958, Micky went on to a fairly low-key high school and college life, learned to play guitar, and joined a rock band.
But show business had another turn in store for him, and he became one of 400-plus hopefuls who auditioned for The Monkees, conceived as a series about a rock band that had more ambition than luck. Though famously, serious rockers like Stephen Stills tried out for the show, it was Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Davy Jones who were picked for the cast. Contrary to rumors that the four guys were just camera-ready actors with scant musical skills, each member of the group had already worked as a musician and/or singer, including Jones’ stint in the musical Oliver!, Tork’s folk music performances in Greenwich Village, and Nesmith’s time playing bass and guitar and singing in LA.
“The screen tests were quite extensive,” Dolenz recalls. “They included acting, improvisation, scene study, and as well as playing music and singing. Clearly, they had in mind that if everything went well and we managed to sell the show, we would record and eventually go on the road. So you had to be able to play and sing to get into the auditions. My audition piece was ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by Chuck Berry.”
Dolenz mentions the combination of good luck and industry savvy that went into creating the show. “Like one of the Monkees’ producers once said, ‘We caught lightning in a bottle.’ That comment says it all,” he observes. “Everybody asks, ‘At the time, did you realize how successful it was going to be?’ Of course not … no one knows. You hope, you do your best, and sometimes you think, ‘That’s pretty good. I kind of like that one!’”
The series ran from 1966 to 1968, and during the run of the show, there were numerous recording sessions, and even live tours. Touring as not only a rock band, but pop cultural icons with a hit TV show, put The Monkees in a class of their own. Scores of nearly hysterical fans turned up for the concerts, and they weren’t always kind to the opening acts, including a then-unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. “In concerts now, I’ll play a bit of ‘Purple Haze’ and tell the story of Jimi trying to perform while the kids were screaming, ‘We want Davy!’” Dolenz notes.
As a guitarist himself (he trained in classical guitar, and then ventured into folk and rock), Dolenz could definitely relate to Jimi’s struggles. He had a challenge of his own, too. Once he was cast in the show, he was told he’d be playing the drums, as well as singing.
“The truth was, I only had to learn The Monkee songs,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was in a cover band and had to know whatever was on the radio at the time. I do not consider myself a pro studio cat in any stretch of the imagination. I loved doing it. I ended up also singing most of the leads, which can be a little bit of a challenge when you’re the drummer. The drummer is supposed to keep time, and the lead vocal tends to drift across the bar lines. It’s like that old thing of rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time!”
After the series ended, producer Bob Rafelson (working with a then-unknown Jack Nicholson) wrote the truly psychedelic feature Head for the group. The movie didn’t burn up the box office, but it became a cult classic, featuring appearances by everyone from matinee idol Victor Mature to boxer Sonny Liston to rock legend Frank Zappa.
Dolenz has stayed busy in show business over the years, directing, acting, writing (including, with Mark Bego, the autobiography I’m A Believer: My Life of Monkees, Music, and Madness) and continuing to record and tour.
Fans at the TSO show can look forward to hearing not only Monkees tunes, but also works by one of Dolenz’s favorite groups — The Beatles. He was actually at original recording sessions for some of the Fab Four tunes he’ll sing, and he is excited to share with audiences the stories of those adventures and perform the songs. “It’s unbelievable to sing something like ‘Sgt. Pepper,’” he comments. “The Beatles never even sang that live.”
This will not be his first trip to the Grand Canyon State. “I’ve been to Arizona many times, all over the area. I’ve got my good buddy Alice Cooper out there, whom I play golf with up in Phoenix. I love the area.” In fact, he and fellow Monkee Michael Nesmith (who, fans will recall, wrote Linda Ronstadt’s hit ‘Different Drum’), will perform in Phoenix on April 14 with The Monkees Present the Mike and Micky Show.
As for what Dolenz does when he’s not touring and performing, he says that he has a “bunch of hobbies,” everything from bowling to gardening to woodworking. “I make fine furniture pieces with my daughter Georgia and my sister Coco called Dolenz & Daughters Fine Furniture,” he reveals.
But what he will always be known for is being a vital part of the pop phenomenon that was The Monkees. “I’m blessed to have been part of that,” he concludes. “It’s given me a very comfortable life, and to this day, I go out there and sing those wonderful songs and enjoy every minute of it.”
TCC Music Hall. 882-8585. Tucsonsymphony.org.