Michael Nesmith, singer-songwriter for the Monkees, has died at the age of 78

Michael Nesmith, the singer-songwriter who was the creative heart of the 1960s pop group The Monkees, died of heart failure at his home in Carmel Valley, California, on Friday. He was 78.

“It is with infinite love that we announce that Michael Nesmith passed away peacefully and of natural causes this morning at his home surrounded by his family,” his family said in a statement to Rolling Stone.

Nesmith rose to fame when he was cast as a member of the Monkees, a made-for-television rock and roll group fronted by Bob Rafelson and Don Kirshner. The Monkees became one of the most successful rock bands of the 1960s, selling more than 75 million records worldwide and topping the charts with “Last train to Clarksville“, “i am a believer” and “daydreamer.”

Four men in a band stand around a piano

The Monkees on the set of their TV show in August 1967.

(Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images)

Despite their success, Nesmith bucked the notion that the group was a producers’ creation, and distracted the Monkees from their ready-made origins by urging the band’s record label to release the group on Headquarters, their third album, their to play their own instruments. Nesmith was the only member of the Monkees to regularly write original material, with “Maria, Maria“, “You can only be the one” and “The girl I knew somewhere‘ is one of his trademarks for the band. He also found success as a songwriter outside the group when Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys featured his “Other drum‘ in 1967.

It was then that the guitarist in the woolly hat began to introduce elements of country music into the Monkees, a musical direction he continued to pursue after leaving the band in 1970. He formed the First National Band, one of the first country rock bands to achieve commercial success, but he ended up spending most of his career playing on the fringes of pop rock music while serving as a pioneer in home video.

An older singer in a black jacket is standing on the stage.

Michael Nesmith performs during the Monkees Farewell Tour on October 08, 2021 in Atlanta.

(Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

The only child of Warren and Bette Nesmith, Michael Nesmith was born on December 30, 1942 in Houston. His parents divorced when he was 4 years old and he stayed with his mother who moved to Dallas to be closer to the family. In 1951, while working as a clerk for Texas Bank and Trust, she developed Liquid Paper, a typewriter correction product; She sold the company to Gillette in 1979 for $48 million, an estate her son would inherit upon her death in 1980.

Michael Nesmith showed some interest in music and theater while attending Thomas Jefferson High School. He left school in 1960 to join the Air Force and was honorably discharged in 1962. While attending San Antonio College, he began singing folk music with John Kuehne, who took the name John London when the couple went to Los Angeles to try to break into the music business.

Nesmith released his first single “Wanderin'” in 1963. It didn’t garner much attention, nor did the recordings he released in 1965 under the pseudonym Michael Blessing, but his songs began to find an audience through other performers. Frankie Laine recorded Nesmith’s Pretty Little Princess in 1965 and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band recordedMaria, Maria‘ on his groundbreaking 1966 LP East-West.

Despite these successes, Nesmith was struggling to make ends meet, so he decided to audition for The Monkees, a television show that producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider had adapted from the Beatles’ comedy films. Each of the four members of the Monkees was chosen to fulfill a specific archetype. Nesmith was considered the “serious” member of the Monkees, contrasting with the wacky Micky Dolenz, the sweet heartthrob Davy Jones and the gregarious Peter Tork. Nesmith was not lacking in humor: he was laconic and sardonic, traits that served him well on screen.

The Monkees became a pop phenomenon after the television series debuted in September 1966. While Nielsen’s ratings have been solid, the group’s record sales have been staggering. Their first two LPs, The Monkees and More of the Monkees, topped the Billboard album chart for 31 consecutive weeks in 1966 and 1967, led by hits like Last Train to Clarksville, I’m a believer”. and “A little me, a little you.”

The four men of the'60s rock band The Monkees

The Monkees’ first two LPs topped the Billboard album chart for 31 straight weeks, led by hits like “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.”

(Archive Michael Ochs)

Although the Monkees played instruments on television, music director Don Kirshner would not allow the group to play in the studio. Kirshner agreed to record original Nesmith songs – he placed “Papa Genes Blues‘ on the debut ‘Mary, Mary’ (later sampled by AroundmC) on “More of the Monkees” — but the songwriter soon grew frustrated, not only with being creatively stifled, but also with the growing perception that they were puppets for the producers. Nesmith mobilized his bandmates to have a greater say in their music, and by the time the group recorded their third album, Headquarters, with producer Chip Douglas, Kirshner stopped working with them.

“Headquarters” and its fast-paced follow-up, “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.” found the Monkees at their commercial and creative peak exploring psychedelia and burgeoning country rock. The group may have thrived on a record footing — “The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees” generated hits in “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” — but their television show was canceled after its second season in 1968. The Monkees made another venture into the visual arts, shooting the trippy, postmodern comedy Head with director Rafelson and co-writer Jack Nicholson, but the film flopped, supporting the notion that the Monkees were in commercial decline. Tork soon left the group and Nesmith followed him after completing work on two Monkees albums in 1969.

Nesmith met with John Kuehne in the First National Band, a country rock band inspired by the Flying Burrito Brothers. The First National Band had a modest hit with “Joanne‘ on their 1970 debut Magnetic South, the first of three albums the band released for RCA between 1970 and 1971. Nesmith continued with a revamped line-up he dubbed the Second National Band, eventually becoming a solo act in the mid-1970s.

This transition coincided with his formation of Pacific Arts Corporation in 1974. Originally conceived as a way to release his ambitious The Prison, an album conceived as A Book With a Soundtrack, Pacific Arts became Nesmith’s platform for experimenting with music videos. He began with a short clip for his 1977 single “Rio” and created the influential long-form video “Elephant Parts” in 1981, which broke music and comedy skits. “Elephant Parts” won the first Grammy Award for video in 1981. Nesmith’s Pacific Arts branched out into film production in the 1980s, producing cult classics like Repo Man and Tapeheads.

After skipping the Monkees 20th anniversary reunion tour, he returned for the 30th anniversary and recorded the new album Justus in 1996. Nesmith participated in most Monkees reunions for the rest of his life, including their final studio albums. “Good times!” and “Christmas Party” as well as the Monkees’ recent farewell tour. The last stop of the tour was the Greek Theater in LA on November 14, 2021.

Nesmith leaves behind four children: Christian, Jonathan and Jessica with ex-wife Phyllis Barbour Nesmith and Jason with Nurit Wilde. Michael Nesmith, singer-songwriter for the Monkees, has died at the age of 78

Caroline Bleakley

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