Michael Nesmith: Founding member of The Monkees

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  • Michael Nesmith
    American musician, songwriter, actor
“Where do you want to be in the Sixties except the middle of rock’n’roll,” said Nesmith, ‘hanging out with the scene?”  (Getty)
“Where do you want to be in the Sixties except the middle of rock’n’roll,” said Nesmith, ‘hanging out with the scene?” (Getty)

“Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees, people say we monkey around, but we’re too busy singing to put anybody down…” ran the chorus of The Monkee’s theme tune, part of the musical memory of anyone growing up in the Sixties and Seventies.

The Monkees – Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith – were conceived in the mid-Sixties as a made-for-television group, an American response to the popularity of The Beatles and their A Hard Day’s Night musical film.

Nesmith, who has died aged 78, was a founder member of the band and a lyricist who penned several of their songs. He was instantly recognisable among the four for his good looks, trademark green beanie hat and quiet demeanour.

Broadcast throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, their television series – with a mix of music and zany slapstick comedy – made them a favourite of young American and British TV audiences.

Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas, in 1942. Following his parents’ divorce when he was four, he was brought up by his mother, Bette McMurray. She would go on to invent “Liquid Paper” correcting fluid and leave her son a substantial fortune upon her death in 1980.

Educated at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas, Texas, Nesmith spent a brief period in the Air Force, and went on to college in San Antonio, where he met his first wife, Phyllis Ann Barbour, a businesswoman and political activist.

His first musical release was the Buddy Holly-sounding Wanderin’/ Well, Well, Well (1963), under the alias Michael Blessing. He was talent spotted in the 1960s while DJing and singing at the Troubadour Club, West Hollywood, and invited to take a role in a new television project.

From left: Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith (Getty)
From left: Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith (Getty)

Dolenz recalled: “The Monkees was a TV show about an imaginary band, a band that wanted to be The Beatles. Bands all over the country wanted to be The Beatles. We were a band (as portrayed on the TV show) that was never successful.”

From 1967, Nesmith and his fellow band members sought to regain control from their producer, turning the “fake four” into a real-world phenomenon. Although never successful in their small-screen roles, The Monkees attracted significant acclaim from fans, as reflected in their chart breakthroughs. Their hits included “I’m a Believer” – which spent seven weeks at No 1 in the US charts – and “Daydream Believer”, with four weeks in the top spot. Nesmith’s own contributions to the band’s repertoire included “Mary, Mary” (1967), “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” (1967) and “Listen to the Band” (1969).

The Monkees in 1967 (Getty)
The Monkees in 1967 (Getty)

Interviewed later, Nesmith recalled the era with fondness. “It was fun for me and a great time of my life,” he said. “I mean, where do you want to be in the Sixties except the middle of rock’n’roll, hanging out with the scene? London was an absolute blast, and so was LA back then. There was so much going on…”

When The Monkees disbanded in 1970, Nesmith continued in the world of music with a number of solo projects. In 1977 he was asked by Chris Blackwell of Island Records to create a promotional video for his new single, “Rio”. Instead of a standard format, with a singer or band playing the song, he devised a montage of moving images that told the story, accompanied by the music. A longer-form video, Elephant Parts (1981), featuring “Rio”, won the first Grammy award for Video of the Year.

The Rio project gave Nesmith the idea for creating a programme showing solely video, named PopClips, which in turn inspired the development of the MTV music television channel.

Nesmith released his autobiography, Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff, in 2017 and performed on a final tour with The Monkees last autumn, with a final show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Dolenz said in tribute, “I’m so grateful that we could spend the last couple of months together doing what we loved best – singing, laughing, and doing shtick.”

He was married three times. First to Phyllis Barbour, with whom he had two sons and one daughter. They divorced in 1972. He had another son with Nurit Wilde, a photographer. He was then married to Kathryn Bild from 1976 to 1988. His third marriage, to Victoria Kennedy, was from 2000 to 2011.

Michael Nesmith, musician, born 30 December 1942, died 10 December 2020

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