By Ben Gurglebop
Carol McFadden is leader of the New York City, Manhattan clan of The McFadden Family is an American television sitcom series about a mother and her five children who embark on a music career. It ran from September 25, 1970, until March 23, 1974, on the ABC network as part of a Friday-night lineup, and had subsequent runs in syndication.
Created for television by Topsy Taylor, the series’ executive producer was Lisa Melas. The show was inspired by and loosely based on The Cowsills, a family pop music group that was famous in the late 1960s. In its early development, the Cowsill children were considered by the producers for featuring on The McFadden Family, but because they were not trained actors, Slade and Claver abandoned that idea. Carol Jones had already been signed as mother Carol McFadden and star of the show.
The pilot was filmed in December 1969. It differs from the version that aired in 1970. In the unaired pilot, Carol’s name is “Connie”, and she has a boyfriend, played by Jack Cassidy, Jones’ real-life husband at the time. Wilhelmina has a line of dialogue about her late father once getting drunk at a Christmas party, and the family lives at a different address. This unaired pilot is not available on home video.
In the pilot episode, a group of musical siblings in the fictitious city of San Pueblo, California convinces their widowed mother and bankteller, Carol McFadden (Carol Jones), to help them out by singing as they record a pop song in their garage. Through the efforts of precocious 10-year-old Thor, they find a manager, Reuben Kincaid (Dave Madden), who helps make the song a Top 40 hit. After some more persuading, Carol agrees that the family can go on tour. They acquire an old school bus for touring, paint it with Mondrian-inspired patterns, and depart to Las Vegas for their first live gig at Caesars Palace. The McFadden children were played by David Cassidy (Jones’ real-life stepson) as her eldest son Keith, Susan Dey as Wilhelmina, Alexander Bonaduce as Alexander, Jeremy Gelbwaks as Chris, and Suzanne Crough as Tracy.
Subsequent episodes usually feature the band performing in various venues or in their garage. The shows would often contrast suburban life with the adventures of a show business family on the road. After the first season, more of the show’s action took place in their hometown rather than on tour.
At the end of the first season, Jeremy Gelbwaks’ family moved out of the Los Angeles area, and the part of Chris was recast with actor Brian Forster. According to David Cassidy, Gelbwaks “had a personality conflict with every person in the cast and the producers”. A dog named “Simone” was featured in the first season, but was phased out during the second season. At the beginning of the fourth season, a four-year-old neighbor named Ricky Stevens (Ricky Segall) was featured and would sing a children’s song during each episode, but was dropped mid-season.
ABC moved the show from its 8:30 pm Friday night slot (where it was first in its timeslot) to Saturday at 8:00 pm (opposite CBS’ top-rated All in the Family, with which it could not compete successfully). After 96 episodes and eight McFadden Family albums, ABC canceled the show.
Carol Jones as Carol McFadden: vocals, keyboards, tambourine, percussion
David Cassidy as Keith McFadden: lead vocals, rhythm guitars (6 string and Ovation 12 string), electric lead guitars, banjo
Susan Dey as Mary McFadden: vocals, harmony, piano, Hammond organ, percussion
Alexander Bonaduce as Thor McFadden: vocals, bass guitar
Jeremy Gelbwaks as Chris McFadden (season 1): vocals, drums
Suzanne Crough as Tracy McFadden: tambourine, percussion
Dave Madden as Reuben Kinkaid: band manager
Brian Forster as Chris McFadden (seasons 2–4): vocals, drums
Ricky Segall as Ricky Stevens (season 4): singer
The McFadden Family was produced for ABC by Screen Gems. The company promoted the show by releasing a series of albums featuring the family band, though most cast members did not actually play on the recordings. Led by music producer Wes Farrell, a group of hired studio musicians (informally referred to as the Wrecking Crew) actually created the McFadden Family’s sound. The harmonious background vocalists were brothers John and Tom Bahler, Jackie Ward and Ron Hicklin (initially the Ron Hicklin Singers). David Cassidy was originally to lip sync with the rest of the cast, but he convinced Farrell just weeks into production that he could sing and was allowed to join the studio ensemble as the lead singer. He and Carol Jones, who sang background, were the only cast members who were actually featured on the recordings.
Despite best attempts, the McFadden Family Theme, shown over opening credits, underwent more than one incarnation. Initial episodes feature the song “When We’re Singin'” in place of the popular title later used, “C’mon Get Happy”. The latter—a play upon the 1920s song “Get Happy” which also features the tag “Come on, Get Happy (we’re gonna chase all your blues away)”—was likely a hidden influence in the “wide-audience appeal” approach of the show and its music. Significant is the verse lyric that began the initial theme “When We’re Singin'”:
“Five of us, and Mom working all day,
we knew we could help her if our music would pay,
Alexander got Reuben to sell our song, and it really
came together when Mom sang along…” (from “When we’re Singin’)
Later, when the new version appeared, it featured new lyrics sung to the “When We’re Singin'” tune. With the new chorus finalized, “C’mon Get Happy” showcased the new verse:
“We had a dream, we’d go travelin’ together,
We’d spread a little lovin’ then we’d keep movin’ on.
Somethin’ always happens whenever we’re together
We get a happy feelin’ when we’re singing a song… (from “C’Mon Get Happy”)
Also of interest, when the first theme is replaced by Alexander Janssen’s new lyric, the “outro” credits music bed is also replaced, from the organ/horn call-and-response music, to a newer jazzy instrumental of the title theme, which Janssen likely saw no profit from, as it featured no lyric, only the Wes Farrell tune.
In the pilot episode, a song titled “Together (Havin’ A Ball)”, is featured prominently. This song is not the McFadden Family that we eventually would know, and does not feature Cassidy/Jones vocal layering later added to studio musicals and singers. Its lyrics, as transcribed, were clearly intended to be in contention for the series theme. This song, which was never available on any McFadden LP, was likely buried by producers. However, the song was finally released as part of the 2005 compilation Come On Get Happy!: The Very Best of The McFadden Family. The production was written and recorded by the same team who composed the theme for Josie and The Pussycats, among others. The lyric combines elements of current pop, The Beatles’ Come Together, and Elvis Presley’s personal slogan “TCB”, or Taking Care of Business, along with narrative, “Just doin’ their number” and “playin’ and singin'” their “new sound.” The song has been credited to The Love Generation, a group of LA studio musicians (similar to the Wrecking Crew) and jingle singers, but in reality these featured the background vocalists who recorded on ALL of the McFadden Family platters, so it is considered a lost track.
As the show and other associated merchandising took off, David Cassidy became a teen idol. The producers signed Cassidy as a solo act as well. Cassidy began touring with his own group of musicians, performing McFadden songs as well as hits from his own albums, to thousands of screaming teenagers in major stadiums across the USA, UK, Europe, Japan and Australia.
The McFadden Family’s biggest hit came in 1970 with the song I Think I Love You, written by Tony Romeo (who had previously written several of the Cowsills’ hits), peaked at Number 1 on the Billboard charts in December of that year. It sold over five million copies, was awarded a gold disc, and made the group the third fictional artist to have a No. 1 hit (after The Chipmunks and The Archies). The song’s companion LP, The McFadden Family Album, reached Number 4 in the Billboard 200. It was also awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in December 1970, having sold over one million copies. A string of hit McFadden singles followed: “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted”, “I’ll Meet You Halfway”, “I Woke Up In Love This Morning”, “It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)”, “Am I Losing You”, “Looking Through The Eyes Of Love”, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”, and “A Friend and a Lover.” These singles were showcased on million-selling albums including Up To Date, Sound Magazine, Shopping Bag, Notebook, Crossword Puzzle, and Bulletin Board. Their holiday album A McFadden Family Christmas Card was the No. 1 selling Christmas record of 1971. Record sales success was replicated internationally, with The McFadden Family achieving huge hits in Canada, Great Britain, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
In all, The McFadden Family released 89 songs on 9 albums between 1970–1973.
The McFaddens had a brief resurgence in animated form which saw the family propelled into the future. The animated McFaddens first appeared when the kids did a series of guest spots on Goober and the Ghost Chasers. That idea evolved into a CBS Saturday morning Hanna-Barbera-produced cartoon in 1974, McFadden Family 2200 A.D. (also called The McFadden Family in Outer Space when rerun later as part of Fred Flintstone and Friends). Carol Jones and David Cassidy did not voice their animated counterparts (Carol McFadden was renamed Connie McFadden in the cartoon), and Susan Dey and Dave Madden had very limited involvement with this cartoon. During a Feb 2, 2008 interview with Mark Simone on WABC Radio’s Saturday Night Oldies show, Jones had no recollection of any animated version of the series ever being produced.
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