At 24, the former teen idol wanted to grow, but then the White City tragedy happened. At a show of 30,000+ fans, panic and pandemonium resulted in over 800 people requiring medical attention and led to the death of a 14-year-old girl.
All photos By Danny Fields
On the Sunday night of May 26, 1974, David Cassidy took to the stage of London’s vast White City Stadium—built for the 1908 Olympics and demolished in 1985—in front of the largest crowd he would ever again perform for.
Cassidy, who died on November 21, 2017, was not slowing down as a major audience attraction; quite the opposite—for three years, he had been one of the biggest box-office draws in the world, but had made it clear that this United Kingdom tour, would be the end of playing stadiums as this planet’s #1“teen idol,” and the beginning of a new, hopefully more grown-up phase of his explosive career in show business.
A month earlier, David had turned 24; but to his millions of worshipping young (mainly female) fans around the world, he was “Keith Partridge,” the 16-year-old lead singer in a fictional family band on the hit TV series, The Partridge Family.
David Cassidy’s name and/or likeness had reaped an estimated $500 million dollars (a lot of money back then—little of which went to him) worth of merchandise; more than four million Partridge Family albums were sold in 1971 alone, and the single “I Think I Love You” went to Number One on the charts. He was, in fact, the first musical solo star to have emerged from a television series, and a very very big star at that.
Cassidy had once wanted to be a serious actor, but he was trapped as goofy adorable “Keith Partridge”—if he left the TV show, it would collapse, as would the jobs of dozens of others connected with the project, including Oscar-winning Shirley Jones, David Cassidy’s actual stepmother, and his singing Partridge Family mom on television.
“Like it or not, I had to be publicly cutesy and an eternal virginal teenager, when I was turning 20 in real life,” David told me some years later.
“In fact?” I asked.
“In fact,” he said, “I was a wild fucking maniac, banging every girl I could.”
And now, in May 1974, he was trapped selling out stadiums, singing the hits from his “early” years, surrounded with an entourage, and hiding under a rug on the floor of a getaway car, as his minders rested their feet on his body, insisting to the eager fans who knew he was somehow nearby, that they’d heard David Cassidy was in a car somewhere behind this one.
Sunday night at White City was going to be Cassidy’s next-to-the-last show in the UK. There would be one more big event, at the Manchester City Football Ground two days later, and that would be the planned end of stadium shows for David forever.
“Won’t you miss this life and all this adoration when you retire from touring?” David Cassidy was asked by a BBC interviewer the night before White City Stadium, for which 30,000 tickets had been swooped up in two days.
“I’m not retiring,” David answered. “I’m at some kind of height, and it’s a good time to leave. I’m still going to be writing, making records, working all the time. I need to grow.”
At the time of the White City Concert, I was an editor at 16 Magazine, where David Cassidy had reigned as THE “fave” until the Partridge Family TV show ratings in America began to slip, and with them David’s exalted status. But, the show didn’t even start airing in the UK until it was at its peak in the United States, and so David still came into the lives of teenage girls in the United Kingdom once a week, and across the Atlantic, he was a gigantic star.
I’d been in London that May to work with my friend Linda McCartney on her first book of photographs, and got myself a VIP pass to the White City show. I’d been close to David a few years earlier researching a story (never published, btw) about him in 1971 for an American magazine, and I had been in the middle of Cassidy-mania at its USA height, occasionally resting my feet on the rug into which he’d been rolled and hidden as his car made its escape. No intention of “hanging” with David, that night; I just wanted to see what his show was like in another country, three years later.
In a large fenced off area in front of the stage, we VIP grown-ups shared the relatively open space with ambulances unloading stretchers, and dozens of security people. Behind a double row of barricades, 30,000+ fans had moved down from the upper rows, and were pressing forward, squeezing, pushing, pressing the kids at the front up against the fence.
I got a few pictures of David, but the real show was not on the stage, but in the crowd, which was surging forward relentlessly.
Quoting myself from the photo-report I sent back to 16Magazine:
“It was a scene of panic and pandemonium, as fans—crushed against the barriers by the surging thousands behind them—became frightened and hysterical. The security forces were lifting the injured and unconscious from out of the throng and carrying them to a makeshift hospital area under the stadium. Over 800 of them required medical attention, scores were hospitalized and one girl, 14-year-old Bernadette Whelan, never regained consciousness and died in the hospital two days later.”
News of the disaster was headlined throughout the UK, and when David, distressed and depressed, arrived in Manchester for the final concert of the tour, he found himself performing to mere 8,000 fans out of 20,000 tickets sold; most parents had refused to let their daughters attend the event.
Ever the pro, David gamely did his show, wearing a Manchester City Football jersey, and closing the night with Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
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