Ward Sylvester, a pivotal figure in the career of The Monkees, their television series, live performances, and more, passed away on June 11, 2017. He was 77. Ward managed a pre-Monkees Davy Jones, served as an associate producer for The Monkees television series, oversaw the first Monkees concert tour, acted as executive producer for their 1969 television special, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, and later collaborated with Michael Nesmith on various projects throughout the 1980s and 1990s. All four Monkees selected Sylvester as their manager in 1995 in preparation for the group's 30th Anniversary festivities.
Ward was born on October 1, 1939. In the early 1960s, he was Vice President of Columbia Pictures and would play a key role in the burgeoning career of a young Davy Jones. In his 1987 autobiography, They Made a Monkee Out of Me, Davy remembered visiting with Sylvester in 1964 during his stint as 'The Artful Dodger' in the Broadway production of Oliver! "Ward Sylvester, a Screen Gems executive, had come to see Oliver! After the show he came backstage and said he'd like me to come to Hollywood and do some tests - was I interested? Was I interested? ... Meeting Ward and doing those screen tests was the beginning of the ideas and connections that led to The Monkees — though no one knew it then."
The Hollywood Reporter announced the partnership between Jones and Screen Gems (Columbia's television division) in September 1964, two years before the debut of The Monkees, saying that Davy "has been signed to a long-term contract by Screen Gems. In addition to appearing in future TV series for Screen Gems, Jones will also record for the firm's Colpix Records and make features for Columbia Pictures."
With Davy Jones now affiliated with Screen Gems, the company searched for a vehicle for his talents, and as fate would have it, the Monkees project ultimately provided his pathway to success. Years later, Davy recalled the earliest days in the casting process for The Monkees television series. "To get things rolling, Ward and I would go around to different clubs looking for prospective members for the TV show. We saw Sonny and Cher and The Byrds on one bill, and across the street was little Stevie Wonder. We went to see Authur Lee and Love - this is all in one night. The guitar player from Love, a tall, good-looking blond guy, we thought would be good for the show. The Monkees vests and yellow shirts that we wore in our pilot came from what Sonny Bono was wearing."
"We saw the MFQ - the Modern Folk Quartet - with Chip Douglas," Davy continued. "We looked at Jerry Yester as a potential candidate. Word was getting around, and people like Paul Peterson and Paul Williams, and actors from across the country were buzzing about this. They decided to have open auditions, so they put the Madness ad in Variety." By November 1965, after over 400 potential applicants were screened, the audition process had been completed. Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork were now The Monkees.
In February 1966, The Monkees TV series, led by its creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, was officially sold to NBC by Screen Gems. Sylvester acted as associate producer.
Years later, Ward discussed his initial encounters with Micky, Michael, and Peter with Harold Bronson, co-founder of Rhino Records, in his 1996 book Hey, Hey, We're The Monkees. "We saw Mike first, hosting New Talent Night at The Troubadour, a folk rock club that still exists. The job required a great deal of grace because the quality of the acts was very uneven. They more or less let anybody who wanted to come up and perform. He did it with a marvelous amount of poise and wit and was able to walk that very narrow line between allowing the audience to understand the humor of it without really putting down the performers. Michael has always had a lot of class, and a maturity, even at that age, in his very early twenties...I first saw Micky performing in a bowling alley with a group called the Missing Links. Micky did seem to me to be the Jerry Lewis-like clown we were looking for. He was always on. He was very inventive and clever with a wonderful mind twist. And he was the only one who had episodic television experience, with Circus Boy, which we thought would be a plus. Peter was the most interesting one in the sense that the character he played was the least like himself. I think that the other guys played characters very close to who they really were. Peter's character had a gentle innocence and a little slow-wittedness about him. Peter has the gentle innocence, but he is not at all slow-witted. It's interesting, even though Huntz Hall was the prototype for Peter, what most reminds me of his character is Norman Drabble of the Kevin Fagen comic strip. It's called Drabble and is about a college student who is well meaning but a little fumbling. He's always embarrassed and always says the wrong thing. And Peter was able to play that. Peter is very intelligent and very well-educated. He always surprises me with allusions to classical music and to classical literature. He's very spiritual and very insightful. He had to suppress an awful lot of that to be the Peter that we know from television."
The Monkees debuted on NBC on September 12, 1966, and their first single, "Last Train to Clarksville" had already been climbing the charts that summer. While The Monkees enjoyed near instant success on TV and at radio, they were soon criticized by the press and some members of the rock community for being "manufactured." Ward Sylvester later championed the group's desire to perform on their own records and to have more creative control, especially since industry mogul Don Kirshner, who had been tapped to produce music for the show, refused to allow The Monkees to play a larger role in the making of the music for the series and albums. "When the criticism started coming through that The Monkees weren't really a group, it seemed bizarre to me that anybody would think they were," Sylvester relayed to Harold Bronson. "It's like somebody saying, 'Do you understand that Barbara Eden doesn't sleep in a bottle at night?' Of course she doesn't, she's an actress playing a part on television; she's not a genie. We lacked the foresight that the guys would start to feel that 'That's supposed to be us playing and not only is it not, but it's not something we might want to play or sing.'" Sylvester also expressed frustration with Kirshner. "I think Kirshner exacerbated it. There were a couple reasons why it got worse. Kirshner would not fly, so he didn't want to leave New York. He was always the eminence back in New York who would be mailing things to Los Angeles. Secondly, he had a great taste for personal publicity. He wanted the credit for The Monkees. Now, he certainly deserved it at the beginning. I mean, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart were songwriters he worked with and he helped them pick the music that they produced on the first album. But he wanted the world to know it was him, and it came out as if, 'Those four kids on the screen really don't have anything to do with it,' which was really hard on us. I think there was also a lack of respect from Kirshner. He was not dealing with them on a daily basis so it was like, 'Oh, well, they're just those four kids on the show and any four kids would do.'"
Sylvester told Bronson that The Monkees felt more at home with their musical peers than acting ones. "They also were traveling in more music than television circles because there weren't many television stars their age in those days, and their interests were more bohemian. The happening scene in Hollywood then was a music scene...The hip twenty-five-year-olds with the money and the Jaguars were in the music business. So those were the peers and the contemporaries that The Monkees would see socially. And they would see The Monkees as musicians. It became very uncomfortable, particularly for Mike, who took his own music very seriously, and for Peter, who had been a musical performer...The cumulative weight of it quickly became intolerable, and they wanted to do their own music."
When the demand emerged for The Monkees to perform as a true live act, Ward played a vital role in The Monkees' arrival on the concert stage, acting as manager during their earliest dates. Monkees historian Andrew Sandoval, in his book, The Monkees: The Day-By-Day Story of the 60s TV Pop Sensation, noted that Peter Tork traveled to San Francisco in late 1966 with Sylvester to attend concerts at venues like The Fillmore to gather ideas for The Monkees' live show. Along with choreographer David Winters, The Monkees and Ward spent time creating a diverse, fast-paced concert act, one that included a projection screen behind the band and an elaborate light show, as well as costume changes, individual solo segments, and bits of comedy between songs that emulated the group's TV series. In the final episode of the first season, "The Monkees On Tour," which documents The Monkees' January 21, 1967 appearance in Phoenix, Arizona, Ward can be seen (at 9:57) clowning around with Michael Nesmith on an escalator:
Ward continued traveling with The Monkees on the road during their ultra-successful 1967 summer tour, which featured the Jimi Hendrix Experience as the opening act on early dates as well as multiple sold-out appearances at Wembley Pool in London. He acted as 'Production Executive' for most of the second season of The Monkees, but his influence seemingly expanded and he was credited as producer for nine episodes in the latter half of the season. "During the second season, I think people's attention was wandering," Sylvester told Harold Bronson. "Bob Rafelson really wanted to make feature films. Bert [Schneider] was becoming increasingly radicalized, very interested in revolutionary politics. Each of the guys had developed more of their own aspirations, which were increasingly divergent from The Monkees. While we now see the second season of the show as having more character, I think the network perceived it as getting weirder and wondered what a third year would look like."
As The Monkees' career came to a close in the late '60s, Ward served as executive producer for the group's 1969 NBC television special, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. He went on to become the manager of teen idol heartthrob Bobby Sherman while also producing various television movies. "He managed The Monkees and all of that," Sherman said in a 1997 interview. "And our contract was a handshake. I met him when I did a guest shot on The Monkees, and I said, `Lookit, I think I'm gonna have some success here. I need help.' And from that day to this day, we've been in business." In the 1980s, Ward collaborated with Michael Nesmith on both Televison Parts and Dr. Duck's Super Secret All-Purpose Sauce and was the executive producer for the 1992 Nesmith concert video release, Live At the Britt. He was interviewed on the Headquarters radio program in 1989 about his experiences in show business and with The Monkees.
In July 1995, during the run-up to The Monkees' 30th Anniversary, Micky, Davy, Michael, and Peter signed a management deal with Ward Sylvester. Micky told Monkee Business Fanzine that Sylvester was the only choice of all four Monkees. "He has a good history with us," Dolenz said. "He was there right at the beginning, and we all trust him." Sylvester told Monkee Business Fanzine that he was happy to take the reins. "Much of the music and film The Monkees produced was groundbreaking," he said. "Their artistry got overlooked in the bedlam. Now with some perspective, I think people are going to appreciate them all the more." Ward managed the group throughout 1996 and 1997, which saw The Monkees release their first studio album as a quartet since 1968, Justus, while also filming a brand new TV special for ABC. A tour of the United Kingdom in early 1997 (including two sold-out nights at Wembley Arena) would be the final time all four Monkees would perform together live in concert.
The Monkees Live Almanac salutes Ward Sylvester, a true icon in the long and storied history of The Monkees.