Performing at an Oklahoma casino on Feb. 17, Davy Jones bounced across the stage, belting out the songs he helped make famous in the late 1960s as a member of the Monkees. He had worked up a sweat by the time he got to his signature smash, "Daydream Believer," but the former teen heartthrob's voice was as strong as it had been in his heyday 45 years ago. "He looked great and said he felt great too," recalls his sax player Aviva Maloney. "It was hilarious watching the lighting people try to keep up with him."
That boundless energy made the British-born singer's death at 66 of a heart attack on Feb. 29 in Indiantown, Fla., all the more shocking. "It was very unexpected," his oldest daughter, Talia, 43, tells PEOPLE, adding that her father, a strict vegetarian and avid exerciser, "was the picture of health." As the news spread, fans of the man known as the most crush-worthy Monkee harked back to their childhoods glued to the catchy tunes and crazy high jinks of the made-for-TV pop quartet (rounded out by guitarists Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith and drummer Micky Dolenz). The sitcom The Monkees
ran for two seasons from 1966 to 1968 and spawned four No. 1 albums in one year. Jones further cemented his legacy playing himself in a classic 1971 episode of The Brady Bunch
in which Marcia lands him as her junior high prom headliner-and date. (When Jones kisses her on the cheek, Marcia vows never to wash it again.) With his mop top and boyish good looks, Davy Jones was the original Justin Bieber
A child star in his native England, the Manchester-born singer first broke through on the British soap Coronation Street
. After dropping out of high school and briefly training as a jockey, he earned a Tony nod at 17 in 1963 playing the Artful Dodger in a Broadway production of Oliver!
When the cast appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show
on Feb. 9,1964-the night 75 million viewers also tuned in for the U.S. debut of a band called the Beatles-it gave him a taste of things to come. Witnessing the fervor from the wings, Jones said to himself, "I want a piece of that."
The next year, he got his chance. A Monkees casting call seeking "a quartet of hip, insane folk-orientated rock 'n' rollers" ran in The Daily Variety
, luring 437 wannabes to the audition. Jones was the show's first hire. Later, when Nesmith, Tork and Dolenz made the lineup, Jones recalled, "I went to the producers and said, 'Hey, they're 6 ft. tall. I'm 5'4". This is ridiculous.' But we did screen tests together, and it was magic."
The group's massive success would one day pave the way for other prefab boy bands like New Kids on the Block and 'N Sync. But it was a rocky road at first: While Tork and Nesmith were both trained musicians and Dolenz soon learned the drums, Jones famously played only the tambourine; the band was criticized for using studio musicians on some of its recordings. But Dolenz, who says Jones was "like a brother," recalls being wowed by the singer's charisma: "He was a classic entertainer, and that never changed." A self-deprecating jokester, Jones bonded with bandmates offscreen as well. "Davy could be incredibly insightful," says Tork. "Some of my best heart-to-heart moments have been with him." Adds Talia: "He'd give you the shirt off his back. No matter how tired he was, he was gracious to everyone."
Still, there were dark times after the Monkees disbanded in the early'70s. "I was depressed," he told PEOPLE in 1992. "I became a walking wild man, meeting two, three girls a day. I didn't know how to live." His first two marriages (which produced four daughters: Talia and Sarah, 40, with first wife Linda; and Jessica, 30, and Annabel, 23, with second wife Anita) ended in divorce. Jones had two DUIs near his farm in Beavertown, Pa., and lost his small percentage of Monkees royalties to bad investments. "I'm not as wealthy as some entertainers, but I work hard," he said. "A lot of people go days without having someone hug them or shake their hand. I get that all the time."
Jones, who wed actress-dancer Jessica Pacheco, 34, in 2009, had recently been focused on touring (he hit the road with Tork and Dolenz last year), writing a musical and his beloved horses. The morning he died, the self-dubbed "Manchester Cowboy" had just been on a quick ride. Says Talia: "He went out doing what he loved."
For now, those close to Jones are coming to grips with his loss. "He was a tremendous presence and a world-class performer," says Tork. "If's very hard to believe he's gone."
TABLET BONUS VIDEO, Davy's musical moments