Collective memory can be a funny, and forgetful, thing. The way that you remember something may not be entirely accurate, as age and perception color how you look back. Those inconsistencies can be compounded by the way that films or TV shows misrepresent a past era, or magnified by people repeating incorrect information as if it were the truth. Take The Dave Clark Five, for example, who had 17 Top 40 hits between 1964 and 1967 and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 18 times; kids at the time would have said that they were in The Beatles’ class, and though they’re also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they’re not nearly as well-known today.
Which brings us to Rick Springfield, a man so overwhelmingly associated with one massive hit song that people wrongly assume that the tune is both the alpha and omega of his fame. The truth is, of course, another story. In addition to 17 Top 40 hits of his own, Springfield has had a varied and interesting career in music, animation, television, film, and writing. You may know him from one particular song that came out 40 years ago, but that’s far from the only thing.
The first funny fact about Rick Springfield is that the explosive fame he experienced in the early 1980s was actually the start of his second act in entertainment. Born in Australia in 1949, Richard Lewis Springthorpe has a rock origin story that’s familiar for the 1960s: he started learning to play guitar at 13 and saw The Beatles live in Melbourne at 14. That was that. He began a run with a number of bands before having some hits with the band Zoot, two of which were originals that he’d written. By then, he’d adopted the stage last-name that would stick with him for decades.
When Springfield went solo, it wasn’t long before he became . . . a cartoon star? He recorded his solo debut album, Beginnings, moved to the U.S., and had a hit song with “Speak to the Sky.” In the States, the press positioned the good-looking guy as a teen idol type. While being photographed in a plain white suit, Springfield drew an R with a lightning bolt on the outfit. Something must have clicked with someone, because he was soon starring as a musical hero in a very similar costume in the animated series Mission: Magic! Running for a year on ABC from 1972 to 1973, the show featured Springfield’s voice and appearance, as well as a new song in almost every episode. After the show, Springfield worked to shake off the teen idol/cartoon image; he had another hit in 1976 (“Take A Hand”) before shifting to acting.
Springfield’s early acting credits reads like a “greatest hits” list of shows of the time. Beginning with a guest-spot on The Six-Million Dollar Man in 1977, he would appear on shows like The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Rockford Files, and The Incredible Hulk. Springfield also had a brief but important role in the film and pilot for the original Battlestar Galactica; his character Zac was part of the central family in the series (Commander Adama’s son, and Apollo and Athena’s brother), and his death during a Cylon ambush is one of the inciting incidents of the entire plot.
By 1981, Springfield had recorded Working Class Dog (with his own dog, Ronnie, on the cover) at the famous Sound City studio in California. Though he had a contract with RCA and a new album ready to go, Springfield wasn’t sure about its prospects. With that uncertainty, he and his agent decided to take an offer from soap opera General Hospital. Springfield was cast as Dr. Noah Drake. No one expected that lightning would strike the same spot twice simultaneously. Working Class Dog and its first single, “Jessie’s Girl,” were released in February. At the same time, GH began its mad ascent in viewership that would culminate that November in the “Luke and Laura Wedding,” one of the most-watched daytime episodes ever. Springfield was suddenly in the middle of a hit show with a hit song; “Jessie’s Girl” 45 single covers were printed to reflect that, yes, this singer was also TV’s Dr. Noah Drake.
As for “Jessie’s Girl” in particular, when the song landed in February, it began a slow burn that picked up speed across the spring and summer of 1981. The song hit the Hot 100 in March, and claimed the #1 spot 19 weeks later; it sold over one million copies as a single. “Jessie’s Girl” also had the historic good fortune of being at #1 the same week that MTV launched. The recording later earned Springfield a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. The enduring popularity of the song can be owed to its theme (unrequited love) and an almost superhuman level of catchiness. Its ongoing appeal has seen it land on the soundtracks of films as diverse as Boogie Nights and Suicide Squad, and appear in shows like Glee. When playing the song with Foo Fighters after the release of the Sound City documentary, Springfield had barely begun playing the tune when the crowd went wild; Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters stopped him and hilariously congratulated him for writing a song that the people of the world “only need to hear one [expletive] second of to know what it is.”
Between 1981 and 1988, Springfield notched 17 Top 40 hits in the U.S. Five of those songs went Top 10 (“Jessie’s Girl,” “I’ve Done Everything for You,” “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” “Affair of the Heart,” and “Love Somebody.”) Though he left General Hospital in 1983, he continued taking on interesting roles, even putting acting ahead of music for a number of years. He played a rock star in 1984’s Hard to Hold; the film wasn’t a hit, but the soundtrack was. That same year, he married Barbara Porter, who had been the receptionist at Sound City when he recorded Working Class Dog; still married today, they have two sons. He also found time to perform at Live-Aid in 1985. In 1989, Springfield played the titular vampire in TV-film Nick Knight, which would be transformed into the popular syndicated series Forever Knight. He also had a short run as DC super-hero The Human Target in a 1992 CBS series. Springfield was the lead in High Tide, a syndicated action series that ran from 1994 to 1997. He actually took an 11-year break between albums, returning to recording and touring with 1999’s Karma.
Though he didn’t discuss it at the time, part of Springfield’s long absence from music stemmed from his decades-long battle with depression. Springfield has become incredibly candid about his struggles with depression and sex addiction. His best-selling 2010 memoir, Late, Late at Night, addresses all of his problems, including brushes with the law, with shocking candor. His matter-of-fact tone and self-deprecating humor show a person who’s become incredibly self-aware, yet still wary of their foibles. On the lighter side, Springfield has another type of addiction that he shares with millions of others: collecting. In addition to collecting prized objects like the actual pages that Lennon and McCartney wrote Beatles lyrics on, Springfield has a possibly unrivaled collection of sealed and graded original Star Wars action figures.
In recent years, Springfield has maintained a steady routine of recording, touring, writing, and acting. He headlined the EFX show at Las Vegas’s MGM Grand Hotel and Casino through 2001 and 2002. On the acting front, he has returned to General Hospital for guest-runs a few times over the years, appeared in several films (like 2015’s Ricki and the Flash, where he was the love interest of Meryl Streep), and popped up on TV in shows like The Family Guy, True Detective, American Horror Story, and Supernatural (where he played a rock star, and The Devil). His first novel, Magnificent Vibration, landed on The New York Times best-seller list in 2014; his new novel, World on Fire, was just released as an Audible Exclusive. Springfield’s most recent album, Orchestrating My Life, recasts some of his greatest hits and favorites backed by a symphony orchestra; Springfield shot a documentary of the project, and has performed the pieces with groups like the Santa Monica High School Orchestra to benefit the school’s music programs (which you can actually watch on PPV on February 14).
Let’s review. In some ways, Rick Springfield will always be the guy who did “Jessie’s Girl.” We know this, and he knows this. But his extremely colorful life belies a larger truth: it’s possible to overcome obstacles to excel and succeed if you try hard enough and long enough. His body of song, particularly that ’80s period, has never gone away. He’s appeared in some amazingly cool and well-loved television shows. He played the love interest of perhaps the greatest actress to ever be put on film, and still shows up to play with high school kids to raise money for their orchestra program. At 71, he remains an incredibly good-looking dude, yet he’s happy to sit down and talk about his action figure collection when he’s not writing best-sellers. In a world where the definition of cool changes every five minutes, Rick Springfield has managed to remain one of the coolest guys around for over forty years.
Featured image: Debby Wong / Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now