The Cowsills are an American singing group from Newport, Rhode Island. They specialized in harmonies and the ability to sing and play music at an early age. The band was formed in the spring of 1965 by brothers Bill, Bob, and Barry, then shortly thereafter added John. Originally Bill and Bob played guitar and Barry was on drums, then John learned how to play drums and joined the band, so Barry went to bass. After their initial success, the brothers were later joined by their siblings Susan and Paul and their mother Barbara. Bob's twin brother Richard was the road manager. When the group expanded to its full family membership by 1967, the six siblings ranged in age from 8 to 19. Joined by their mother Barbara, the Cowsills were the inspiration for the 1970 launch of the television show The Partridge Family.
The Cowsills' musical interest started while their father Bud Cowsill was stationed in Canton, Ohio, in the late 1950s as a US Navy recruiter. Billy and Bob taught themselves how to play the guitar. The boys developed their musical talent and harmonized vocals, and they performed at school church dances in Stark County, Ohio. The boys' first television appearance was on the Gene Carroll Show on WEWS in Cleveland.
Bud retired from a long career in the US Navy and, along with his wife, managed his children's career.
In late 1965, the Cowsills were hired as a regular act on Bannisters Wharf in Newport, where they would sing Beatles songs hour after hour. A handful of singles were released on JODA Records and Philips Records in 1965 and 1966, to only modest success. The band was signed by MGM records in 1967, and Barbara, who would become known to their fans affectionately as "Mini-Mom" due to her diminutive stature, joined the group just in time to record the band's first album, including the hit single "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" . It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Bill sang lead vocal on this hit. Shortly thereafter the band was expanded yet again, to include siblings Susan and Paul.
With the success of "The Rain...", the band quickly became a popular act in the U.S., and achieved significant airplay in England and other parts of Europe. "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Bob Cowsill is quoted as follows on the band's early days:
"Although Bill and I performed at a very young age, and Bill, I, Barry and John did a lot of frat parties at Brown University and clubs in Newport ... the most memorable performance of what I would view as the precursor of what The Cowsills would be was at Kings Park in Newport (right at the foot of Halidon Hall) at some carnival. The family angle just evolved ... first Bill and me, then Bill me and Barry, then Bill, me, Barry and John, then Bill, me, Barry, John and Mom, then Bill, me, Barry, John, Mom and Paul, then later, me, Paul, John, Barry, Mom and Susan, then back to Bill, me, Barry and John (very briefly in the end) and then to me, Paul, John and Susan. Our first real break came when we were playing the MK Hotel in Newport (in the basement there) and a guy from the "Today Show" saw us and asked if we wanted to be on the "Today" show. We weren't famous or anything but we were young and we were related and we were quite good. So we went on "The Today show" (I doubt a tape exists of that but if it did it would be priceless to see) and someone from Mercury Records saw us, which ultimately led to our signing with that label and putting out "Most Of All" (a great "school's out" song that should have been our first hit in my opinion), which led to Artie Kornfeld and Steve Duboff. Mercury dropped us, but Artie and Steve had written "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" and we went in and recorded that song at A&R studios in New York and took the whole package to MGM, who decided wouldn't it just be terrific if their mother performed with them and, voila, the rest, as they say, is history."
In 1968, the band scored another million-selling hit with the song "Indian Lake" which reached #10 on the charts and in 1969, the band had another number two hit and another million seller with their version of the title song from the musical Hair.
From 1968 through 1972, the band played an average of 200 performance dates per year, and were among the most popular acts on the American concert circuit. They were particularly noted for their ability to achieve 4- and 5-part harmonies with remarkable accuracy and relative pitch; a phenomenon common among sibling singing groups, e.g. the Boswell Sisters, the Mills Brothers, the Jackson 5, the Osmond Brothers, the Andrews Sisters, the Beach Boys (whose songs the Cowsills used to cover in concert), etc.
Television and The Cowsills
The Cowsills also made many television appearances throughout the late 1960s and into the early 1970s. Their appearances included:
The Ed Sullivan Show (twice)
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (twice)
The Mike Douglas Show
The Barbara McNair Show
Playboy After Dark
Kraft Music Hall
The Johnny Cash Show
They starred in their own television special, called A Family Thing, in November 1968 on NBC, which guest-starred Buddy Ebsen. By 1969 Screen Gems approached the family to portray themselves in their own TV sitcom, but when they were told that their mother was to be replaced by actress Shirley Jones the deal fell through. Screen Gems later hired Jones' stepson David Cassidy to join the cast and the show went on to be called The Partridge Family, and to have a four-year run on ABC Television.
The Cowsills were also known as spokespeople for the American Dairy Association, appearing in advertisements promoting milk. They performed the theme for the David Niven film The Impossible Years (1968), and also sang the theme for Love American Style during the first season (1969).
In 1969, Bill was fired from the group by his father after he was caught smoking marijuana. Now led by Bob, the Cowsills continued as a group releasing three more albums- two with MGM including a second greatest hits compilation, and then one with London Records. By 1972, Barbara, Paul and Susan had left the group and Bill returned, reforming the original quartet; they released one more single, "Covered Wagon", which failed to chart. Shortly afterward, The Cowsills stopped playing together as a band amid a series of internal personal squabbles. The individual members went on to various career attempts in and out of the music industry, but they did appear at Madison Jr. High school in Tampa, Florida as "The Cowsills" for one performance during the mid 1970s. Some produced albums and performed from time to time, albeit not as The Cowsills, during the remainder of the '70s and up into the '80s. One project in particular was a band called Bridey Murphy, which was formed in the mid-'70s and featured Paul, Bill, Barry, and Waddy Wachtel, and performed to varying degrees of success.
In 1978, several of the Cowsills—including Paul, John, Barry, Bob and Susan—recorded an album rather incongruously entitled Cocaine Drain, with the producer Chuck Plotkin. The album was never completed, and at some point the master tapes were lost (or stolen). For almost 30 years the album existed only as a scratchy acetate. In March 2008 a version of the album was finally released, remastered from that acetate under Bob Cowsill's direction. Several other previously unreleased tracks were included on the 2008 release. All six of the performing Cowsill siblings appear on the cover art of the album in shots apparently taken on stage around the time of the recording sessions.
After the Cocaine Drain sessions, the Cowsills did some reunion shows in 1979–1980 but returned to their separate careers after that.
The central four members of the group created the power pop tune "Is It Any Wonder?" in 1993, which was released in the critically appraised multi-artist collection Yellow Pills, Vol. 1: The Best of American Pop.
The most prominent Cowsill in the years since has been Susan, who was a member of The Continental Drifters, along with both her first husband Peter Holsapple (who is the father of her daughter) and her second husband, Russ Broussard. She was also part of Dwight Twilley's band in the mid-1980s, and currently has a solo career as the leader of her own band, the Susan Cowsill Band. Her first-ever solo album, Just Believe it, was released in late 2005 by Blue Corn Music. In 2011, she was featured in a episode of the HBO series, Treme.
John Cowsill has also been prominent as a musician. Since December 2000 John has been a regular member of The Beach Boys touring band, playing drums and keyboards and singing lead on some of their tunes. In earlier years, he performed with artists such as Jan & Dean and Dwight Tilley. In the early 1980s, he was briefly a member of the band Tommy Tutone and his backing vocals and percussion can be heard on their hit "Jenny (867-5309)."
Bill Cowsill moved to Canada in the 1970s and did well in that country as a solo artist, and as a member of Vancouver, British Columbia's Blue Northern, before forming the nationally acclaimed Blue Shadows who recorded two albums for Sony Canada.
After working as a sound engineer for Helen Reddy, Paul Cowsill left music for a career in the construction industry. While he still performs with The Cowsills, his primary occupation is that of a farmer in Oregon.
Bob Cowsill has had a successful career outside of music in the software industry. He currently trains hospital emergency departments to use a software package called EDITS (Emergency Department Information Tracking System) that manages data capture and billing issues associated with emergency room accountancy. Bob was also part of the actual development and coding team for the software package. He is also still an active performer.
In 1990, Bob, Paul, John, and Susan again regrouped as The Cowsills. The original plan was to simply hit the "oldies circuit", but after some deliberation, they decided to showcase new material written by Bob and his wife, Mary Jo. This incarnation of the band started playing small clubs and showcases in the Los Angeles area and eventually spread out to similar venues across the country and into Canada. Their performances generated positive reviews from critics and fans alike, including a very well-received performance on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, where Susan voiced in mock frustration as to never being able to figure out which of the two girls on The Partridge Family was supposed to represent her.
The success of this reunion led The Cowsills back into the recording studio, which resulted in the album Global. This has also led to several reunions over the years in various forms, ranging from a few concerts to special feature performances at major events. Most notable of these events were "A Taste of Rhode Island in 2000", which featured all seven surviving Cowsills, and "A Family Thing 2", which was a benefit concert in 2004 for Bill's medical and financial difficulties at the time. This concert took place at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles and included an appearance by Shirley Jones, who introduced the band. It was the first time they had ever met. As the mother on the TV show inspired by the Cowsills, Shirley made a point of calling them "the real thing". Though she did not sing with them that night, immediately after her announcement, the Cowsills played "I Really Want To Know You", which is the one song that had been recorded by both The Cowsills and The Partridge Family. (Both bands recorded songs called "Hello, Hello" ; they were different songs by different writers.) During this period, Barry also released a solo CD, As I.
In 2004, it was announced that the Cowsills had been asked to sing the National Anthem at Fenway Park and Susan's first solo release, Just Believe It, was released in 2004 in Europe and 2005 in the U.S.
Currently, Bob, Paul and Susan perform several shows per month as The Cowsills while still maintaining their separate lives and careers. In 2007 they toured as part of a package called "The Original Idols Live!", hosted by Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch.