In a moment of channel surfing, I recently landed upon the movie version of the 1960s counterculture musical Hair staring Treat Williams. I never saw the movie when it came out and I vaguely remember Treat Williams involvement, but I am more familiar with him from his role in the SciFi / horror classic Deep Rising. Hearing the movie cast version of the title track sent me scurrying to find the version that I am more familiar with. That, of course, would be the 1969 Cowsills release that went to #2 on the US Charts and #1 just about everywhere else.
The Cowsills story is complicated and does not end happily for all involved. By 2014, all but Bob, Susan, Paul, and John Cowsill would be gone. Mother Barbara and father Bud were taken by various health issues in 1985 and 1992, respectively. Barry was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. His body was recovered and finally identified in January of 2006. Bill succumbed to his own health issues in Calgary, Alberta the day before Barry was to be memorialized in their former stomping grounds of Newport, Rhode Island. Bob’s twin brother Richard (who acted as the band’s road manager) was felled by cancer in 2014.
As often happens, the family band had not been in the same room together since the early 1970s when they broke up due to the usual internal squabbles that befall many groups. A reunion of sorts took place at Barbara’s funeral in 1985 with various combinations of Cowsills performing together on and off again into the 2000s.
The band was begun in 1965 by Bill, Bob, and Barry with John joining not long after. They were originally located in Canton, Ohio where their father was a US Navy recruiter. Bud retired in 1965 and they landed in Newport, RI performing as one of the regular acts at Bannister’s Wharf. They garnered some attention performing covers for the tourists while recording several singles that were modestly successful. Their modicum of success was not enough to keep Mercury Records from dropping them off the label.
The team of Artie Kornfeld and Steve Duboff had written the song The Rain, the Park, and Other Things and it was this recording that got The Cowsills brothers signed to MGM. The suits at MGM liked the family angle and thought it would be terrific to add mom to the act. The Rain… climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and the Cowsills hit the road. The addition of Susan and Paul to the mix made them a seven piece band. Between 1968 and 1972, they averaged 200 dates a year and if you think taking the family on a two week cross country vacation is tough, one can only imagine how touring with the whole family for four years would take a toll on everyone. Amplified by Bud’s domineering managerial style, disputes arose that saw a revolving door of Cowsills playing in various combinations after 1972. At times, they performed without the Cowsills name and some took it a bit farther and simply got out of the business altogether.
For a time in the 1970s, Paul, Bill, and Barry teamed up with guitarist Waddy Watchel (Stevie Nicks, Keith Richards) in the band Bridey Murphy. Susan has performed with The Continental Drifters, the Dwight Twilley Band and her own Susan Cowsill Band. John has also done his musical time with Dwight Twilley, Jan and Dean, and as the current drummer, keyboardist and sometime vocalist with The Beach Boys.
Since they regrouped in 1990, Bob, John, Paul and Susan have performed and recorded as The Cowsills while maintaining their separate careers. A benefit to help defray Bill’s medical and financial problems was filmed at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles (2014) found them in fine musical form. The clips I have seen stand up well when compared to other bands still performing after 50 plus years. Actress Shirley Jones introduced them on the night of the benefit as “the real thing” so naturally, they opened with I Really Want to Know You, the only song performed by both The Cowsills and The Partridge Family. Fans of both the real and fictional family bands won’t find this song selection to be that much of a mystery.
As of 2015- 2016, the Cowsills have been part of The Turtles “Happy Together” oldies tour. Flo and Eddie of the Turtles began these multi-group package tours a couple of decades ago. Pooling touring costs allow the Turtles and their invited guests to share the load and the loot. Groups like The Buckinghams, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Grand Funk Railroad and Three Dog Night may not be present in full, but lead singers (like Carl Giammarese, Mark Lindsay, Mark Farner, and Chuck Negron of the above mentioned bands) get to play their hits using The Turtles backing band. The Turtles have been known to use hired gun musicians on both coasts to help keep their touring budget in check. The bands employed by Flo and Eddie aren’t a bunch of hacks, either, so it is a win-win for these artists to play their music with a great backing band. One of their touring groups features keyboardist Manny Focarazzo, guitarist Godfrey Townsend, drummer Steve Murphy, and bassist John Montagna. The last time I saw these guys on stage together was at MTU where they performed the same function for the Alan Parsons Live Project concerts that were performed with the MTU Orchestra at the Rozsa Center back in 2006. Flo and Eddie know how to put on a show.
Incidentally, Flo (Mark Volman) and Eddie (Howard Kaylan) were the lead singers in the original Turtles before they lost their record company (White Whale) and the legal use of their own name. They kept playing music by adopting the names of a couple of their roadies (Flo is actually short for “the Fluorescent Leach”), hooking up with Frank Zappa for a time, and eventually circling back to being The Turtles featuring Flo and Eddie. Eddie often makes fun of Flo’s hair (described at one point as “a Brillo pad on steroids”) so I am searching the web to see if they join The Cowsills on stage doing Hair on this year’s tour. A survey of their schedule shows them all over the country, but notably close to the U.P. with dates in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2017.
Speaking of Hair, we will have to explore the mysteries of this little piece of pop music magic as well as more of The Cowsills – Partridge Family mystery in part 2.
Top Piece Video: The Cowsills perform their first hit at the 2004 Bill Cowsills Benefit – the DVD of this benefit was released in 2013. Clips from more recent tours show that they can still bring it!