In 1967, The Cowsills made a big enough splash with their million selling record The Rain, The Park and Other Things that they were booked for ten appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. In their first appearance (October 29, 1967), there were audio problems and the band appeared to be miming for 20 to 30 seconds before the glitch was fixed. This precipitated an angry confrontation between Bud Cowsill and the show’s producers which lead to an angry Bud cancelling eight out of their nine remaining appearances. Their second and final performance on the Sullivan show took place on December 24, 1969. For most upcoming bands, this would not have been an encouraging career move, but it didn’t slow The Cowsills down one bit.
Other TV shows and specials followed. They scored another million selling hit in 1968 with Indian Lake. The third million seller was their reworking of the title track from the musical Hair (1969). Their arrangement is, in my mind, a great piece of pop music. I said it was a “reworking” of the Rado/Ragni.MacDermot track in that they tweaked it here and there enough to make it their own. To my ears, it is as sophisticated as anything else that was being recorded in that time period by artists like The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
Really? The Cowsills in the same conversation as the fabled Beatles and Beach Boys? The structure of the harmonies and the manner in which their background vocals ping pong back and forth in one’s headphones speaks to a much greater level of planning and execution than Gimme Gimme Good Lovin (Crazy Elephant), Dizzy (Tommy Roe), and Sugar Sugar (The Archies as sung by Ron Dante), all Top Ten tunes in 1969. Gimme Gimme was a great party song that we played all the time in The Twig, but Hair was way above what we could have replicated live. The Cowsills reconstructed the bridge between the chorus and verses by cleverly adding their own lyrical connector (“Oh say can you see, my eyes, if you can then my hair’s too short / down to here, down to there, down to there, down to where it stopped by itself / no need to even cut it ‘cuz it stopped by itself”). They also dropped the last verse (the “They’ll be ga ga at the go go” part) and used their “Oh can you see” bridge to swing back to the earworm infectious verse and chorus. Hair was pretty popular so it took a certain amount of panache to tinker with the original version. Having it reach #2 on the US charts (and #1 just about everywhere else) proves that they knew what they were doing. They were one of the biggest grossing live acts over the next three years, but Hair was their last record to march to the top of the pop charts.
Around the time that Hair was climbing the charts, Screen Gems inquired if The Cowsills might be interested in, more or less, playing themselves in a sitcom under development. The only caveat given was Shirley Jones would be playing the mother instead of real mother Barbara as Jones had already been signed up for the pilot. Replacing their real mother with Jones is often given as the reason why The Cowsills declined the offer. Other sources claim that The Cowsills were already too old to play themselves in the already scripted pilot. It is doubtful that they would have given up their lucrative touring schedule for a TV pilot that hadn’t even been guaranteed a time slot in the upcoming TV season.
The Cowsills continued on their own path, leaving Shirley Jones to film a pilot for what would become The Partridge Family. This pilot was never aired, and by the time the second pilot had been shot, Jones character had her name changed from ‘Connie’ to ‘Shirley’, she lost her boy friend (who had been played by her real life husband Jack Cassidy in the first pilot), moved from Canton, Ohio to somewhere near Napa Valley, CA, and added her real life stepson David Cassidy to the brood as ‘Keith’. Cassidy was supposed to join the rest of the cast lip synching to the pre-recorded performances in each episode, but somewhere along the way, he convinced them to let him try and actually sing the songs himself. Low and behold, a star and new teen idol was born!
The songwriting and recorded musical tracks were handled much the same way as they had been done for that other make believe TV sitcom band The Monkees. A bevy of writers supplied the tunes and they were recorded by that crack session band that became known as The Wrecking Crew (DING! Bright idea #58 – stay tuned for a future installment of FTV featuring The Wrecking Crew). The Monkees came in and added their vocals over the professional session guy’s music beds. When the Monkees began touring as a ‘real band’, there were some difficulties replicating what the Wrecking Crew had done in the studio (DING! Bright idea #59 . touring Monkees . . . okay, you get it, I will stop now). The Partridge Family recordings featured only Cassidy and Jones singing over the Wrecking Crew music beds. With Cassidy now performing on a weekly national TV stage, he was able to use this exposure as a springboard into a separate career playing a different teen idol: himself.
During his double life in a fictional TV band and as a teeny bopper magazine cover boy, he sometimes found himself meeting himself coming and going. He would film the TV show during the week and then jet off to some far away city to do his own concerts. As long as he was back at the studio by Monday morning, the suits were fine with Cassidy providing even more advertising for their TV show. If he was a little burned out, the wizards in hair and makeup would take care of that. By 1972, Cassidy was indeed burning out. In a little act of teen rebellion, he posed nude for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and hinted at the accompanying article that he wasn’t as squeaky clean as his TV alter ego. Whether or not these revelations put a dent in that same squeaky clean image is hard to say. The Partridge Family stayed on the air another two years. Cassidy has maintained a relatively active acting career, most recently being seen in a 2013 CSI episode. In 2008, Cassidy publicly admitted he had an alcohol problem and his most recent press has been connected with alcohol related infractions. His real mother, Evelyn Ward, has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease prompting David to record public service announcements to aid research efforts in that field. In mid-February, he announced that at age 66, he too was beginning to feel the effects of memory loss and was planning to retire from the business to concentrate on his health and family life. He won’t tour, but he plans to keep making music after his final March 2017 shows.
Will someone get the bright idea to try and re-imagine The Partridge Family? Sorry, VH1 already tried back in 2004 and the pilot flopped. As for the remaining Cowsills – they will be on tour in 2017 with the Turtles Happy Together oldies tour. We won’t be covering any of those events live, but we will be spinning Cowsills, Turtles, and maybe even David Cassidy tunes for the next couple of weeks.
Top Piece Video – Vintage David Cassidy and the Partridge Family – they just don’t make fake bands like this anymore . . . do they?