Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Dark But Inspirational Story of the Cowsills, the "Real-Life" Partridge Family

The Cowsills in the late 1960s
Arguably no song better encapsulated the sunny, innocent side of the 1960's than The Rain, The Park, and Other Things by The Cowsills. Released in 1967, a year identified by both the Summer of Love and fiery protests against the Vietnam War, the song combined a bit of ethereal, organ-infused psychedelia with stunning harmonies and an unapologetically sweet, pure-pop innocence that you just don't hear in music now. It may be my favorite a.m. radio hit from that music-rich decade.

The Rain, The Park, and Other Things sold more than three million copies and brought quick and deserved fame to the Cowsills, a family band from Newport, Rhode Island that would later become the real-life inspiration for TV's The Partridge Family. When as a kid I first saw the clean-cut, all-American Cowsills on The Ed Sullivan Show, I remember thinking how lucky they were to be playing music together as a family, on national television. 


But the pure joy in their songs (HairLove American StyleIndian Lakebelied the Cowsills' private pain. The group, composed of siblings Billy, Bob, Paul, Barry, John, and Susan, plus their mom Barbara, was managed by father William "Bud" Cowsill, a domineering and abusive ex-Navy officer who beat, bullied, and alienated his children and tore the band apart.



The Cowsills today - Paul, Susan and Bob
"Our dad was a tough guy. If you didn't say 'yes sir,' you'd get smacked, simple as that," says Bob Cowsill, 63, one of the surviving members of the family and narrator of a new documentary on the Cowsills debuting tonight on Showtime. 

In an interview with The Reno Dispatch, Bob Cowsill told me that neither he nor any of his siblings ever patched things up with their father. "He ruined the band, and destroyed many of our lives," Bob says. "He wouldn't even let my twin brother Richard in the band. He and my dad had it in for each other. It was terrible that he wouldn't let Richard join in, I know it broke his heart."


The documentary, Family Band: The Cowsills Storywhich was made over a seven-year period in which brothers Bill and Barry died, tells the real story of the Cowsills for the first time. Skillfully directed by Louise Palankar, a lifelong fan of the band, the film chronicles the family's raging patriarch as well as the substance abuse and other issues that have plagued the siblings over the years. 


But thankfully it isn't all gloom and doom. The documentary also includes a nice dose of redemption, plenty of fun 60's nostalgia, and some truly great music. 


The Cowsills are an eternally underrated band. They were skilled musicians who wrote many of their own songs, and their four- and five-part harmonies at times rivaled The Beach Boys. Billed as "America's First Family of Music," the Cowsills were among the most popular pop bands in America in the late 60's. They were all over television, with appearances on Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show, American Bandstand and much more. They hosted their own NBC-TV special and even became spokespersons for the American Dairy Association, appearing in milk commercials and print ads. They also recorded the popular theme to the ABC-TV comedy anthology Love American Style.


The band even challenged their own wholesome image, and their dictatorial father, by recording the title song from the acclaimed hippie counterculture musical Hair (check out this 60s-era video of the band hamming it up in hippie wigs). The song shot to the top of the singles charts in 1969 at the same time as three other classic interpretations from that musical: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In by the Fifth Dimension, Good Morning Starshine by Oliver, and Easy to be Hard by Three Dog Night.


"I met the members of The Fifth Dimension at the time, and we shared a laugh over the fact that both of our songs from Hair, as well as the Three Dog Night song and the Oliver song, were all in the top ten at that moment," Bob recalls. "It was pretty amazing. We were honored to be part of that. We were excited about the success of the song and hoping it would be the beginning of a more mature direction for the band." 


Despite that hope, Bob says everyone in the group knew it was only a matter of time before it would all come crashing down.


"The public never knew what was really going on in our family," says Bob. "For example, my dad and my brother Bill had a huge fight in a restaurant in Vegas in 1969 that involved police, and it was all kept out of the papers, never a word. Just before dad tossed Bill from the band, they just had it out. We were all victims of his abuse, mental and physical."


Bud was the one who pulled the plug on signing the Cowsill kids up for the "Partridge" TV show when it was learned that Barbara Cowsill's role would be played by someone else (Shirley Jones). 



"Yeah, dad nixed that," Bob says. "But contrary to popular belief, it wasn't bad news to us. We had just had a huge hit with Hair, and we knew that a TV show would take up all of our time. We were happy recording and touring. We wanted to do the music."

As it turned out, Hair was the family's last hit single. The band self destructed as resentment toward Bud Cowsill grew. Dropped by their record label, the group permanently disbanded in 1971. Barry and Bill went off to do solo work while Susan and three of the brothers, Bob (on guitar and organ), John (on drums) and Paul occasionally reunited on tour. The band - Bob, Susan and Paul - still tours to this day. And they can all still sing, very nicely. John Cowsill has been the drummer for The Beach Boys for years.


Barbara died of cancer in 1985 at age 56 and father Bud passed away in 1992 at age 67. Son Barry, the bassist and reported Danny Bonaduce-like prototype who battled severe depression and substance abuse, was a 2005 victim of Hurricane Katrina. Lead singer/guitarist Billy, also an alcohol and drug abuser, died from chronic health problems in 2006. Both brothers were in their 50s.


The Cowsills story is chillingly similar to that of two other musical families from that era: The Beach Boy brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson and their sadistic, megalomaniacal father Murry Wilson, and the Jackson Five and their abusive father Joe Jackson


Bob is grateful the band had so much success, but he believes that had it not been for his father, "We would have had 20 more hits. We were just getting started." Bob regrets that there was never a reconciliation with any of the Cowsill siblings and their father. And he's still angry that his dad never saved any of the money the band made, and never set up any trust funds or bank accounts for any of his children.


"That would be illegal to do that today," he says. "We never get a dime from anything, and our songs are still out there. The Rain, The Park, and Other Things, our original recording, was featured in the movie Dumb and Dumber and we weren't even told about it, let alone paid for it."


Bob says he and the other surviving members have come to terms with their difficult past, and with themselves. And he notes that his dad did pay one final, unexpected visit to each of the Cowsill siblings not long before he died.


"He was living in Mexico, but he came to visit me one last time," Bob recalls. "It had been a long time since I had seen him. I didn't get to see my mother much, either, because she stayed with him. But one time he just got in his his Volkswagen bus, with his white hair and white beard like Ernest Hemingway, and showed up at my door. He said he just wanted to stop by. I didn't even know what to say."


Bud went with Bob that day to see his son play baseball, and then went with him to his wife's tennis lesson. "He didn't say much," Bob says. "But there was one thing he said that I will never forget. He asked me, 'Are you prejudiced?' I said, 'Of course not, dad.' And he said, 'At least I did something right.' Then he left."


Bob says he never saw his father again. But his father left $1,000 on Bob's table that day. "He visited all of us like that, every one of us," Bob says. "And he asked all of us the same question."


31 comments:

  1. In the late 60s while I lived in Panama I became acquainted with this wonderful group. I listened to the only record I owned of The Cowsills (the one where they are standing near a roof) over and over. It was impossible not to burst out signing and dancing to the wonderful words and harmonies then and now. I loved their music! It's very sad to find out that one person got in the way of their success and caused so much pain. Nice to know that three of the members still sing and delight their fans.

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    1. Thanks for sharing this... whoever you are. :) So glad you enjoyed the story and enjoyed the band's music.

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  2. WOW, What a blast from to past. Love there music but have not heard it in so long one tends to forget the great 60-70s music that no band now can produce that loving,lay back and daydream music that you cannot help but feel better for hearing it and uplifting feeling felt inside. Thanks for the story, I was unaware of the sad trials and tribulations of there life. I think the family must have lived by these words " THE SHOW MUST GO ON "

    Thanks for the memories (Harc)

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    1. Thanks Harc. The show must go on, indeed. The Cowsill siblings who are still with us are survivors in the truest sense!!

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  3. Jamie:

    Great post. I always loved this group but I had no idea that all of us was going on in the background. We listened to them in Vietnam on AFN Radio. Keep it up, my friend.

    John Cook

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    1. Thanks for sharing that, John. Very cool. I'm sure these guys were popular with the troops during the Vietnam War. Yeah, I know a lot of our guys were listening to the harder stuff, like Hendrix and Cream and Credence, but a lot were listening to the Cowsills, too!

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  4. I went to a car show in the late 1960's in Corpus Christi, Texas and they had a group performing on the stage which at first, I thought looked like the Partridge Family but then I realized it was the Cowsills (after all, the Patridge Family was just a TV creation). Since I was learning the guitar at the time and always interested in watching good live music, I stood and listened for a long time. I especially liked when they played the Stone's Honky-Tonk Women. The guitar licks sounded as good as if the Stone's were playing it. Great article, now I know more of their story and I appreciate it.

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  5. Thanks Bill, well said. They are indeed a very talented family, every one of them can sing and play and write songs. a very sad but also inspiring story. i hope you get a chance to see that documentary, it's on showtime something like 9 more times in April. Thanks for reading.

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  6. back then everyones dads were strict. ahh the good ol days, at least in my neighborhood.

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    1. That's a ridiculous statement. Their father was way, way beyond strict. He was physically abusive, a horrible man who traumatized the entire family.

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    2. According to the documentary he raped Susan repeatedly up until age 11. That's not "strict."

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    3. He was much more than just "strict". He verbally, mentally and sexually abused members of the family. He was a very sick man and they have to live with the results of his abuse the rest of their lives.

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    4. As sad as this is, one doesn't have to live with this burden for the rest of their lives. It is to find faith in Jesus Christ. Find it and you will find a sense of forgiveness in your heart you thought you never had. There are MANY examples of this in this world. Take the challenge!

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    5. Fair enough anonymous. but where was jesus, where was god, when these cowsill children were being physically and even sexually abused by their father?

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  7. My father sounds a lot like their father and I grew up in the same era. That was NOT being strict. Being strict is be home by 10 or your grounded. This was horrible, abuse that went on 24/7 and left scars that are hard to erase. I feel for this family. I still have a hard time now, I can only imagine what they are going through. God bless them for making music to help me forget and be happy for a little while.

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  8. Excellent article, Jamie. I'm going to make it a mission to catch up on as much of your writings as I can. Hope the YouTube videos of your songs are a big hit! :)

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  9. Sadly, it appears that the mother was aware that the father was sexually abusing the daughter and did nothing.

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    1. Yes, I keep wondering about the mother. I think she may have been just as much a victim as the kids. It's difficult for me to understand how she could have stayed. I can only assume she was abused as well.

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    2. I loved their music when I found it later. But after watching the documentary, I think their later music is even better. Am hoping it is put on a CD

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  10. I saw The Cowsills recently when they performed in North Carolina. The show was fantastic as true joy just beamed from the stage. The Cowsills love music and they love playing their music for people. True, they have suffered a lot of pain but they have survived and risen above it. They are a true inspiration for other abused persons. I will always be grateful to The Cowsills for all they have brought to my life and I'm sure the lives of many, many others.

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  11. I saw the movie last night and it was bittersweet to see the abusive father, the talented family, the problems as they grew older, and the lost money. They could have gone a lot further and been much happier without Bud.

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  12. Thanks for the story, I will always be grateful to The Cowsills
    bola.indobwin.com

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  13. The remaining Cowsill's really should be honored by the music industry. They were ahead of their time (and ahead of the music industry times), they had and have REAL talent (unlike all the untalented, canned singers mass produced today). I was a little kid when they put out their first song. What a shame this family did not reach their potential because of abusive parents. I can relate, as my father was just like the Cowsill father. My father had it in for me like Mr. Cowsill had it in for Richard. I did not reach my potential either and have struggled my whole life to this day (still have not made anything of myself). At least the kids in the Cowsill family have a great musical talent (I have nothing to fall back on). I still love their music and amazing vocal harmonies! What a shame some of them are already gone. To the Cowsill's: You still have fans to this day. It would be awesome for another generation to discover your music.

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  14. billy cowsill lived with me on west 11th ave in Vancouver during 1993;94 I remember when his dad died, and remember billy borrowing the money from myself, colin james, and jim byrnes, and tom lavin to attend his dads funeral, but at no time did his dad come to our flat and leave a thousand dollars, prior to his death, but to be honest id would give all I have to just hear billy sing once more the man was and is a legend. my brother , my friend, and guitar guru. rest peacefully mate.

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  15. I went to Hollywood Professional School where they attended. The boys were very conceited at that time. Not sure if Susan went there. Butch Patrick from the Monster was there at the time and he was great, so much fun.

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    1. I have found that kids who are being abused at home sometimes come off as conceited, when they are really anything but.

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  16. I knew the family in the late 60s when I worked at MGM Records in NY. Had a big crush on Bill and remember how devastated I was when his engagement was announced. Used to go to recording sessions and personal appearances. Nice family except, of course, for the dad. Heard about Bill dying and Barry dying in Katrina--very sad.

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  17. Wow, I never knew this. I was a huge fan of the Cowsills - a band with kids my own age! I thought they were awesome and I bought every album. I'm saddened to think their family life was not as wonderful as I imagined.

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  18. I remember their songs that played on the radio " indian lake and the rain the park and other things the music is unforgettable ,beautiful and takes me back when I was a small kid . They were truly original and talented and they have no rival. But its sad to hear the inside stories of the abuse this family endured during that time unfortunate no one from outside the family could not have stepped in to help out and protect their money legally. But the sixties was another era in the sense the father ruled the home and outsiders had to mind their own business . This was time when seeking help or counseling was very rare in those days.

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