Inside Pop 2
by David Dachs
(Note: This article has Bill and Bob confused. Also has Bud as a songwriter/producer
and calls him Bob, Sr. The press got it wrong?
Who would have guessed. ) ... Also note he changes Susan's
famed word from Hair from "And spaghetti" to "Hair".
Bob Jr., guitar
Paul, electric organ
Dick, in service
Bill, record-producer, songwriter
Bob Sr., the skipper, songwriter, producer
Orgin: Newport, Rhode Island
Musical education: Self taught
"The Rain, the Park, and Other Things"
Show business families that work together are rare. Years ago there were the Cohans (vaudeville), the Barrymores (theatre), the Andrews Sisters (pop), and the Marx Brothers (comedy). A modern example are the Cowsills.
Keeping It In The Family
Years ago, some Pennsylvania Quakers were attracted to the sea, sand, and sun of Atlantic City, New Jersey. The "Friends," as they are sometimes called, then build a wooden platform or sundeck to catch the sun. Today, the Steel Pier, a show business supermarket, is on that very spot, a multimillion dollar roofed-over pier that juts from the Boardwalk into the Atlantic Ocean. Not long ago, in the slashing summer rain, I took a bus and waded over to the Steel Pier to watch the Cowsills perform, and to talk to this unusual musical family.
There are nine Cowsills, 7 children, Bob,Sr., the father, and Mrs. Cowsill, known as "The Singing Mom." But they were not at full strength that day.
Brother Dick was in Viet Nam. Another brother, Bill, is now married and lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a producer in the pop music business. He coproduces the Cowsills recordings with his father, Bob, Sr. The mother, Barbara Cowsill, who sings with the group, was in at Atlantic City hospital, suffering from pneumonia and exhaustion; Bob, Sr. was at her bedside. But five Cowsills - four boys, Bob, Paul, John, Barry, and 10-year-old Susan - were carrying on four shows a day.
It was a Wednesday afternoon and despite the storm the Steel Pier theatre was filled to capacity. The theater is part of a huge amusement center where for $2.50 you can see Hollywood movies, trained piano-playing ducks, and listen to top pop personalities such as the Beach Boys, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Jr., and the Cowsills. It caters to the family. It shuns "irresponsible psychedelics, flash-in-the-pan sensationalism, and smutty suggestiveness." White-haired grandfathers and grandmothers, young marrieds, teenagers, infants, watched the quintet sing and play. The Cowsills are a likeable group and they sang everything from their latest hit, "Hair" (MGM Records), to a song whose words come from the Bible, "The Book of Revelation."
At one point in the show Bob told the audience that young Susan, the littlest of the Cowsills was "worried about her future." This was the cue for Susan to sing a Beatle song, "Will You Need Me, Will You Feed Me When I'm 64?"
Later, I talked with the Cowsills backstage, in a dressing room crowded with black-speckled instrument cases, stand-up trunks, and mounds of mod clothes in normal back stage disarray. I asked them whether they knew of other show business families similar to theirs. Susan said quickly: "Well there's the Trapp Family." (The lives of that real-life singing family formed the basis of the musical, Sound of Music.) Later, there were references to the madcap clowns of the 1930's, the Marx Brothers, the singing Andrews Sisters of the Swing Era of the 40's, the Carter Family who sing country music and religious songs, the King Family, and the Lennon Sisters.
They told me that Mrs. Cowsill was in the hospital. I asked if it was hard traveling from city to city to fulfill engagements at theatres, civic auditoriums, state fairs, and summer music festivals. "It's very rough," said Bob, "there's constant changes in atmosphere and climate. You catch a lot of colds. We've been on the road 60 days straight with just a few days off. You move so fast from place to place that you have to look at the calendar to find out what day it is. We're exhausted now. But once we're on stage, we forget our tiredness."
The Cowsills explained that impact a gold million-selling record makes. "Hit records make you busy. You get more jobs, but we're busy even when we don't have a hit record," John said.
When pop people talk of a Number One record they refer to a listing in trade papers popularity charts. There are countless music business charts put out by record stations, disc jockeys, record shops, and private reporting services. However, the key charts that are watched and studied by the record and music business are "Top 50" or "Top 100" published each week by Cash Box, Billboard, and Variety.
These charts are mostly based on record sales and air play. The pop music people have a love-hate relationship with the pop music charts. When they are on top of the charts or in the first 10 (The Top Ten) they proudly refer to it. When they are not on the charts they tend to dismiss it saying, "Oh, that's just plain commercialism." Or, "Who cares about the charts?" But like it or not the pop groups live and die by the charts. Says Bob Cowsill: "The pop music chart is a battlefield. It kills me, it kills them, it kills him. It's a war."
The Cowsills' serious involvement with pop started in 1964. Chief Petty Officer Bob Cowsill, retired from the U.S. Navy after a 20-year-old career, decided to form a homemade pop group. He got together four of his sons, Bill, 16, Bob, 14, Barry, 9, John, 7, and the mother, Barbara, 35. He put two other Cowsills to work on the mechanics - as sound engineer and road managers. Susie, then about 4, was there, watching wide-eyed at all the commotion and listening to the sounds.
Home became one big workshop and rehearsal hall. And it was a most unusual birthplace for a pop group. For the Cowsills lived in an elegant, old 23 room Victorian mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, that could have been used as the set for TV's The Munsters. Newport, of course, is a famed Navy base, and site of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals. The family or living room contained one large sofa, two chairs, and a TV set. Cooking meals was done on a 1917 gas range stove, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. For three years they bought equipment - instruments, sound systems, amplifiers, fuses, rolls of electrical tape, sheet music. The young Cowsills of school age dept up with their school studies, and on the side practiced approximately 2 hours a day to build up a repertoire of material - pop songs, folk songs, and country and western material. Slowly, a few engagements came their way, and the Cowsills sharpened their approach to performing. Tight "on board" discipline was rigidly enforced on shore, by former Navy man, Bob Cowsill, Sr., who acted as general business manager-promoter-publicist.
Said he, "If we can't eat it, play it, or perform it, we can't have it." Money was hard to come by, however. Unknown pop groups were a dime-a-dozen. Debts piled up for food and utilities, and a depression psychology filled the big Gothic house. At one point, the family came close to losing everything. They had no money, and the phone had been disconnected for non-ayment of bills. At one of the lowest points there wasn't any oil for the furnace, so it was bitterly cold the rest of the winter. "Bill and Bob chopped up their dressers to make firewood, and everybody huddled around the fireplace," Mrs. Cowsill recently recalled.
Pop group success seemed to be an unhealthy, dangerous dream then. Like the old-time melodramas, the Cowsills were about to be homeless, for they hadn't made the month.y payments on the mortgage. Frantically, they hunted for a way out, and came to New York.
There they connected with record producer, man-about-pop, Art Kornfeld. (He helped organize the Woodstock Ventures which put on the big 1969 pop festival at Bethel, N.Y.) Kornfeld took a liking to the Cowsills, their sound, and the family image. He introduced them to Leonard Stogel, a talent manager, who in turn, arranged a recording contract with MGM Records. Shortly thereafter, the Cowsills were being touted by ace record publicist Sol Handwerger of MGM. Recordings were produced and consumers went to the record counters in record numbers and bought them.
Later, the American Dairy Association, taken with the number of Cowsill youngsters of varying ages in the group, signed them for a publicity campaign to promote drinking milk. The Cowsills were starred in TV commercials. And their fresh young faces also appeared on giant billboards across the country. "The TV commercials, and the billboards on the busses and on the highways have helped us a lot," says Paul.
As the years have gone by, Susan, once a preschool spectator, has become increasingly a mainstay of The Cowsills. Today she is a key ingredient in the success of the group and is generally stage-front when they perform. She gives the group a sort of ascending generation look - pre-teen, teen, young man, mother. On stage, 10-year-old Susan isn't one of those sugary-sweet kewpie doll-like girls. Hers is not a wavering childish quality; she has enormous power, and can voice a song-lyric with dramatic intensity. Physically, she takes after her mother.
Though she has a mature adult quality in her singing, Susan remains a child off-stage. She's youthful, bubbly, and can change a topic faster than a disc jockey setting up a new disc on a turntable. Here's Susan on a variety of topics:
"I like Julia and Mod Squad and Mission: Impossible and Roy Rogers. My favorite television stars are The Monkees, even though they don't have their series anymore. My favorite movie stars are Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris. Did you see Camelot? I saw it nine times. I cried every time at the end. If I'd known it was a legend I wouldn't have cried."
"I like to cook. Scrambled eggs. But I like to cook when my mother bakes cakes. You get all that goo on your hands."
"I like to spread glue all over my hands and then peel it off."
"I like school because of my friends. My friend in school is my best friend. I like math. This last time I got straight A's. I used to hate math until I learned how to do it."
The Cowsills may break up in the future, as some follow different careers. Meanwhile, they record and perform. Susie, standing next to her mother, has been on TV doing a solo.
Now the Cowsills live in Santa Monica, California, in a 14-room house. It's in Spanish Mediterranean style, white, and 2 minutes from the beach. The Cowsills love it there. They have a swimming pool, too. They also have guest houses. In one of them their manager lives. Another is furnished as a workshop where they set up their electronic gear, and practice. Says Paul: "It's very homey. There' a fireplace and it's pleasant to work there."
Bob said, "We moved West because of the movies and TV special (starring the Cowsills). There's a lot of work out there. Also, the focus of the record business is Westward Ho. New York has had its run. In the future, New York will be where the paper work is. The ideas will come from the coast."
The Cowsills differ amongst themselves on pop music issues without hysterics. Some do not admire the excessive electronic loudness of some rock groups. They are aware that it may injure the hearing of the performers as well as the audiences. "Maybe I'll be deaf in a few years," said Bob, "who knows?" The road manager of the Cowsills, bearded Tony Lyons, added about hard rock groups, "They're trying to mesmerize you, not let you hear the music." Paul, on the other hand, said he was fond of the ultra-loudness. "I like listening to the loud music. Of course, a lot of pop groups use the excessive sound to cover their mistakes. That's the approach of hard rock. Also, some of them believe that the music is more important than the lyrics."
The Cowsills are fond of playing college concerts because college kids really appreciate the music. "Sometimes younger fans just holler and scream because you're a pop star."
The life of a pop music performer isn't easy, according to Bob. "I can understand why a lot of show business people go sour. They get fed up. You can't imagine the pressures, the behavior you have to put up with. In a way you have to act as if you're superior. You just can't put up with it. It's pretty difficult to lead a normal life in the business. I can appreciate what stars go through, what makes them go sour."
"Right now we have a hit record and we're on top. It's nice to be on top but it's hard to keep up there. You have to keep pushing, keep practicing. A lot depends on timing, and you have to have good sounds. You have to get the breaks but there is a lot of work involved in making it. It's a calculated phenomenon. You have to be ready to sacrifice. You can't live a normal life. At a certain age you have to forget Little League Baseball, you forget about playing right-end, you forget the local dance. You give up a lot. And when you're on tour, of course, you miss your friends."
The Cowsills believe that the pop music scene is constantly changing. Barry says: "You can't tell which way pop music is going to go. The public taste is inconsistent. It's unpredictable. You don't know what's going to be a hit. Pieces of junk sell - freak records. They kill me, they stop a real song from making it."
For this reason the Cowsills do not like to be imprisoned in any one musical groove. They'll sing hard rock, experimental songs with Biblical lyrics, songs they write, songs by other writers, and vintage Tin Pan Alley pop music standard such as "Deep Purple" and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." "We update them," said John.
In other words, the family pop group interprets these songs with a light or heavy rock beat, paced by amplified guitars. The guitars provide the so-called "now" sound. Of course, today's rock sounds different to the older generation. For they seldom hear the sounds of saxophones, clarinets, trumpets, or French horns featured by big bands and traditional performers of pop music years ago, when they were young.
Bob, the talker of the group, argues that today's pop music is becoming too rigid. "Only kids can enjoy it. It's sad. Years ago, Tin Pan Alley songs appealed to everybody. That's not true any more. Today the kids buy the records. What we try to do is reach everybody and we can come closer to bridging the generation gap because we're a family of different ages. We have some very good fans in the older generation."
A lot of pop groups choose only materials they create and publish. This is done for economic as well as artistic reasons. In pop music economics, the music publisher receives 50 per cent of all earnings from recordings, sheet music, and performances over radio and TV. These can be high. Groups do not want to share this money, so they themselves form publishing companies. In the case of the Cowsills, the father, Bob Cowsill and the son, Bill, write a good deal of their music. Bill has written a considerable amount of poetry, and has studied music at Rhode Island College. But they do not turn down outside music and lyrics.
Says Bob: "On our albums we use 80 per cent of our own material. But we take outside songs. You limit yourself if you don't. There are people more talented than us in writing. If they're good, and if we didn't write it, it doesn't mean we're not going to do it." One of their biggest hits in 1969 was the title story from the musical, Hair. They do a good job on the song, giving it a kind of driving, pulsating staccato interpretation with Susie punching across the key word, "Hair." That word acts as a sort of image of freedom - the right to an individualistic unconventional life-style."
Ever since they started, the Cowsills have functioned as a family unit. The father, Bob, acts as manager, organizer, songwriter. The mother, Barbara, fresh-faced with an easy-going, friendly smile, sings. The boys play guitar and drums and sing. Some of them didn't perform at first, but helped behind the scenes, taking charge of sound equipment and the logistics of travel. At first Paul didn't perform, but he now does. Bill has dropped out as a group activist since his marriage, but he still functions as a producer-writer.
When the Cowsills are at a full-strength they present an attractive, modern image of a typical middle-class family. That is one reason they are so big at state and county fairs, where many of the shaggy-haired hard rock groups would not be welcomed. They can do material that some of the rock groups do, and yet when they do it you think of old-fashioned, multicolored Tiffany glass instead of stabbing multimedia strobe lights. In today's frantic workld of pop, The Cowsills present a happy look of two-generation togetherness, from 10-yer-old Susan to 40-year-old Mrs. Cowsill. It is for this reason tht they were chosen to arrange and perform the theme for the new ABC_TV series, Love - American Style.
Of course, The Cowsills are only human, and they do have the sharp conflicts of any family group. How do they handle them? "Whenever any member of the family has a problem we do like all families - sweat - all the while helping it to work itself out," says Mrs. Cowsill. Bob Cowsill adds: "When the kids do the right thing, they know it. And when they do the wrong thing, they know it."
During the school year, Mr. And Mrs. Cowsill keep the performing schedules as lean as a chain-store hamburger. And the young Cowsills like it that way. They prefer sleeping in their own rambling home near the Pacific Ocean than in a strange hotel or motel. Their backyard faces a golf course. Perhaps it's symbolic, for they like sports. Their swimming pool is bordered with water sports equipment, from facemasks to polyethelene fins. And they have as many bicycles as an average hostel group. The Cowsills like the casual California way of life. They swim, bike, go to parties, go on dates, and relax, without the hot glare of publicity.
The Cowsills cutting up on a TV Western set.
How long can a pop group continue to win fame and fortune? The Cowsills appear to be practical, sensible people, who are anxious to make as much money as possible today, for who know what may happen tomorrow. Some of the young Cowsill are already thinking of non-musical careers.
Paul: "I'd like to go to college and become a gym teacher."
Bob, Jr: "I've been thinking of majoring in the theatre. Mostly acting. But I might change my mind next week."
Barry: "I'd like to go to college, and then go into the Navy."
John: "I don't know. I may stay in the (music) business."
Susan: "The movies. Maybe I'll go into the movies. I don't know."