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(Barbara C. Russell - Newport, Rhode Island
12 July 1928)
Marketed as a sort of real-life Partridge Family (before the TV group emerged to steal their thunder), the whiter-than-white Cowsills enjoyed two years of US chart success during the last few years of the sixties. The band was made up of five brother, Bill and Bob (both guitars), Paul (keyboards), Barry (bass) and John (drums), sister Susan (percussion) and mom Barbara (lead vocals) - the wife and children of naval officer/singer Bud Cowsill. Barbara Cowsill had been encouraged to join the group at thirty-eight by producer Artie Kornfeld, who promoted her on the debut hit, "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" (1967). The single was a smash, selling over a million copies in the States, and was only prevented from hitting number one by The Monkees. More hits came in the shape of "We Can Fly", "Indian Lake" (both 1968) and the theme from Hair - another million-seller (1969).
The Cowsills' career hit the rocks only when the group declined an offer from ABC to make a TV series of their activities - in the wake of the success of The Monkees. The company required younger singer/actress Shirley Jones to play Barbara's role - which the family were understandably upset by. It cost them dearly; Jones took the part of 'singing mom' in The Partridge Family - and the David Cassidy-starting group took the Cowsills' place as pop music's top family act. Declaring bankruptcy, The Cowsills split in 1972. Barbara Cowsill took menial work to make ends meet. Her death from emphysema in 1985 remained a secret for years, though it now appears she passed away while working a shift at an Arizona nursing home.
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(Newport, Rhode Island, 15 September 1954)
As the toothsome young bassist with America's most wholesome family act, Barry Cowsill appeared the perfect antidote for parents 'concerned' by the activities of bands such as The Grateful Dead. When ambitious father Bud Cowsill bought him his first instrument, Barry - one of six siblings - made his first tentative move towards stardom playing with his brothers in the earliest incarnation of The Cowsills when ten years old. Between 1967 and 1970, the group could do little wrong two singles "The Rain, the Park and Other things" (1967) and "Hair" (1969) both raced to US number two, selling over a million apiece. The group had been touted as the next TV sensation after The Monkees, but the refusal of The Cowsills to play alongside actress Shirley Jones (as opposed to their own mother, Barbara, the erstwhile singer) brought their moment of fame to an abrupt halt. It's reported that MGM label boss Mike Curb dropped the group for its association with 'a musical that promoted drug use'.
Barry Cowsill's later life could not have been in starker contrast to that of his childhood. Divorce alienating him from his children, he slipped into depression and (genuine) drug abuse. Although he'd recorded a solo album in 1998 and six years later had reunited for a one-off-performance with his family (minus both parents, who had passed away some years before), the musician had clearly not shaken his problems, having been charged with making nuisance calls to a former partner. He had been due to re-enter rehab in September 2005 when his New Orleans home was among the thousands struck by Hurricane Katrina. While other noted musicians - Fats Domino and Alex Chilton among them - were found alive and well, Barry Cowsill's drowned body was finally identified by dental records on 28 December 2005. The date of his death can thus only be approximated - as can that of metal singer Glenn Rambo, the other noted musician killed in the cataclysm.
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(Middletown, Rhode Island, 9 January 1948)
The Blue Shadows
The ongoing tragicomic tale of The Cowsills continued with the death of former lead singer Bill Cowsill, just one day ahead of a memorial service for his recently deceased brother Barry (September 2005).
Cowsill was still a teenager when his family's band began the transition from wholesome novelty to serious unit-shifters, with the MGM pop anthem "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" (1967 Billboard number two, Cash Box number one). For a couple of years, the group found itself on every magazine cover and talk show as 'Cowsillmania' swept the US. IN the end, though, the group were victims of their own success. A projected television series (in the wake of The Monkees) fell through when it transpired Columbia Pictures wanted to recast the group as it saw fit. With the entire group then usurped by The Partridge Family, an acrimonious 1971 split dissolved The Cowsills (in some cases, more than just professionally). For Bill, there was a brief light shed by his momentary short listing as live replacement for Beach Boys Brian Wilson - though ultimately this went the same way as the series. A solo album Nervous Breakthrough similarly failed to change his fortunes.
Cowsill re-emerged in the eighties with his (admittedly very accomplished) band The Blue Shadows, a harmony group formed in Vancouver. The front man's increased drinking however, put an end to his work with the group, as Cowsill spent time in and out of detox programes for a while thereafter. Although he was to work with other acts like Blue Northern and popular country quartet The Co-Dependents, the musician's health was getting the better of him. Bill Cowsill battled combined symptoms of osteoporosis, emphysema and the blood disorder Cushing's syndrome, dying at his home in Calgary, Alberta. Cowsill family member already in mourning promptly organized another service to remember him.