The Cowsills In Books

The Last Seat in the House: The Story of Hanley Sound
by John Kane
University Press of Mississippi February 17, 2020


Page 107-109 :
By 1966 Bill Hanley had forged many relationships with managers and band members due to his good work in sound reinforcement. One of these relationships was with William "Bud" Cowsill, father and manager of the band the Cowsills. After hearing the quality of Hanley's sound system somewhere in Rhode Island, Cowsill asked the sound engineer to join them for upcoming shows. Band member and son Paul Cowsill remembers, "Bill and my Dad probably ended up talking to each other in Newport at some point." As the Cowsill grew in fame, Bud Cowsill hired Hanley Sound for future concerts and tours.

The Cowsills were made up of Barbara (mom) and her six children ages eight to nineteen years old. Formerly a chief petty officer in the US Navy,"Bud" Cowsill was known as a stern manager. According to the New York Times, "The whole Cowsill thing was Dad's idea. He founded the group four years ago when he retired from a twenty year stint in the Navy and decided that his singing, drumming and guitar playing family was ready for more than charity shows and family jam sessions." The band's harmonies, catchy lyrics and young vibrancy made a good fit for Hanley to practice his sound application techniques. In retrospect, the Cowsills were an extremely important band in the history of the company.

Now only was the band musically talented; the Cowsills were the primary inspiration of the 1970s television show The Partridge Family. Yet the family band was far more complex than those who lip-synced and pretended to perform in a televised environment. When assembled they performed with striking harmonies coupled with instrumental fluency; they could really play. But their performance capabilities were often overlooked because they were perceived as more of a affably happy and approachable type of group. Hook-laden and complex hits like "Hair" and "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" proved this stereotype inaccurate. As journalist Alfred Aronowitz said of the group: "The Cowsills' contribution is not to music, but to show business, momism and the American family. By that criterion they are grat. As a matter of fact they are irresistible."

Hanley was the first sound engineer the Cowsills had ever met. When he rolled his truck into their shows, it made a big impression on the band. According to Paul Cowsill: "Suddenly Bill came in and the speakers were as big as our bus; this had to have been around 1965 or 1966. Sometimes I helped set up his gear." Later in life Paul because a sound engineer himself, attributing this career choice to Hanley: "It was all asses and elbows with Bill Hanley. It seemed like he loved doing the sound thing. It was so new at the time that he really is a pioneer. Bill was always sweating and working his butt off and I became a sound guy because of him, I am sure of it."

Hanley Sound was engaged in full production touring by 1968. It was a time when there was very few, if any, sound companies supporting full concert production touring. While the music business was still in its infancy, the Medford firm was already deploying its crews on the road for various concert tours. It was backbreaking work. Gig after gig, night after night, Hanley and his team unloaded trucks and semi-tractor trailers filled with heavy equipment. These rigs often contained speakers, amplifiers, horns, cabinets, microphones, stands, and cables.

Harold Cohen was on tour with the Cowsills in 1968 and recalls the efforts of the early concert touring with the family band: "We did not carry their equipment for them for the most part, just our own. But on that tour it was just me and a truck driver and it was hard work." For each town Cohen and the Cowsills pulled into, they were met with screaming teenybopper fans that fawned over the group. On one occasion while Cohen accompanied the performers in their station wagon, he recalls hordes of overly excited kids strewn all over the hood of the vehicle.

The Cowsills' 1968 tour was an extremely grueling one for Cohen. They traveled five hundred miles or more in between dates, often including two and three shows per day: "I was traveling closely with them in 1968. I traveled the Midwest and East Coast. We did state fairs in Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and some shows down south."

Depending on the venues - mostly fairgrounds that held auto races, demolition derbies and rodeos - the engineer would often try to set up before noon. Known for being organized, Cohen placed the speakers and other expensive equipment in a specific way so the setup and breakdown went more efficiently, keeping a close eye on it always. "It was usually a 4 pm show. We could not leave our equipment because the rodeo cowboy people were thieves. We had to guard our equipment with our lives, I learned that early on."

Bud Cowsill became quite found of Cohen. "Bud treated me well. I was a skinny kid but all muscle. We were always in a strange and new town and some of these fairs had great food, but it was hard to eat because my hours were rough. Often I went without eating. Bud always saw to it that I had some food and a quart of milk at my console every night before the performance. If not, I wouldn't have eaten until midnight." In 1969 Bud invited Cohen to help the band with a commercial for the American Dairy Association in Newport.

It was essential that the Cowsills be able to hear each other on stage. However, they often struggled to do so. Prior to Hanley's introduction, the band played through Shure column speakers were as "thin" as his arm: "We were coming off these toothpick speakers, and we didn't even know what good sound was. I doubt we even knew what the word monitor was."

While on stage the band often turned their column speakers inward for monitor sound. At one of their performances in 1966 Hanley heard the band performing and realized that there were no highs or lows coming out of their speakers. Paul remembers: "We had turned the two end columns in so we could hear ourselves. The other two speak/columns were facing the audience. All of those vocals coming out of the mid-range like a big batch of mashed potatoes must have really bothered Hanley."

The band went through a major transformation after Hanley solved their sound problems. According to Bob Cowsill, Hanley had his work cut out for him with six young and boisterous singers to corral: "Bill Hanley's greatest contribution to the whole rock scene was that he was the first with the stage monitor. When Bill's equipment came in, it was heaven on stage for us. It seems so elementary but it wasn't, it was revolutionary is what it was. He saw it and solved the problem." Eventually father Bud asked Hanley to record the group's live album, The Cowsills in Concert, released in 1969. Cash Box reported: "Plans have been made to have the Cowsills record their first live album during an appearance this week at the University of Illinois. The L.P, recorded for MGM under the supervision of the Hanley Sound Co., will include about an hour's worth of the performance featuring several original songs and a medley fo the Cowsills' pop hits."

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