Pop music's most cherished legend that of the instant hit. In most versions, would-be recording stars simply walk into an agent's office with a song on their lips, or warble it into a home tape recorder and mail it off to a record company; a few weeks later they are riding high in the bestseller charts. But the Cowsills, a new group currently enjoying their first hit single, are one group that has traversed the brutal distance between the legend and reality, and they know how far from instant their hit is.
Four years ago, when Chief Petty Officer Bud Cowsill retired from a 20-year stint in the Navy, he decided that his four singing, drumming and guitar-playing sons were ready for more than charity shows and family concerts. He teamed the boys up with their pert "mini-Mom," Barbara, took on the other two Cowsill sons as road managers and sound engineers, and along with a four-year-old baby sister set off into the professional music world. Bud enforced taut Navy discipline; the kids had to
keep up with their studies, practice two
hours daily to build up a repertory of
500 rock 'n' roll, folk, country and pop
songs, and keep their lives to the parental
dictum, "If we can't eat it, play it or perform with it, we can't have it."
Blitz Campaign. Nevertheless, nothing clicked. "Munster Mansion," their
old, 23-room Gothic home in Newport,
R.I., became Bleak House. During the
winter, they left their driveway unshoveled to discourage bill collectors. When
their credit ran out on heating oil, they
chopped up furniture to build a fire.
One weekend they ended up with nothing in the house to eat except chocolate and marshmallows. Bud figured
that promotion, transportation and, the cost of musical instruments had put
him $100,000 in debt. Just before panic set in, a New York talent management firm lined them up with MGM Records. Now their first single, The Rain, the Park and Other Things, has passed No. 50 on the charts and is climbing; their first album is out, and MGM is blitzing the music industry with an unprecedented $250,000 promotion campaign on them.
The determined Cowsills are fresh and attractive, and their close-harmonied, sprightly performances convey a great deal of their offstage charm. But good as they are for their age (the boys range from 11 to 19, Barbara is 39), too often they offer only a light-weight delivery of a derivative song.
Can they find their own style and endure, or will this hit be their last? Last week, as the family worked their way down the West Coast on a 22-city personal appearance tour, Bud was confident; "We're going to be a top recording group. There's no question in my mind, never has been." Still, considering the treacherous tides of pop music business, the family had better heed the advice of one of the songs they sing: Knock on Wood.