The Cowsills Consider Life One Big Song
by Joseph W. Rura Staff Writer
November 17, 1969
Trenton, New Jersey
A family of eight was about to enjoy supper together in a normal family way at a normal family-type Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Route 1 near Trenton. But before eating, they broke into song.
Although a fortyish waitress attended her duty of serving their meals without batting a false eyelash, her son and daughter would react quite enthusiastically when told mother had waited on The Cowsills.
When the family contemporary musical group finished “We Can Fly” in their usual perfect harmony (even without instruments), the small number of diners and personnel around applauded. The Cowsills took it all in stride, since they are used to singing before unsuspecting audiences in buses . . . planes . . . trains . . . subway . . . anywhere . . . to stay in practice.
About 30 minutes before this, they were performing before about 9,000 people at the New Jersey State Fair, accompanied by screaming teenyboppers and not-so teeny fans who felt The Cowsills were great and headed for fantastic success.
As the family ate their steak dinners, they ran down their plans for the future. Their own special on November 23, guest spots with Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan and Jonathan Winters, a pilot film for a series produced by Greg Garrison, who made Laugh In and The Dean Martin Show, and the largest product-endorsement in the history of Television (a $1 million three-year contract with the American Dairy Association).
JUST WHAT is a Cowsill?
A Cowsill is a member of a handsome-looking family by the same name, from Newport, R.I. and now living in San Bernardino, Calif. They have recorded several national hit records (the latest being “Indian lake”) and three LP’s.
John Cowsill, who had brown straight hair like his brothers and sister, is a teenage idol who isn’t even a teenager quite yet. He’s 12, plays drums and can sing “Red Roses For A Blue Lady” with a richer, more melodic tone than Wayne Newton.
Barry Cowsill, at 14, is also a teenage idol. His name can be found on the covers of at least a half-dozen teen magazines on the newsstand at any given time. Barry plays the guitar and also the drums.
Then there’s Bob, 19, and Bill, 21. They create virtually all the material for the group, although neither reads or writes music. Bob plays the organ and guitar. Bill plays the guitar and has been married for several months to the former Karen Locke, who usually is with the tour.
Paul, 16, plays the keyboard, beats the tambourine (sometimes until his hand is red with blood, as at the fair).
There’s also Susie, who is the cute nine-year-old teenage idol who sings songs like “Hello, Hello” with an amazingly well-developed and sweet voice.
The real darling of the performing Cowsills is the mother, Barbara Cowsill, who speaks quickly but clearly and even looks like your Aunt Flo. She has been dubbed the “mini-mommy.” She wears her short blondish hair attractively and says she is only 27, going on 41.
Bud Cowsill, the father, 47, says he “can’t even hum.” So he manages the family and metes out the discipline to his children at the appropriate times. So does mom.
“A little girl once asked me if I spanked Barry,” said Mrs. Cowsill, “I told her ‘of course I do, when he needs it.’ She begged me, ‘Oh please don’t hit him anymore’.”
Both parents believe that most adults today are afraid of their children and don’t take any action to help them or understand them.
Cowsill said her husband is used to handling youngsters. A 20-year Navy veteran, he has worked with 17- and 18-year-olds in two wars and has been a recruiting officer too.
Barbara recalls her own youth.
The Cowsills singing as usual, tune their vocal chords before a performance. Mama Cowsill and Susie, 9, are only females members of the group which will be featured on an NBC television special Saturday night.
Bill (left) and Bob Cowsill watch brother John clown on a TV special.
“I was 14 when I met Bud,” she says, “when he went in the service, I wrote him and he would read my letter to his friends and laugh. One of his friends warned him that he was going to marry me. He did, when I was 17.”
“Although the odds were against us, statistically, and there were some times when things were hard, we made it,” she added.
BUD COWSILL was always industriously trying to provide for his large family (nine including Bob’s non-performing twin Dick, who is a sailor in Vietnam). Bud operated one of the first McDonald’s restaurants in Ohio.
“We’ve traveled a lot with Bud in the service,” said Mrs. Cowsill. “That’s why we don’t mind all the traveling we do today.”
“I think after 20 years of being a mother and housewife, I was ready for this change in career,” she said. “I’m not yet adjusted to it though. Sometimes, I ask myself what I’m doing up on the stage with these kids. But I really enjoy it.”
The young Cowsills were introduced to music through the instruments Bud would bring home from his tours all over the world. Five year ago he formed the Cowsills with just Bill, Bob and Barry in the group. They played in colleges all over the east, cut some records, but still were not catching on.
Finally, they moved to a three-room New York apartment, because their 22-room house in Rhode Island was about to be taken away from them due to lack of funds. Barbara, Susie and Paul were added to the group and Bud went to Lenny Stogel, a talent agent. He was able to get him to represent them and advance $5,000 to save the Cowsill’s home.
That was in August, 1967. That’s when the breaks started to come. They signed up with MGM records, recorded their first big hit, ”The Rain, The Park and Other Things,” and were sent on a promotional tour. Ed Sullivan signed the Cowsills for 10 guest appearances. They made other TV guest shots and were invited to the San Remo Music Festival, Italy in January of this year along with six other U.S. celebrities: Duke Ellington, Bobby Gentry, Wilson Picket, Dionne Warwick Louis Armstrong and the Sandpipers.
Product promotions were being made during this time, with items ranging from clothing to bubble gum. The huge contract with the American Dairy Association to promote drinking of milk was a logical step for the Cowsill family, which consumes five gallons of milk every day.
“When the representative came to sign the contract, they thought the children were trying to impress them by drinking a lot of milk,” Mrs. Cowsill said. “In reality, the kids often order two glasses of milk, sometimes three at a restaurant, so that the waitress won’t have to be bothered making extra trips.”
And that’s what happened at Howard Johnson’s.
With their new success attracting many worshiping fans, The Cowsills usually spend quite a bit of time signing autographs. Paul explained what happened at one concert in Detroit when the police would not allow the fans behind a fence separating the Cowsills.
“We had to give them something,” said Paul. “We had these lousy guru jackets, which we didn’t like anyway and so we threw them over the fence. Girls were beating up one another and in the end some walked off wearing a sleeve or some other parts of the jackets.”
YOUNG JOHN explained the fan mags make up or twist things he says and he denied ever declaring he “likes to go out with girls who like to have fun.” At 12, he’s not allowed to date. Neither is Barry at 14, who has been pressed to commit himself on the type of a girl he would like to marry. His answer was someone like his mother.
The Cowsills are excited about their TV special. What’s it about? Just the Cowsills being themselves. The NBC program scheduled for next Saturday won’t be another “Monkees” show, it was assured.
“It has drama, variety, comedy, situations and shows the good, band and indifferent attitudes of the Cowsills,” said Bud, “There’s no overacting, no polishing either. That would spoil it.”
Mrs. Cowsill added “they wanted me to say what darlings the children are. I couldn’t do it. Anyone who had more than two children would know I was lying. But they have been a pride and a joy to me.”
It was more than an hour pat the restaurant’s closing time (the manager didn’t complain) and the young Cowsills had excused themselves to enjoy one of their rare night’s off (really only a portion of one) watching “Mission Impossible” in their motel rooms.
I thanked the Cowsill parents for the friendly relaxed discussion which they themselves seemed to like. Mrs. Cowsill leaned forward to show her affection with a light hug and a kiss. Not in an insincere show business way, but in a tender manner like an Aunt Flo.
Will they all be as natural a year from now? Let’s hope so.