The Cowsills, described by father as "anything but a perfect family," are Susan, 9, on floor; William, 20, Paul, 15, and John, 12, sitting; and Barry, 13, and Robert, 19, standing with parents Barbara and William.
"You have to look young when you're singing with kids," says Barbara Cowsill, 40-year-old mother of The Cowsills. Fans call her "mini-Mom" because she is tiny and wears miniskirts. Her daughter Susan plays the bass guitar in the rock-folk-country music group.
If there is one woman in the country who is happy about the current youth explosion, it's Barbara Cowsill. The 40-year-old mother of seven wears mini-miniskirts, shops in the wildest boutiques and wears her bleached-blond hair in a Mia Farrow cut.
It's not so much that she wants to look like a teen-ager; it's more like she has to.
"I absolutely couldn't make it on stage if I went forty-ish," she said the other day at one of two apartments her family keeps at 888 Eighth Avenue. When you're surrounded by kids 9 to 20, you have to wear short skirts,"
Mrs. Cowsill, known to fans as "the mini-Mom" (she's just 5-feet-2), sings, with six of her children in the rock-folk-country group called The Cowsills. (And that's their real name.) The other singers are William, 20, who was recently married; Robert, 19; Paul, 16; Barry 13; John, 12; and Susan, 9.
There are two other Cowsills, too. William (Bud) Cowsill, the 43-year-old father who looks like a tough Irish cop, manages the group but doesn't play or sing. And Richard Cowsill, 19 (he's Robert's twin brother), is with the United States Army at Fort Gordon, Ga.
This summer the family is booked on a whirlwind schedule of personal appearances throughout the country — mostly at county fairs.
"It's hectic — but it's sure a lot easier than living in New York," Mrs. Cowsill said. "But you do have to have some rather strict, survival rules."
One of them is that a Cowsill is never late for a bus, train or plane. If he is, he is left behind. So far, it's happened only once.
"We were on a bus tour of Alabama," the slender, 106-pound mother recalled. "We told the kids we were leaving at 9 A.M., and Bill wasn't there. We took off without him, but we stopped the bus three blocks away when we looked out the window and saw him running after us."
The whole Cowsill thing was Dad's idea. He founded the group four years ago when he retired from a 20-year stint in the Navy and decided that his family was ready for more than charity shows and family jam sessions.
Times were tough at first. One winter, to discourage bill collectors, they didn't shovel the driveway leading to their ancient 23-room "Munster Mansion" in Newport, R.I. 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 but chocolate and marshmallows.
About the time they were ready for the welfare office, a New York talent management firm lined them up with MGM Becords. Since then they have sold 3 million single records (biggest hits: "The Rain, the Park and Other Things," "We Can Fly," "Indian Lake") and 300,000 albums. Virtually all of their success has come in the last nine months.
The feeding and caring of a touring Cowsill is not as difficult as it might seem.
"We eat out a lot mostly in hotel dining rooms," Mrs. Cowsill said. "Once in awhile people invite us over, but they don't invite us back. The kids eat like horses."
"I'm a pretty fair cook," she added, "and I do most of the cooking whenever we're in Newport or New York. The kids like plain things like chicken, turkey and roast beef. I made a 14-pound roast beef the other day, and they were in heaven."
When they're on the road, each Cowsill is responsible for his own clothes, which he carries in a large stand-up suitcase on wheels. (Recently, one brother lost his suitcase — but rather than admit it, he washed, the clothes he was wearing every night.)
"There have been other little problems, too," Mrs. Cowsill said. "John started collecting glasses from hotels, and Dick started collecting hotel keys. We made them mail them all back."
Mostly, though, discipline can be maintained by the threat of temporary expulsion from the group. That happened recently when one of the boys called another "stupid" at a recording session.
So far, schooling has been one of ths least of the Cowsills problems. For one thing, the family performs only on weekends during the school year. The younger children attend the Professional Children's School in New York, while the two older boys take courses at Pace College.
A similar situation will be worked out if the family moves to Santa Monica, Calif., where they are now looking for a house with "plenty of legroom." If they find one, they will probably rent out their home in Newport which, according to Mrs. Cowsill is furnished with "a pool table, a Ping-Pong table and a kitchen table."
One reason for the Cowsills' popularity is that they have generated a wholesome, all-American image that appeals to children as well as their parents and grandparents. As a result, their detractors often call them the "Kool-Aid Kids" and their music "Bubble Gum Rock."
"If there's one thing we don't want, it's a mystique growing up around us," Mr. Cowsill said. "We've had our problems, and we probably should have been divorced a couple of times. We're both from broken homes - and our kids are definitely not angels. I tell you, we're anything but a perfect family."