Note: Portions of this article can be found in other articles written by Ms.Mead
In the world of "now" music, you must have a gimmicky name. And brother, do they have them! There are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Kinks, the Cowsills-the WHO?
If you don't know what the Cowsills are, they are a singing group. They are also members of a family named Cowsill. They didn't make up the name and they didn't make up the relationship. And they are not just a couple of brothers who thought they'd give rock 'n' roll a whirl. The actual singers are four brothers and their mother. But the entire family is involved, seven youngsters and two adults being Cowsills.
They are also one of the hottest new things in show business. Success began to hit them in a hot blast last summer. In four months they have been signed by MGM records, have put out one album and a single and are in the process of making a second album. They have appeared on the "Tonight" show and, most incredible of all, Ed Sullivan took one look at them, booked them to appear in October on his show and signed them to a 10 appearance contract through 1969.
So what's so special about the Cowsills? Well, for one thing they have a very nice sound. For another, they write their own songs, and the lyrics have meaning and the words are honest. And that's the key to their impact: They are honest, clean and genuine. They come across as what they are: A large, musical American family that sings about things common to all of us.
But before they begin to sound like a folk-rock version of the Trapp family, it should quickly be noted that there is nothing sticky sweet about the Cowsills. They are an on the ball, sensible, reasonably sophisticated family who customarily live in an out-sized, overgrown 23 room mansion in Newport, R.I., that is straight out of Charles Adams. They are not disgustingly sweet nor are they hiding strange vices or overweening ambition beneath a phony apple pie exterior.
The family consists of Bud and Barbara Cowsill and their children: Bill, 19, who does most of the songwriting and arranging; Bob and Dick, 18; Paul, 15; Barry, 13; John, 11; and eight-year-old Susan, the only girl in the family. But the spring that winds the family very obviously is Barbara Cowsill, distressingly referred to in their official biography as the Cowsills' "minimommy."
Barbara Cowsill is a small, woman with blonde hair as short as Mia Farrow's, large brown eyes and a sense of inner strength. She is accustomed to living in a whirl of confusion and noise, as are most mothers of large families, but there is no question of her authority.
When she snaps out discipline it is obeyed without comment. She is trim and smart and young enough to look like one of her boys on the record covers, but there are lines around her eyes that reveal the strain of raising that family, occasionally without enough money and frequently by herself. For all her boyishness, she is intensely feminine.
"The nucleus of the group are Bill, Bob, Barry and John," she said, "Bob and Bill write their own songs.
"We've always been a musical family. My husband did 20 years in the navy and when he'd come back from Europe he'd bring the kids something. I don't know why, but it was usually a musical instrument. Bill had a nice voice - it was a soprano then, but it was a good voice. And then Bob came along and by coincidence they had a natural harmony together. Barry had a little set of bongos and he did pretty well on them. They of course John wanted to play the drums, too, and it happened that those two had a natural harmony as well.
"Pretty soon they began to play college dated, and my husband took them around for about three years. (They had a contract with Mercury records for awhile, which didn't seem to help much one way or the other.) And then we met Art Kornfeld and they Lenny Stogel got excited and - here we are," she concluded with a giggle.
Art Kornfeld is a producer and writer who came across the Cowsills last July. He had the sense to think they were something special, and he introduced them to Lenny Stogel who is now their talent manager.
"Basically, what we are doing is raising a family and incorporating the music into it, instead of just going into the music and forgetting the important things. But we never expected this kind of success, not the Sullivan show, anyway," she said with a grin. "Of course, we thought the boys were good and we expected them to be some kind of success," she said.
"With the time and the effort and the work that went into it for three years, plus the financing - you can tell we believed in it. The money was the worst. I went to work as a waitress, after 18 years at home. They phones were cut off, there was no oil in the furnace, we almost lost our house."