HOLLYWOOD – Mark Twain derided the conception of Heaven where men stood around in nightgowns and sang harmony, because he believed humans were unable to tolerate the results for over three minutes here on earth.
For once, Twain was wrong, judging from the success of family singing groups like the Lennon Sisters, the King Family, the Stonemans and the Osmond Brothers.
Now, from Newport, Rhode Island, comes a unit of seven, The Cowsills, with a half-hour pilot called “A Family Thing,” preempting “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” Saturday on NBC and if there are not Twains in the audience chances are The Cowsills will soon conduct a weekly tribal gathering on the tube.
Cowsill, a good English name, belongs to the great grandson of a gentleman who got kicked out of Oxford, a retired Navy chief Petty Officer whose kids have inherited a talent for natural harmony, probably from wife Barbara’s side of the family, since Bud Cowsill’s musical bent is limited to whistling. But Bud makes up for the deficiency with initiative, drive, a feeling for logistics and positive thinking.
The problem as Bud sees it is that people don’t take the Cowsills seriously. Doors used to slam in his face when he sought bookings for his four sons including an 8-year-old on the drums and a 10-year-old on bass guitar. Still the kids performed at universities like Princeton, Rutgers and Brown, facing cold stares for 30 minutes followed by applause for the toughest audience in the world.
Break the Ice
With the addition of son John, Susan, age 8, and wife Barbara, the group broke the ice in ’67 with guest shots on Ed Sullivan, a song called “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” which has sold over a million records, plus five good singles with titles like “The Path of Love,” “We Can Fly,” “Indian Lake” and “Poor Baby.” Four days after the special, the family guests on “The Jonathan Winters Show.” Also, they’ll make two “Hollywood Palace” appearances and join the cast for January’s special, “The World of Pizazz,” so Bud’s problem now is to maintain sanity and follow his own bent whenever possible.
“Everyone told me to keep the wife and daughter out of the act,” says Cowsill, “and they’ve become our biggest draws, so I don’t listen to people anymore.”
Listening to Bud and Barbara talk about the kids musical beginnings, life in a 23-room Newport mansion, and the dark days when mothers waited on table earning good tips from the Australians in town for the America Cup yacht races while Bud and sons were painting houses for a living, it seems the family functions best pushing along without outside advice.
The kids are self-taught musically, with the oldest boy passing on information to the younger who watches for mistakes and makes detours. Barbara, one of nine, ran the house when Bud was on destroyer duty in the Sixth Fleet, but insists she was under Cowsill’s command and merely relayed orders in his absence.
With an ear for natural harmony, the kids took to vocalizing as kind of a hobby, and soon began experimenting with guitars, trumpets and drums. Wife Barbara joined in, believing “if they can do it, so can I.”
The kids are still learning. Some write, some produce and all sing but one, son Dick, on Army duty in Vietnam, and all ciriticize with a flair that bothers Barbara a bit. At 16, Paul feels awkward on stage, and wants something to do with his hands, so he runs back and forth trying to learn the organ and piano. Susan plays the bass guitar the same way, learning while performing. “We don’t have spit and polish,” explains the Navy father. “Instead there’s a little realism.”
There was an overabundance of realism five years ago when Bud retired from the Navy and moved the family into the 23-room Rhode Island mansion with 6 1/2 acres of lawn and private beach. Nobody expected the man to come up with the payments, so it was considered a short-term deal with the family at least good for keeping the grass cut. Nine phones were pulled out, bills piled up and the heat was about to be shut off in the 1967 blizzard, but one son Bob, 18, inheriting his father’s confidence, predicted that in a year his mother would have a maid.
Down to their last penny, the family of nine moved to New York for nine months to be near the action, borrowing enough to keep the Newport home, then “The Rain, the Park and Other things” came out and the skies opened up.
Right now, the Cowsills are based in a big Santa Monice, Calif., Spanish house, traveling with Eddy Arnold on weekends while making their TV splash. That mansion in Newport is still theirs and always will be.
“I’m just questioning my own sanity with all these going-on,” concludes Bud. “The logistics alone are enough to drive a person around the bend. I’ll tell you one thing, the Navy was never like this.”