Susan Cowsill wanders onstage like a nine-year-old at her first social dancing class, but this nine-year-old soon prances under the lights, belting out sons like a young Petula Clark.
The youngest of seven Cowsill youngsters who make show business a family business, Susan appeared at the Miami Beach Convention Hall last weekend with five of her brothers and her mother on a bill shared by Eddy Arnold. The sixth brother, Dick, a non-singer who previously served as road manager, is now in Vietnam.
The Cowsills sing as though they were auditioned for the job, but each was simply born to it. Although Bill, 20, and Dick's twin Bob, 19, have been singing in natural harmony since grade school days, the family began singing together professionally only 14 months and a couple of recording hits ago.
Nobody was drafted into the act.
"They forced their way. They insisted on doing what the other guy did. The kids love competition," said the adult-in-residence of the musical Cowsills, their mother Barbara, 40.
Her husband Bud, who can't decide if his brood is "his penitence or good fortune," is producer, director and co-ordinator of the Cowsill action, which is plenty when everybody crowds into a couple of station wagons on tour.
He and Dick missed out on the musical talent.
"We don't even let Bud hum, it's so bad," Mrs. Cowsill smiled.
Daughter-in-law Karen, Bill's wife, sticks to her paintbrush, sitting out the performances backstage.
Working, traveling and living together can present problems even when the family comes out with perfect harmony on stage in arrangements by Bill and Bob.
"It gets pretty tight at times. Lots of times, they don't like me and I don't like them," admitted Mrs. Cowsill.
Barry, 14, who gets the screams from the audience, likes the family plan. "It's groovy," he said.
"It's the only place I'm not in control," added Mrs. Cowsill.
She is in control enough to make sure that the boys' haircuts are neat around the edges "comparatively," she points out. But like other mothers of rock and roll teenagers, she can't look on the amplified sound with much affection.
"Everything you see on stage was in my living room at one time. I'd leave while they practiced. I can't say I enjoyed it. I hated it," she said. "Honest, electric instruments drove me out of my mind."
The family moved West this fall to be in a better spot for television work. They will have a special later this month which they hope will grow into a series next season. When Bill shared this information with the audience, a scream of ecstasy sounded at the back of the hall.
The school-age Cowsills, Paul, 17 last Monday; Barry, John, 12; and Susan, now attend the Hollywood Professional School, touring with Arnold weekends until December and having tutors on the set during television productions.
The Cowsills pride themselves on their versatility. They played a rather subdued show last weekend, relying heavily on their folk numbers and trying to please both the young and the not-so-young in the audience by beginning with the gentle sounds of two unamplified guitars, played by Bill and Bob, and growing in sound with instruments and family members until the music was more rock than folk.
Paul, the "soul brother" of the group formally joined the family enterprise last February in Italy, filling in for Bill who went back to college. But the Miami audience heard little soul. "When we do sing soul, watch out," said Mrs. Cowsill.
Mrs. Cowsill calls herself a "professional housewife" and emphasizes that even with all those musical gifts, the Cowsills are a family first.
"Basically, we're raising a family. Marriage, draft or death. That's life. We don't run from it," she said.
When she heard the sounds of a scuffle around the corner in the dressing room, she was all mother.
"No fighting, fellas. Cool it," she said.