In the world of popular music, ya gotta have a name. And brother do they have them!
There’s the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane the Mamas and the Papas, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Kinks – and The Cowsills.
If you don’t know what the Cowsills are, they are a singing group. They are also members of a family named Cowsill.
The actual singers are four brothers and their mother, but the entire family is involved in seven youngsters and two adults being Cowsills.
They are also one of the hottest new things in show business. Success began to hit them last summer, and in 4 months they have been signed with M.G.M. Records, they 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
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.
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 8-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’ mini-mommy.
Barbara Cowsill is a small woman with blond 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.
Seated in a navy blue mini-skirted dress with white boots, surveying the chaos of the 3-room apartment into which all the Cowsills were jammed when they first came to New York, Barbara Cowsill tried, with constant interruptions from her brood, to explain what had happened to them, and how they got started.
“The nucleus of the group are Bill, Bob, Barry, and John,” she said, “and 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.
“And Barry had a little set of bongos and he did pretty well on them and then 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 dates, and my husband took them around for about 3 years.”
They had a contract with mercury Records for a while, which didn’t seem to help much one way or the other. And then we met Art Kornfeld and then Lenny Stogel got excited – and here we are,” she concluded.
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.
But there was a great deal that happened in between Bud Cowsill’s sending presents home from the Navy and the Cowsills’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Barbara talked about it quietly, while the bedlam proceeded cheerily about her.
“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 a success.
“With the time and the effort and the work that we went into it for 3 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. The phones were cut off, there was no oil in the furnace, we almost lost our house.
“My husband gave up general contracting. He decided it was all the way or not at all. We can’t leave them a darn thing when we die, but if we can help them have what they enjy before they die, that’s what counts. It would have been a waste not to.”
Barbara Cowsill remarked that they really didn’t mind not being at home. “We did 20 years in the service and traveled quite a bit, so being together is home to us,” she observed unaffectedly. “We’re starting a new album this month, and there’s the Sullivan show coming up again, so we’re thinking of moving to New York for a year and taking an apartment. Naturally the younger ones miss their friends, but it hasn’t really been a problem. We let them call their friends whenever they want to. The telephone bill’s high,” she said with a chuckle, “but they’re happy.
“Everybody has been so great to us,” she said happily, surveying the jam-packed, disordered room with theatrical boxes piled to the ceiling, and smitch-smatch furniture placed casually around the room.
“The apartment wasn’t really furnished, but someone gave us the sofa, someone else gave us the chairs, because we came as usual prepared to sleep on the floor until we found out what we needed.
“I love them all dearly,” she reflected, “but not this close. They’re growing, they’re all growing. I’m the only one that doesn’t grow. I think there are four of them now that are 6 feet tall. And Father Flanagan thought he had a Boys’ Town!”