In the world of “now” 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, the Cowsills.
The Cowsills are actually members of a family named Cowsill. They didn’t make up the name, 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 in seven youngsters and two adults being Cowsills.
They are also one of the hottest new things in show business. In four months they have been signed with M.G.M> records; they have put out albums, they have appeared on the “Tonight” show; and Ed Sullivan signed them to a ten-show contract through 1969.
So what’s so special about the Cowsills? Well, for one thing they have a 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 outsize, overgrown 23-room mansion in Newport, R.I. that is straight-out of Charles Addams. They are not disgustingly sweet nor are they hiding strange vices or over-weening ambition.
Whirl Of Confusion
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 obviously is Barbara Cowsill, 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.
Seated in a navy-blue mini-skirted dress with white boots, surveying the chaos of the three-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 twenty 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 three years. (They had a contract with Mercury Records.) And then we met Art Kornfeld and then Lenny Stogel got excited and – and here we are.”
Art Kornfeld is a producer and writer who came across the Cowsills last July. He thought they were something special, and he introduced them to Lenny Stogel who is now their 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 about her.
Bob came in making spaghetti, Dick broke a glass to wild cries of “Help! I’m dying! Wipe up the blood!” and John, who had been kibitzing at a card table where the boys were playing cards, started a fight, at which Barbara stood straight up in mid-sentence and said iclly, “John Patrick, that’s enough.” Without a word, John picked up a small portable television set and went quietly into the next room.
“Basically, what we are doing is raising a family and incorporating the music into it.”