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Daddy Dearest: The Dark Backbeat of 'The Cowsills' Family Band
April 10, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 75 comments
 

The startling thing about some '60s and '70s pop hits were how icky sweet they were, and, simultaneously, how deep they could go. For all of us kicking around the Carpenters at the time, it's a fair bet we were all singing (tearfully) along to Karen's plaintive "Superstar" in the privacy of our cars.

For some of us, it was the same with The Cowsills breakthrough 1967 hit, "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" (which some know as "The Flower Girl"). It's a virtual Phil Spector-like "little symphony for the kids" — a bittersweet organ refrain, harp flourishes and Bill Cowsills' high-register warble of teen love leading the way over everything.

The tragic prettiness of that song, along with the story of the crystalline five and six-part harmonies of The Cowsills' are recalled, and unraveled, in the 2011 documentary Family Band: The Cowsills Story now running on Showtime and Showtime 2 through April.

On one hand, the story of the Cowsills is a typical fame to wreckage story. The documentary reveals that they grossed an estimated $20 million in 1970s dollars during their three-year run of hit records and 200-plus live performances per year. And all that money disappeared, with no one knowing exactly where it went. Older brother Bob remembers that it took him ten years to reconcile with the IRS, paying taxes and penalties on income and gains he never saw.

Family Band is also a milestone marker, showing us the cracked foundation that supported a squeaky-clean family image, and a veneer-thin ideal, so often polished in the advertising of the '50s and '60s. (For a while the Cowsills served as the spokespersons for the American Dairy Association, always at the ready with big white glasses of wholesome milk, and big white teeth to go along with them.)

If any family suffered the schizophrenia of a happy-go-lucky public personae papering over a dysfunctional, unhappy home, it was the Cowsills.


The Cowsills catapulted to fame when "mini-mom" Barbara Cowsill and her young daughter, Susan, were put into the already-working band of brothers Bill, Bob, Barry, Paul and John
by the band's producers and handlers. What
was a workmanlike group of talented, young singer-musicians toiling away on the local circuit in Rhode Island, erupted into financial gold when it was transformed and marketed as an effusive family band.

With the release of the single "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" the Cowsills rocketed to national recognition, and made numerous television appearances on popular shows including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Mike Douglas Show.

The Cowsill family was also the model for the sitcom The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970-74.) They were actually supposed to star in the series, but the producers killed the deal, opting for actors instead. (There's a charming interview with Partridge Family mom Shirley Jones lamenting the dismissal of the Cowsills from their own project while introducing them at a 2004 benefit concert for Bill Cowsill.)

But Family Band is primarily the unfortunate story of the Cowsills' main handler and fearmonger, father Bud Cowsill (photo right, at far right). From the get-go, he was the font of the Cowsills success and their unhappiness. By all Cowsill family accounts, Bud Cowsill broke down doors to make them famous, and pretty much broke everything else in his way after they got there. He was band manager, unpredictable alcoholic, philanderer and violent tyrant.

Many of the documentary's interviews are hand-held homemade videos with the now-graying, surviving children. It's a harrowing account of young children functioning as obedient, fearful soldiers in a family battalion lead by the ex-Navy father.

Bill also recalls how they went on to produce a small-studio track of the title song from the Broadway musical, Hair, a song counter to their wholesome image (and counter to their record company's wishes) for the Carl Reiner-hosted special, The Wonderful World of Pizzazz. A surprise success, Hair found its way to the Billboard Top Ten in 1969, becoming their third chart hit.

At times, Family Band finds the Cowsills as a sort of haywire Von Trapp Family singers, or a white-bread version of the Jacksons. The Brian Wilson-level analog of the Cowsill brothers self-producing their own cover of Hair rightly points to the parallel of the Beach Boys' genius, similarly destructing under an abusive, controlling father.

At the height of the Cowsills success, alcoholic Bud kicked Bill out of the group for the offense of trying pot. (No hypocrisy there.) But it was more likely for Bill's habitual defiance, and his point of view as a talented musician.

Excommunicated and separated from his brothers and sisters, Bill moved to Canada, and struggled with substance addiction and illness for much of his adult life. In failing health during the early 2000s he gained sobriety shortly before his death in 2006.

The documentary shows clear moments of Bill's considerable talent and his vindication as leader of the alt-country band, The Blue Shadows. (Little brother John now tours with The Beach Boys, taking lead vocals on some of their biggest hits, sister Susan went on to considerable success in New Orleans with The Continental Drifters, and oldest brother Bob is now the front man for the touring version of The Cowsills.)

The 2011 film by Louise Palanker is a memoir of sorts for Bob Cowsill, who does all the narration, and admits at the end he's ambivalent about his reasons for excavating through all that history and what he's trying to accomplish. Is it for closure of some sort? Is it to understand and forgive his father? Was it a way of rediscovering the family's original love of music and how that had held them together as children, and how it still binds them as a family today?

The documentary closes with the darkest crease of Bud Cowsill, which you may have seen coming all along, but also shows the surviving children now performing their current road act (with a few of their own children as side musicians) now seemingly reconciled with their past and singing as joyfully, and as beautifully, as they did 40 years ago.

And that's good for all of us watching. We can look back with them at a time when the American family image was something much different than it is now.



 
 
 
 
 
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75 Comments
 
 
Leslie Kenyon
My first crush on a band. I was so excited when they moved out here to Santa Monica. I met them once and they were all sweethearts. I am so sorry the father was such an ass. I met him too and I would never have thought he was such a creep.
Dec 19, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Leslie Kenyon
My first crush on a band. I was so excited when they moved out here to Santa Monica. I met them once and they were all sweethearts. I am so sorry the father was such an ass. I met him too and I would never have thought he was such a creep.
Dec 19, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Leslie Kenyon
Well I did adore the Cowsills especially Barry. But I think the Jacksons are the most talented family. I never liked the Osmonds. But Cowsills were the best looking.
Dec 19, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Leslie Kenyon
For me it was Barry.
Dec 19, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
TaylorRambo
Hello..to Suzy...the biggest letdown was when I found out that you were a year older than me..I would love to meet you guys.. taylorrambo470@gmail.com. I have some great memories of just being in love with Suzy...I'm 61..have not aged one bit...I played with a lot of people...I'm still on the island off the Atlantic ocean in New Jersey...I go by the old house in surf City...and the Cowsills are the first memory that comes to mind..we didn't realize how wonderful they were.. Paradise Lost
Dec 7, 2021   |  Reply
 
Leslie Kenyon
I was totally in love with Barry Cowsill and did meet him once with all his brothers around. I also saw Susie at the house. I was selling Christmas seals and went to their house. I was thrilled and more in love afterwards.
Dec 19, 2021
 
 
 
Linden Frank
Hey Don Cowsill...Suz can contact me. I'm at linden_frank@aol.com
Nov 9, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Linden Frank
It was grass. Not heroin.
Nov 9, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Dave Idmarx
Found a one-sided, four song Cowsills acetate from 1971. The songs are (in order): an unreleased version of On My Side and three completely unreleased tracks: Walkin' Sleepers, an instrumental and a song that might be titled Emily or You Just Don't Know. Would love to get more info about this.
Nov 7, 2021   |  Reply
 
Dave, it's possible that the acetate you have contains songs that Curt Boettcher and Keith Olsen worked on, as I've been told that Boettcher was involved in co-producing the Cowsills at that time. Boettcher knew Waddy Wachtel/Waddell and Judy Pulver at that time. Please write me, as I'd love to hear those tracks! dawneden - at - gmail.com
Jan 19, 2022
 
 
 
Connie ALLEN
So many memories. The Cowsills were the first fan club I joined back in 1967. I would love to see them in concert sometime. The Rain, The Park and Other Things is my favorite song. Love you guys!! Fan From Arkansas, Connie Allen.
Oct 14, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Jerry O Basham
Brings back so many fond memories for me!!
Oct 4, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Paula Mccarty
I had a huge crush on John when l was a kid l seen them in person a few times love the drums l am married to a drummer still plays gigs
Sep 4, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Karen ciresi
Finding this long forgotten song and hearing it made me very, very HAPPY!!!!
Jul 22, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Danny Miller
Eric, the past tense of "lead" is "led"..
Jul 18, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Donna T
As a fan from my early teens, seeing the documentary about the good, the bad and the ugly of this families success and skeletons in their closet only makes me appreciate the family even more. I’ve seen them several times prior to the pandemic and am in awe at their resilience, their love of family but mostly, their love in performing for their fans. Not only did they survive but they all had successful careers and beautiful families of their own. Lastly, through all the hurtful times growing up, they remained true to family. That is rare!
Jul 4, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Judi
Find the money. This is disgusting that parents and promoters abused their talent, got rich and didn't pay the talent a dime.
May 27, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
Naroo Walatuti
Certainly explains a lot. Their music was aimed at an audience a few years younger than myself and pretty much passed unnoticed in the SF Bay Area, with all else going on there. But it was hard to miss that they had genuine talent. Shoulda dumped Daddy and crashed San Francisco, it worked for Neil Young, Van Morrison, Sammy Hagar, etc. usw. I remember reading a piece in TIME Magazine about 1968 and thinking, "You know, Dad sounds like a real putz!" Too bad he screwed the Golden Goose, or however that fable went.
May 19, 2021   |  Reply
 
 
keith Stevens
susans. still a fox
Feb 22, 2021   |  Reply
 
Linden Frank
Darn right. She is hot and looks better now than ever. Russel her hubby is one lucky dude.
Nov 9, 2021
 
 
 
Gary Dedoussis
The documentary really exposes how talented they are were and still are. The brothers Bill and Barry, both of whom are gone really haunt me. Both battled addiction, but flip the switch while recording or performing. Barry’s solo work is quite raw but extraordinary in my book. Amazing story!
Oct 18, 2020   |  Reply
 
Trenna
Bill and Barry's horrific deaths haunt me too.
Feb 12, 2021
 
 
 
Darren
That explains why they were so bitter towards their father and I didn't know that Barbara was a drinker as well what goes on behind closed doors. You can see how they all suffered when they got older.. rest in peace Richard and the other 2 brothers..
Sep 25, 2020   |  Reply
 
 
Shelley
Yes, the innocence and Joy the father took away from all of them. I agree I was a kid when they were famous and I loved the song and the way they sang it extreme blending of there voices. That father destroyed all of his children for his own selfish needs. They all turned to mind altering drugs to help deal with there childhood. WOW It's a shame he's dead we could all just help his kids ruin the rest of his life like he did his children. You don't raise confident children when your beating them into submission all the time. I know this I was beat myself and it can take the wind out of your sail.
May 8, 2020   |  Reply
 
Linden Frank
Word is he wanted to get into SUSAN'S PANTS...but Paul saved her when she moved in with him. She was having a relationship with a 20 year old @ 14 or 15. Yikes. Grew up way too fast.
Nov 9, 2021
 
 
 
 
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