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Daddy Dearest: The Dark Backbeat of 'The Cowsills' Family Band
April 10, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 65 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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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
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
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
Bill and Barry's horrific deaths haunt me too.
Feb 12, 2021
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
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
I'm always against drug use so Bud was right about that.
Apr 30, 2020   |  Reply
Whether it's drugs, alcohol, sex, a position of power --- Bud Cowsill was a hurting man who hurt others. He self-medicated with more than one of the above-mentioned. Many hurting people do. We'll never know why. I wish this family peace...
Nov 16, 2020
Bud wasn’t right a damn thing. Alcohol IS a drug.
May 25, 2020
What about alcohol that's a DRUG. REALLY are u REALLY justifying the fathers drug and incest with his daughter as OK. Because Billy tried pot. NARROW MINDED I FEEL.
May 8, 2020
Tim Maher
I was a big fan of the Cowsills as a kid. Barry and I were about the same age. Thought I could do the samething with my sisters but sadly I was the only one in the family with musical talent playing the guitar & keyboards for years. Sad with all of their talent their home life was so rough. I can relate. Hard road for alot of us.
Mar 4, 2020   |  Reply
Arthur Heath
I knew Bill and Bob when we went to Middletown High in the mid 60’s. They were both very talented. Never saw the “family”thing coming though. A roady of theirs became a Veterinarian and I asked him why they fell apart. He said the Dad. How unfortunate.
Jan 24, 2020   |  Reply
I turn 30 in a few weeks, so I was not around during their fame years, however, I had a natural affinity towards them when I heard flower girl.. For some reason listening to the song, something about it makes me cry whenever i hear it although I promise you is not intentional lol, my eyes cry on their own for some reason like theres a bowl of onions somewhere. Unfortunately after reading this story, its as if there was about the innocence of that song, I cant explain because i dont understand it tbh, but my heart wants to burst for the song, but i cant help but to feel this overwhelming dread and anxiety when I hear the song... its nice to know im not the only one curious about these guys
Nov 15, 2019   |  Reply
Me, too. The flower girl song instantly swells up feelings of joy, hope, sadness, love -all at once. I cry for no reason except that they sing beautifully and it feels like innocence and joy.
Jan 14, 2020
Fred Amirault
The Prophecy of Daniel, and John the Divine Almost 30 years before anyone starting thinking, or understanding any of this. If i had Them all available today, I could have large movement today No one believes that The USA today is Babylon. But, they Believe that man that made us Babylon
Nov 4, 2019   |  Reply
Janis Thomson
Fred - I think your on the wrong page mate??
Jan 23, 2021
Silent Nuts
Excuse me you're a child predator
Mar 15, 2020
Thank you I was a fan back in the day still am GOD BLESS you guys
Apr 17, 2019   |  Reply
Jim Kelly
Why didn't the band members fire the father the way the Beach Boys did? Did Bud have that much power and control that his sons were afraid of him. It's sad that a monster was pulling the strings on such a talented band. It makes whatever success they had bittersweet
Apr 11, 2019   |  Reply
Fred Amirault
They had been beaten by their Father Most of their lives, and Sadly their mother also was beaten as well,though She Drank as well.. I was in a similar situation, and it messes with so much. Part of me felt worthless. The Bible says that this can go on for 3 generatons or more. At least in my Family, there are no more generations of us.
Nov 4, 2019
My guess is that they didn't fire the dad because they wanted to keep the family intact. When Bill was fired by Bud, he was also fired from the family. He moved away and had to find a way to support himself. I think some of the siblings corresponded with him but not the parents.
Oct 15, 2019
Love the Coswills such a tragic story in reality. Had a crush on Susan when I was a kid
Nov 5, 2018   |  Reply
Charleston Rabelo Santana
where I read I am Brazilian, never had the chance to see them in person, but I will never let your music and harmony of their voices wilt within my heart ..... please read .....
I am Brazilian, never had the chance to see them in person, but I will never let your music and harmony of their voices die inside my heart.
Jul 25, 2018   |  Reply
Charleston Rabelo Santana
( This message, 2/2, is continuation of message 1/2). Those who have left, miss (Barry, Bil, Barbara and Rich), and those who are still with us, Susan, Paul, Bob and John, never fail to show the gift that God gave to you, because through this gift many and many hearts will surely beat much faster. And I'm glad to hear that other younger members of the family are also part of the new band, continuing what I will call the "GENERALIZED TALENT OF GOD." I am Brazilian, never had the chance to see them in person, but I will never let your music and harmony of their voices wilt within my heart. I do not know the English language correctly, but the lyrics of their songs will always be sung by my lips, showing the poetry that was rooted in the bottom of my heart.
Jul 25, 2018   |  Reply
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