Back in the socially discordant days of the late 1960s, the airy, nonthreatening harmonies of the Cowsills provided a striking musical counterpoint. To many, the six siblings and their miniskirted mom—the real-life models for TV’s Partridge family—seemed as wholesome as their “We Drink Milk” TV commercials. They had three million-selling singles (including “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” and a peppy cover of “Hair”), produced seven albums and became a rosy-cheeked fixture on TV variety shows and teen fanzines across the country.
But the sweetness didn’t last. After three years on top and the departure of lead vocalist Bill Cowsill, the group switched record labels in 1970 and never managed to recapture their earlier success. Finding their royalties squandered by bad management deals and worse investments, the Cowsills were broke, forgotten and unprepared for life offstage. “Almost overnight.” says Bob, now 41, “I went from living a very fine life to sweeping a garage for a day job.”
At the time, few outside the family knew just how hollow the family’s image had been—and how complete their disintegration would be. With some embittered by memories of their difficult upbringing, and others troubled by drink and drugs, they dispersed to the winds, many of them on nonspeaking terms for the next 15 years. Not until the death of Barbara Cowsill, the pixieish matriarch who succumbed to emphysema in 1985, did the entire family gather together again.
“Everyone went to Mom’s memorial in Arizona,” says John, 34. “We were all looking at each other and thinking, “It took Mom to die to bring us all together.’ ” They began remembering the good times. “We must have spent a good four hours making Mom jokes,” says John. “And singing,” adds Susan, 31.
The music was such fun, in fact, that now four of the Cowsills—Bob, Susan, John and Paul—have reunited and are even shopping a demo album titled, fittingly enough, “Some Good Years.” It is a sign of hope, perhaps, that some of the old family magic still exists. Such magic, after all, seemed no less unlikely those many years ago.
Long before they packed concert halls, the Cowsills were growing up in Newport, R.I., sharing their rambling 23-room Victorian home with rent-paying boarders. The ironhanded head of the clan was Bud Cowsill, a Navy chief petty officer who had been orphaned at 15, joined the service at 16 and seen action in the North Atlantic soon after. In 1946 Bud had married teenage Barbara, and, in the space of 12 years, the couple had had six sons and a daughter. “I didn’t know how to raise kids,” Bud, now 63, confesses. “I didn’t have anything to go on.”
Nothing, that is, except the Navy discipline he knew so well. “He ran the family like a mini military,” says Bob’s twin, Richard, 41, the only Cowsill never to perform with the group. “If you slipped and didn’t say ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, sir,’ your fanny was on the ground real quick.”
Playing guitars brought home from one of Bud’s stints at sea, Bill and Bob formed a two-man band. With the addition of little brothers Barry on bass and John on drums, they called themselves the Cowsills and began playing at local frat parties. The boys wanted to be “a crack rock-and-roll band,” says Bill, but papa Bud, who had always encouraged the group, steered a different course when he took over as full-time manager in 1965, following his retirement from the Navy. Baby sister Susan, then a 7-year-old moppet, was enlisted as a singer, and Paul joined on keyboards. When talent agents enlisted by Bud later insisted that Barbara sing along as well, the brothers balked. “It was a maneuver to have a different look,” Bill says of drafting his mother, a 5’1″ dynamo. “It was rather a drag when you’re 19 and there’s a waitress giving you the eye, who wants to take you home, and you’re up there with your mom and your sister.”
The excluded Cowsill kid, Richard, had a more serious complaint. Traumatized by a three-minute audition when he was 12, Richard still remembers Bud’s words: ” ‘You can’t play the drums. I’ve got enough people in the group, and you’re not in it.’ ” Before long, says Bob, “it wasn’t a family, really. It was more a business.” At 18, Richard says he “took the last punch my father was going to throw at me” and was booted from the house that night. He joined the Army and quickly shed the stutter that had plagued him all his life.
In 1967 Bud took the family to New York City, where they crammed themselves into a three-room apartment. Signed by a talent agent, they were given an MGM Records contract and within nine months had sold 2 million singles and made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The great roll had begun, and soon their recording of “Hair” would be selling 50,000 copies a day. In December 1968, they hosted their own NBC-TV special, which closed with Susan dedicating “What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love” to brother Richard, who was “off fighting with the armed forces in Vietnam.” Richard, in fact, was doing far more—advancing from opium to morphine and finally to heroin addiction while overseas.
In late 1968 the family moved to a sprawling Santa Monica beach mansion. They were offered a TV series based on their lives, but backed out when producers of what would eventually be The Partridge Family said they wanted to cast Shirley Jones as Barbara. By then they had tired of their goody-goody image as “America’s First Family of Music.” Paul hated the “dorky dance steps” that Bud and his advisers put into their act. Says Bill, the group’s most accomplished musician: “I didn’t like the schmaltz. I couldn’t take the showbiz glitz.”
Caught smoking pot by his father the next year, Bill was immediately banished from the group. “That was the beginning of the end of the Cowsills right there,” says Bob, who took over as group leader. “I couldn’t carry on.” Although they limped along for two more years, hard times eventually overwhelmed them. “This operation was spending more money than it was making from the word go,” says Bob. “Our biggest [concert] nights [brought in] $10,000. And if you’ve got nine people traveling first class, the money goes pretty fast.”
A failed land deal and other bad investments contributed to the financial collapse, as did their own naïveté. At one point, says Susan, recalling a galling moment of awakening, “we got gold watches after our first hit. They were inscribed, and we were all stoked. Then we found out we’d bought them.”
By 1971 it was over. When John turned 18 three years later, he was stunned to find just $1,800 in his trust fund. He found work as a studio musician for Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan and others, before settling in Ojai, Calif., where he and his wife are expecting their first child. John, who works as a carpenter by day, gigs at local clubs and is eager to sing with his family again.
Bob, who says it took him eight years to get over bitterness with his dad (“I didn’t see anyone for a long time”), eventually earned a degree in cell biology from Cal State—Northridge. “There’s not much you can do with a degree in cell biology, and I’m living proof of that,” he now jokes. After working as an emergency room technician, he began playing in a San Fernando Valley pub six years ago and still performs there one night a week, with Susan sometimes singing harmony. He lives with his second wife and co-lyricist, Mary Jo, a registered nurse, and their five children, two of whom are from his first marriage. Bob admits to “occasional cash-flow problems” but says. “I just filed everything away, accepted it for what it was. I’m fine now. I’m happy.”
So is brother Paul, who got married and joined the Navy after the breakup. Later divorced, Paul, 38, worked as a sound technician and as Helen Reddy’s road manager before settling in La Crescenta, Calif., with his second wife and his two sons. Now in construction work, he says his memories of those early days are mostly happy ones. “We had three million-sellers, we traveled around the world, we only had to go to high school 35 days. It was really a lot of fun.”
Susan, just 10 when the band folded, says, “It was time to become normal. Being famous, that was done.” But school “didn’t sit well,” she says. “I’m a ninth-grade dropout.” She picked up clerical jobs (“I was the Xerox queen”), did some backup singing and most recently has written songs with best friend Vicki Peterson of the Bangles. “Life’s tough for everybody,” she shrugs. “We went up. We went down. It’s just life, Nothing special.”
Like his brother Barry (who is happily married, a father of four and working as a solo musician in Monterey, Calif.), Bill, the canned Cowsill, never gave up on music. “I was starving a bit,” he says. “Starving a lot, actually, but learning.” Stints street-singing and playing for beers were a welcome change from the Cowsills and “all that sweetness and light,” he says. He bought a bar in Austin, Texas, but “drank it dry. I was drinking my face off in those days.” Now a father of two living in Vancouver with his common-law wife, he is building a new career as a country singer and says he holds no animosity toward the father who fired him: “He gave it his best, and I love him dearly.”
While memories still linger, the two Cowsills who never performed seem to have found their peace as well. Richard, the Vietnam vet, has been drug-and alcohol-free for the past six years and is a Long Island, N.Y., construction worker and a married father of three. “My ultimate dream is that one day I will perform with my brothers and sisters,” he says. He has mailed five letters, with photos of his children, to his dad, who hasn’t responded.
“I don’t write,” says Bud, who lives alone in a small fishing village outside Rosarito Beach, Baja, Mexico, where he has neither electrical service nor a telephone. He joined the merchant marine in the early ’70s and went back to sea for the next 13 years, working on far-flung oil-drilling rigs. The walls of his Spartan beach house are now decorated with photos of crews and shipmates but not a single memento of those Cowsills days. Even the urn containing his wife’s ashes is kept by his sister, who lives nearby. “The no-rapport I have with my children has never changed.” Bud says. “I’m a harsh taskmaster. I wouldn’t want me for a father. Chrissakes, that’s why I live alone. I wouldn’t even want me for a husband.” As for those financial failures, “I ain’t show business,” he says gruffly. “With a passion, I hated it. But I made it work. For a time there, we were on top.”
Now four of them hope to be there again. The demo tape is making the rounds, and there’s even an old Cowsills fan club still in existence—with 74 members. At a rehearsal recently, the new group performed a song called “Shine,” and if the voices were fewer, the old tight harmonics and infectious enthusiasm were present once again. “You know.” said Paul afterward, “if you blow lightly on that microphone, it sounds just like a crowd screaming.”
—Steve Dougherty, Stanley Young in West Hills, and Rosarito Beach