Something Else! Interview: Bob Cowsill, of the Cowsills

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Formed while siblings Bill (guitar), Bob (guitar and organ), Barry (bass) and John (drums) were still in school, the Cowsills went on to become one of the most popular bands of the late 1960s.

The quartet, which hailed from Newport, Rhode Island, first shook up the airwaves in the waning summer days of 1967 with “The Rain, the Park and Other Things,” a million seller which darted straight to No. 2 on the national charts. Called an inspiration for TV’s Partridge Family, the brothers were later joined by siblings Susan and Paul, and their mother Barbara. The early months of 1968 then saw the band rack up another winner, as “We Can Fly” peaked at No. 21. That was followed by the bright and bubbly “Indian Lake,” which punched in at No. 10. The Cowsills would log a final charting single in the spring of 1969 with a noticeable departure: The No. 2 hit “Hair,” taken from the controversial rock musical.

By the early 1970s, Bill had left after a squabble with their manager/father Bud, and the Cowsills called it quits. They bounced back later in the decade, only to disappear again until 1990 — though, by then, Barbara had passed away after a bout with emphysema. A number of reunions have followed since, though the group eventually lost Bud (to leukemia in 1992), Barry (who died in the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005) and Bill (who died on the day of Barry’s memorial service in 2006), as well.

Bob Cowsill, who still performs occasionally with Paul and Susan as the Cowsills, joins us to talk about the group’s early years in the latest SER Sitdown, how the group adapted to overnight fame as youngsters, and his all-time favorite Cowsills track. A complete list of upcoming concert dates follows, including a solo show scheduled for later this month …

BEVERLY PATERSON: Can you recall the first time you heard your early MGM hit “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” on the radio?
BOB COWSILL: No, but I do remember realizing we had a hit on our hands, and thinking this was the record that was going to do it for us. And it’s ironic it became a hit when it did, because I had just graduated from high school and was disappointed I wasn’t able to go back in the fall and tell everybody: “See, I told you I could do it!”

BEVERLY PATERSON: How did the Cowsills adapt to such sudden fame?
BOB COWSILL: Well, our fame wasn’t that sudden, because we were already pretty popular on the East Coast by the time “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” came out. Our popularity had been growing steadily over the years and all it did was reach another level after the single hit. Most people weren’t aware of it, but we were accustomed to the attention, and had been doing interviews for some time at that point. Artistically, we were prepared to handle fame on a larger scale. We were ready to tour and record, but we were not prepared intellectually to make it succeed and kept it going. A number of poor decisions were made during our career and the money was mismanaged. We were too young, and in retrospect I wish I had been a little older when it all happened. But when you’re 18 years old, you just don’t think about the future. You live for the day — and we were on top of the world!

BEVERLY PATERSON: Unlike some bands, the Cowsills didn’t fill their albums with nothing but cover material. How old were you when you started writing songs?
BOB COWSILL: I was 12-years-old when I started writing songs, so it’s just something I’ve always done — like singing and playing guitar. In retrospect, I view the songs we wrote for our albums as young songwriters learning their craft and sharing it with people. We were definitively in a unique situation because it was like we were inviting the public to peek in on our schoolwork!

BEVERLY PATERSON: Were you satisfied with the material the band recorded?
BOB COWSILL: I was somewhat happy with the songs we did, but if it was us running the show, our sound would have been different than what was on our records. Although that stuff was light, I don’t belittle it because it did have its moments. When Bill, Barry, John and I started out, we fashioned ourselves after a rock ‘n’ roll band like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. That was the road we originally intended to go down. But after we got signed to MGM Records, we compromised by adding our mom to the band, and ended up recording some material we may not have done otherwise. Then our sister Susan and brother Paul came on board later. But that’s OK, because it worked! We were actually a very good live band. One thing we never did, was encumber the audience with a bunch of album tracks they weren’t familiar with. We’d focus just on our hits and songs by other bands that were popular the time.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Of the singles the Cowsills released, do you have a particular favorite?
BOB COWSILL: I was very pleased with “Hair,” because that was the first record we made where we were really in total control of what was going on. Bill and I produced that single, and it was more in line with the direction we had been wanting to take.

BEVERLY PATERSON: You obviously rubbed shoulders with lots of well-known folks. What was it like meeting those people?
BOB COWSILL: I was too young to be intimidated by anyone, and looking back now I wish I carried an autograph book around with me, because we definitely did meet a lot of stars! But because I was so young, I sometimes had no historical sense of who was standing in front of me. Like the time we played on Johnny Cash’s show and he asked me afterwards if I wanted to go jam with him and Carl Perkins. I knew these guys were famous musicians, but I didn’t realize just how legendary they really were. I was only 18-years-old and still under my dad’s rule, and he wouldn’t allow me to play with them so I had no other choice but to turn down their offer. In retrospect, I wish I would have said yes and went and joined them on my own, because they were gods!

BEVERLY PATERSON: Was there any one set reason why the Cowsills initially split up?
BOB COWSILL: It definitely wasn’t because people didn’t like us anymore: We were the ones that felt it was time to break up. Things had actually started getting pretty sour when Bill left the band. It takes a special talent to manage a band, and my dad didn’t have that talent. Although he did do a good job of getting us to the top, and he didn’t have the skills to keep us there. Our family blew up, and that’s what ended the band. But it really wasn’t the pressure of show business that caused the problems. We were a normal family and it would have happened anyway.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Were you sad to see the band go?
BOB COWSILL: No, it was actually a big relief! But in retrospect, it is disappointing. Someone at a more mature level should have sat down with us, and explained why things were not working out. And someone should have given us a reason or encouragement to carry on. That’s what was missing. We just didn’t have the proper guidance. But I have no problems with my history, and figure that’s the way it was meant to be. You can walk into any bookstore and pick up a rock and roll encyclopedia and find us in there. In terms of family music, we were definitely trailblazers.

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Upcoming performances by Bob Cowsill …
06/29/12: Pickwick’s Pub, Woodland Hills, CA
07/14/12: The Fox & Hounds Pub, Studio City, CA

Upcoming performances by the Cowsills …
09/15/12: Infinity Music Hall, Norfolk, CT
09/16/12: Mohegan Sun, Uncasville, CT
09/17/12: B.B. King Blues Club, New York, NY

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