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Don't feel bad if you aren't familiar with Newport's version of the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync or the Jackson 5. It's true that there was a can't-miss family band from Newport once destined for stardom, vowing to become the American version of the Beatles. This teen quartet got its start playing Newport-area hotel lounges and waterfront bars on Bannister's Wharf. The group became so popular that it appeared on The Tonight Show, The Today Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show, twice. It even inspired the hit TV series The Partridge Family and was originally offered the show itself but turned it down when actress and singer Shirley Jones was chosen as the band's mom. The group, which was managed by the members' father, missed out on a golden opportunity to accelerate its meteoric rise to stardom by passing on the sitcom. This mistake, coupled with financial mismanagement and family squabbling, ended the pop group's ascent to fame almost as fast as it began. That band was the Cowsills.
The Cowsills moved to Newport from Canton, Ohio, in the mid-1950s when Bud Cowsill, a navy recruiter, was reassigned with his growing and musically inclined clan. His sons specialized in great harmonies and the ability to sing and play music at an early age; they even performed for their church congregation and on Cleveland-area TV stations before the age of ten. The band was officially formed in 1965, when brothers Billy, Bob and Barry started performing at Newport-area venues and school dances. When brother John joined the band as a drummer in 1967, Barry switched to bass guitar, and Newport's Fab Four was off and running. The Cowsills were renowned for their ability to accurately replicate Beatles tunes and mimicked their idols in clubs and hotel ballrooms for up to four hours at a time. By 1967,l three other members were added to the family act, including mom Barbara, and the Cowsills would sign a recording contract with MGM records. They would record one of their most popular singles, "The Rain, the Park and Other Things," which would make the young group teen idols worldwide. "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" wound up reaching number two on the Billboard charts, selling some three million copies in its first release. This bubbly, effervescent and cheerful tune is easily recognizable, and you have probably heard it at least a dozen times, although you probably weren't really sure who performed it. The Cowsills were also paid spokesperson for the American Dairy Association becoming the first band to appear in advertisements promoting milk. By 1968, the busy group was on the road, doing up to two hundred live performances on the concert circuit, and it recorded another top two hit with the theme song for the popular musical Hair. But just about the time they reached their musical zenith, things started to unravel, and a series of events would doom the Cowsills' march to music immorality.
The first major bombshell occurred in 1969 when lead singer and most popular member, Billy, was thrown out of the band by his father and manager, Bud, for smoking marijuana. The Cowsills would continue their prolific schedule for the next couple years, but the band just wasn't the same. Mom Barbara even landed in the hospital to recuperate from exhaustion. Perhaps the band had lost it's magic touch or the public grew tired of "bubble gum pop." By 1972, the group had basically disbanded, with the individual members striking out on their own. In 1975, Bud Cowsill filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of over $450,000 owed to hotels, airlines and credit card companies. His assets were listed as less than $5,000.
Over the next three decades, the Cowsills would occasionally reunite to play for various festivals and state fairs, but most of the members continued music careers on their own. Oldest member Billy moved to western Canada and found a niche playing country music. John Cowsill found success as a member of the Beach Boys touring band, playing drums and keyboard and singing background vocals. Arguably, the most successful and prolific former member of the Cowsills was youngest member Susan. She joined a band called the Continental Drifters and eventually formed her own successful group, the Susan Cowsill Band, which still performs numerous concerts annually. In 2000, the seven surviving Cowsill members performed at the waterfront festival, A Taste of Rhode Island, only two blocks from the Newport Wharf where the young band originally got its start some thirty-five years earlier. Sadly, the group's dynamo, diminutive mom Barbara, had passed away in 1985, and dad Bud, who had mismanaged the band's proceeds, died in 1992.
In 2005, tragedy would again strike the Cowsills. Both Barry and Susan were living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Crescent City. Fortunately, Susan and her husband had fled before the massive hurricane flooded the city, but Barry remained behind, vowing to see his sister soon. Despite numerous attempts to contact her brother, Susan was never able to track him down. On December 28, 2006, a badly decomposed body was found floating under a city pier. There was a handwritten note found in the pants pocket, with the name, address and phone number of the unidentifiable corpse, Barry Cowsill. A memorial service was scheduled for February 18, 2006, to honor the life of the fallen band and family member when heartbreaking news arrived from western Canada. Oldest brother Billy had perished the evening before his brother's memorial service from various ailments, culminating from a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse. Family and friends learned of Billy's passing at Barry's memorial service held at King park overlooking the harbor, the site of one of the Cowsills' first public concerts. The location is just down the hill from the family's Newport home, Halidon hall, and Barry's ashes were spread over the area where he and his siblings had performed more than forty years earlier. There is also a bench in King Park dedicated to the pair of musical brothers, so anyone who visited the harbor-side common can see where it all started for Newport's version of the Partridge Family.
No one can say for sure how the Cowsills' future might have been different had they accepted the offer to be TV's original family band, roving the country in a brightly painted bus. Would the popularity of the show have catapulted them to TV immortality? Or were the Cowsills victims of their era, destined to be popular for only a short time, briefly capitalizing on the nation's brief love affair with "bubblegum pop"? The latter is probably a more likely outcome, but one thing is certain: Newport's boy band could have become TV's first modern-day "reality show."