WHEN YOU LOOK at the picture of part of the Cowsill family holding their gold record and happily smiling (along with Mort Nasatir, President of MGM Records), you would little guess that just one year ago they were all sitting in my office on Eighth Avenue in New York City in tears! They were car-less, food-less and home-less, and it looked as though nothing short of a miracle could save the Cowsill family!
NOTHING BUT DRUMSTICKS
But I'm getting ahead of my story. Let me go back and start from the beginning. It was two and a half years ago that I first saw Bill, Bob, Barry and John Cowsill in a New York recording studio. A friend of mine was cutting them and I dropped by the session to say hello to him. From the control booth, I looked out into the studio and saw three young kids. Yep, that's right, three - Bill, Bob and Barry were playing and singing for all they were worth. In a recording studio there is a fixture called the "drummer's booth". It is constructed to keep the drum sound from "spreading" about the studio. The "drummer's booth" is about four feet high and when I looked at it all I could see were drumsticks flashing up and down!
"Where's the drummer?" I asked my friend.
Through the mike he said, "Cut, boys!" Hey, Johnny, come out - there's someone who wants to meet you!"
And lo and behold - the teeniest, cutest kid drummer I had ever seen popped out of the booth!
I didn't see the Cowsill family again until July, 1967. I was just getting started in management and had signed Sam the Sham, the Royal Guardsmen, Tommy James and Keith - but I always kept the Cowsill family in the back of my mind. I had dug what I heard them recording that day and I secretly hoped that our paths would cross again - and that maybe we could work together one day. In July, I dropped by Mercury Records to see Artie Kornfield and he started raving about the Cowsills. They had already cut a record for a label named Joda. (It was their first record and it was called Most Of All), and now they were on Mercury. Artie introduced me to Bud Cowsill. I said to him, "Boy, you have a fantastic group. They're really going to be big one day."
Little did I know that Bud would never forget those words, and that they would be the beginning of a long and happy relationship. Shortly after that time, Artie called me and told me that the Cowsill contract with Mercury was up and that the Cowsills were looking for a manager.
"Now that they're free," Artie said, "I think you should hear them again."
THE LITTLE "PEANUT"
We made an appointment and that afternoon I found myself in a big, old studio at 54th Street and Eighth Avenue. I found out later that it cost two dollars an hour to rent that studio, and that the Cowsills had pooled their last remaining resources to do an audition for me. When I went in, Bud introduced me to his wife Barbara and their youngest child, adorable Susie.
When the Cowsill got up to perform, you could have knocked me over with a feather! Not only was Barbara singing a couple of numbers with them now, but so was the little "peanut" Susie! I was amazed at how professional they were - and it wasn't until much later that I learned that the audition was the very first time Barbara and Susie had performed for anyone!
The group was unbelievable! They flipped me out. They performed for me for over an hour, doing tunes like Reach Out, Monday Monday, and Knock On Wood. When they finished, I grabbed Bud and said, "Get your family and come with me." And we all went to my office, which was right around the corner.
"Come on, everybody - sit down," I said , and we all sat around my desk. I addressed Bud: "now, tell me exactly what is your situation?"
What I meant was - were they signed to anybody else, etc. Bud looked down at his hands for a minute, and then he looked up. Suddenly, his sparkling blue eyes were dark and sad.
"Lenny, we're flat broke," he said. "We've been from pillow to post for a long time, but now we're at the breaking point. I want to make a deal with you. You won't believe this, but I have been planning this for a long time. There are other people who want to manage us, but I checked around and you're the guy we want."
Naturally, I was very complimented - for I knew that Bud spoke not only for himself, but on behalf of his sincere, hardworking, beautiful family. I told him that before I signed anything, I wanted to get him a good record deal.
"I don't want to be like other managers who sign people, take everything and give nothing," I said. "I want to give you something first."
I went on to explain to the Cowsills that I thought MGM would be the best label for them. Though they were attentive, they seemed somehow distressed. However, I picked up the phone and made an appointment with Mort Nasatir, President of MGM Records, for the following Monday. We all shook hands and the Cowsills left to spend the weekend in Newport. They said they would see me at my office Monday morning.
Sure enough, at 8 A. M. Monday, Bud knocked on my office door. When I opened it, I saw Barbara and all the kids with him. I ushered them all in and they sat down while Bud and I went into my private office. Then Bud told me about the terrible situation the Cowsills were in.
"Lenny, I hate to burden you with this," he said, "but I found out this weekend that the bank is going to take our house away from us. You see, we have not been able to keep up the mortgage payments, and now they say that if we don't come up with $5,000, we're just going to lose everything."
I sat in shock. This was terrible. I didn't know what to say, but - thank heaven - I know what to do. Bud went on to tell me that the only thing they had left was their truck and that if they didn't make payments on it - it too would soon be taken from them.
"You know, Lenny," he concluded, "things were so bad this past winter that the kids had to chop up their furniture so that we could burn it and keep heat in the house. We don't have anything left except the beds."
I found it hard to keep back tears. I looked up and saw Barbara standing in the doorway. She was making a valiant effort to smile through her tears.
"Oh, we have been through this before, Lenny - time and time again," she said. "You know, it's hard when you have a big family of healthy, hungry, growing kids. I guess what's worse is that we just have to be in show business. I mean, except for Bud's career as an officer in the Navy, we just can't do anything but sing and entertain for a living. We have always been able to make it through these crises, but this time it's really going to be impossible. We've got no lights, no cars, no credit, and now no home. I guess the home means the most because the kids love it so very much."
"Don't worry," I said, grabbing the phone. "I'll get you the money before the end of the week. How much do you need?"
"Five thousand dollars," Bob and Bud said together.
By this time, I was already dialing 262-3131 - the number of MGM Records.
The phone call Lenny made that day was one of the most important calls he ever made! To find out what happened, be sure to pick up the October issue of 16 (it goes on sale August 22) and read the rest of the Cowsills' story!