By Kimmi Kobashigawa
The Cowsills would have to be considered one of the most unique pop groups in the country if for no other reason than the fact that their mother sings with them. Mrs. Cowsill — and that is the real last name of this singing family — is a performing member of the group, and is in the words of her oldest son, and lead singer, Bill — "a mini-Mom."
There are seven children in the Cowsill family, and six of them are male. The seventh is a beautiful, dark-haired little girl of eight who has somehow remained a very feminine, non-tomboy type despite the many young men surrounding her.
We asked Susan's oldest brother, Bill, how the family began singing together as a professional group, and he explained: "This would have to go back many, many years when we weren't even aware of it. Nothing was pre-meditated — that is, we didn't say, 'Well, let's have a group and let's everybody start playing instruments.' Everything just kind of fell into place.
"Of course, when we noticed it, then we started trying to work toward the goal we're working for now. But, up until then it was just good fun in the house, and we decided to take it out of the living room and into the world. As far as music goes, nobody has had any formal training at all — everybody is self-taught.
"I started the guitar when I was about six years old and Bob picked it up after me, then Barry — who now plays bass — played drums with us for a year before John took over the drums; now John plays drums and Barry plays bass! But, Barry also plays drums and guitar and John can also play bass. Bob plays guitar and organ, and I play drums, bass, and guitar. So, we switch around every now and then; it's kind of fun."
Beside The Pool
Bill is twenty years old, tall and slender, and possessed of an absolutely disarming smile and two of the smilingest blue-green eyes. We spoke to the Cowsills as they lounged beside the pool at the hotel in which they were staying; sitting next to Bill was "Mom" Cowsill who explained just how she became a participating member of the group.
"My husband spent 20 years in the Service, and I said 'Good-bye' so many times in my life — you know, 'Good-bye-to-father-as-he-goes-over-seas.' The boys have asked me for quite a while now if I would sing with them, and pretty soon I noticed that they were leaving and I was still saying 'Goodbye!' I like my family, so instead of 'Good-bye it became 'Hello!' and here I am! To coin a phrase, 'if you can't beat them, join them."
The group has already appeared on the Johnny Carson show and have just signed to appear on ten Ed Sullivan shows, which is a pretty phenomenal achievement for a group of brothers and sisters — and one Mini-Mom! — who began singing in their living room just for fun.
Also in the works right now are long-range plans involving either a movie or a TV series which would feature the entire Cowsill family. By the way, two of the brothers act as Road Managers for the group, and Mr. Cowsill, Sr. is the manager. And that's really "keeping it in the family!"
Most of the younger Cowsills enjoy popular music and include the Beatles and the Association among their favorites. Mrs. Cowsill admits that she has an appreciation for the kind of music her children are listening to — "I know it must be good, because they're good!" — but prefers to listen to folk music when she is at home.
Although all of the members of the group have their own particular favorites in the music industry, they haven't set out to copy any of them. In so far as the influence of other artists' styles on the style of the Cowsills is concerned, Bill explained: "We term our sound 'Conglomerate Rock' because everything you hear influences you. Directly, or indirectly — even Beethoven was influenced by, say, Bach. But, you take what you hear — rearrange a few things — not steal it or copy it — and you use it and it becomes uniquely you — if you use it in the right way. Concepts are known — you take this concept and improve upon it, modify it, and you use it as you would use it and it becomes yours."
All seven of the junior Cowsills are in school, Bob and Bill being the only two in college. While the group is on tour, a tutor is along to continue the studies of the other five who range in age from seven to sixteen.
Bob and Bill are also the song-writers of the group, and wrote all but one of the tunes on their first album. Eventually, Bill hopes to go into record producing and other areas of the business.
Dick smiles out at the world beneath a deep tan and light brown hair. Although he doesn't perform onstage, he does act as sound engineer, with the help of his father, and works on lighting and staging. Younger brother, Paul, is the official Stage Manager, and in the words of his older brother, Dick, "he does a great job."
Cherubic eight year old Susan agrees in a slightly husky little-girl voice that she would enjoy remaining in the entertainment business, but is kind of thinking about becoming a nurse, instead. Her older brothers tease her about being on "probation" for several months with the group until they could decide whether or not she would work out as a permanent member. The final decision was left up to the audiences for which the group performed on the cross country tour they have just completed, and the decision was unanimous : Susan stays!
John has dark brown hair and a slightly mischevious look about him, but he is actually a very serious young man. He is looking forward to becoming a songwriter in the near future, and like his older brother, Bill, is very much interested in eventually producing records.
Barry agrees with John in his appreciation of the Beatles music, but agrees even more strongly with Bill in his love for rhythm and blues — real "soul" music.
In their live act, the Cowsills like to include a wide variety of music — ranging from Country and Western to Rhythm and Blues, sometimes going as far back as 1933 and Maurice Chevalier if it is requested. "We try to please everyone, and it all depends who we're playing for. We try to make everyone in our audience feel important and as though we're playing their kind of music," explained Bill.
Mr. Cowsill, Sr. admits that his family is definitely a fun-loving group of practical poke-prone people: "Just getting up in the morning some days constitutes a practical joke! Just meeting one another. It's a very continuous operation — we call it fun!"
And, what about the current "hippy movement," Mr. Cowsill? "Wouldn't miss it! It's very interesting, and a necessity if for nothing else than to prove that it won't last! They need that time to freak-out and find out and evaluate themselves and people around them. Some just go with it, some are very serious — but we won't knock it."
The Cowsills are a very large, very warm, very close-knit family who have taken their personal warmth and joy as a family out of their Rhode Island, Connecticut living room and shared it with families in other living rooms across the nation. And if anyone should ever ask you just what a Cowsill is anyway — you can tell them it's something very nice!