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The Cowsills: fates unkind to musical family
December 28, 2017
The Australian
Melbourne, Australia


The Cowsills in 1967/p>

It will come as a surprise to many that Bob Marley never wrote a song called Don’t Worry About a Thing, and that Doug Ashdown did not record a single called Winter in America, and that neither were the Cowsills responsible for any record called The Flower Girl.

Bob Marley’s 1977 hit Three Little Birds is best remembered for the first line of its memorable chorus. One of the 1970s’ other superstars, Stevie Wonder, had not that long before charted with a song titled Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing and Marley obviously decided to steer clear. Ashdown’s belatedly famous ballad was titled Leave Love Enough Alone and sank without trace in 1974, only finding its mark when rebadged as Winter in America and re-released two years later.

And it is just as hard for most of us to remember that the Cowsills’ first hit about the flower girl at the end of the Summer of Love in 1967 was actually called The Rain, the Park and Other Things. It was a daring composition, part bubblegum, part organ-driven psychedelic pop and a complex masterpiece of precise familial harmonies across three minutes of joyfully distilled California sunshine.

And among the “other things” is something extraordinary. The cascade of royalties from the Cowsills’ three million-selling single emboldened the song’s co-author, Artie Kornfeld, who’d already had Brill Building hits with Dead Man’s Curve and Pied Piper, to think big. So big he changed the course of popular music. So big he left an indelible impression on the cultural history of the 20th century. With a wallet thickened by his Cowsills’ hit, Kornfeld’s next venture was the generation-defining Woodstock festival.

Not that the Cowsills would be appearing. They’d had two more hits — Indian Lake and Hair — by the time Woodstock came around in August 1969 but at that point were disintegrating under the weight of abuse — physical, mental, financial — of their violently alcoholic dad, Bud.

It seems that in sober moments, Bud, whose strict discipline was perhaps influenced by years spent in navy recruitment, could be entertaining, even charming. But such times were rare and, as his sisters-in-law recalled a few years back, they were surprised to be propositioned by their sibling’s new husband and appalled when he did the same to their mother.

In the late 1950s the Cowsills — Bud, his wife Barbara and the first of their boys, Billy and twins Bob and Richard — were living in Ohio. Billy and Bob were naturals at playing instruments and singing, and with Bud as their manager the boys started singing Beatles covers at small gigs. They recorded a few singles no one heard but were then signed to MGM Records and, with mum Barbara joining them, recorded an album that took its name from Kornfeld’s song. Suddenly they were all over radio and television — and the face of a campaign to drink milk.

Executives at American television network ABC saw the Cowsills and, perhaps keen to match the runaway NBC hit show The Monkees, thought they might put actress Shirley Jones as head of the family and write a sitcom around the Cowsill children. In the end, the children’s lack of acting training, and the fact they did not match up with the ages of the kids scripted into the show, saw them recruit others, including David Cassidy, Jones’s stepson, who died last month.

After the Cowsills’ last big hit, Hair, a cleverly rendered interpretation of the stage-show song, it was all downhill. Dad Bud didn’t like that choice of song and ended up in a physical confrontation with eldest son Bill, lead singer and guitarist, whom he sacked from the group as it came to an inglorious end. Various permutations of the Cowsills have performed since and a core of Bob, Paul and Susan regularly still does.

But the fates have tormented the family. Barbara died aged 56 of emphysema and dad Bud died a few years later in Mexico; Richard, the son Bud would not let join the family band, died of lung cancer aged 64; and, after years of ill-health, Bill died aged 58 also of emphysema.

At a 2004 benefit show to help cover Bill’s mounting medical bills, Jones introduced the remaining Cowsills, describing them as “the real thing”. Bill was too unwell to perform and Barry Cowsill played guitar that night as they did a faithful and moving version of The Rain, the Park and Other Things.

By then Barry had relocated to New Orleans and was there when Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast on August 29, 2005. He left some distressed messages on his sister Susan’s phone and was not heard from again. On December 28 that year a mostly decomposed body was found in the Mississippi River. In a pocket was a piece of paper with Barry Cowsill’s name and a phone number on it. A few days later dental record confirmed it was indeed Barry.

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