Barry Cowsill was barely 13 years old when he and his family made the hit parade for the first time. Tonight, at 36, he's playing a small club in Fresno.
The musical renaissance of Barry Cowsill has taken quite a few turns since 1967, when the Cowsills hit No. 2 with "The Rain, the Park and Other Things." They went on to record a few other hits (the theme to "Hair" among them) before disbanding in 1971.
For the past 20 years, to hear him tell it, Cowsill has been a peripheral player in pop music, plying his trade in Florida, California and his native New England.
"I've made a living at music in between odd jobs," he explained. "I've been in the merchant marines, I've pushed a broom. But I've always played music - I can't get rid of that."
All grown up
His latest project is a collaboration with Fresno Cajun musician Alligator, whom he met in a Monterey nightclub. Tonight, Alligator and the Bayou Boogie band with Barry Cowsill is the featured act at the Olympic Tavern on Van Ness Avenue.
"I've learned to rock 'n' roll," said Cowsill, when asked what's kept him busy for the past two decades. "I'm more confident in my music than I was back then. I wasn't much back then, except as a saleable player."
The commercial appeal of the Cowsills rested in their clean-cut family image (mom Cowsill and five Cowsill kids) in an era of hippies and acid rock. Heck, they even did milk commercials.
A family affair
Their success led them to numerous tours, television shows and three albums (including a "best of" collection) during their short tenure. It's now part of rock 'n' roll lore that the Cowsills' family act was the inspiration for TV's "The Partridge Family."
"I was serious about music as a Cowsill," said Cowsill, now a resident of Carmel. "But I was 14 years old and the record company and my family controlled the situation.
"To me, the best part was when we went from bologna sandwiches and milk to club sandwiches and ice cream sodas."
At 18, Barry Cowsill found himself hanging around the Los Angeles music scene, partying with Warren Zevon and other LA rockers. "I had a lot of opportunities," he said of that era. "But I was real young, real hesitant, and I knew I wanted to learn a lot more."
And to hear him tell it, he's learned a lot.
"Now I know how to play. That's all I really wanted out of life.
"I've finally paid enough dues. I've been been working at it a few years, just playing bars. It's an edge-enduring job - lots of drinking, late nights hanging in bars, play for people, be people's fun machine for a night.
"Now it's time for a serious approach."
He hopes to show off his new approach tonight with Alligator and Bayou Boogie. The collaboration has been a learning experience for both musicians.
"I never wrote [music] with anyone before," said Alligator, whose music fuses Cajun, rock and blues. "Even in my very early stuff in the '50s, I always wrote totally on my own. Learning to write with someone takes a bit of commitment."
Cowsill's language was more colorful in describing the joint effort. "I'm gonna Yankee his ass, he's gonna Creole mine," said the Rhode Island-bred musician.
"The combination should be quite interesting."
Alligator, for his part, hopes their partnership will get Cowsill going. "I've been watching him play in Monterey the last eight months or so," said the transplanted Louisianan.
"We've got to get him doing more - his enthusiasm is overwhelming."
Making it on his own
In trying to build a new rock 'n' roll career, Cowsill is adamant against using his family connections as a boost.
"What they had us playing back then, that Barry Cowsill is a dead person," he said. "Some people want to hang onto that, they try to stereotype me a lot. That's why maybe in the next project I might be Elvis Franklin or Billy Boomer."
In fact, he did that very thing in a recent show with his family.
"My brothers and sister were getting back together [for a concert]," he explained. "They needed a bass player for one week. I did them a favor, on one condition: "You have to call me Elvis Franklin.' They did introduce me that way. We played Jersey and New England.
"They're my family, and I love them. But if I have to get rid of that [family connection], I will. I have confidence enough in the music I'm doing . . . ."
Then he laughed, "But Alligator won't let me change my name."
What kind of music can we expect tonight from a Yankee and a Creole?
"I wouldn't know what to name that kind of music yet," said Cowsill. "It's a combination - some rock, some folk-rock, country, zydeco - call it zyde-roll.
"Just say we're going to be a bunch of jumping banshees at the Oly. Rock 'n' roll, entertaining, refreshed - like a stick of blackjack gum first thing in the morning after a New Year's Eve party."
Show time is 9 p.m. Cover charge is $6.