The new documentary “Family Band: The Cowsills Story,” premiering tonight on Showtime, opens with a compelling scene showing musician Bob Cowsill setting up single-handed for another thankless gig in the corner of a restaurant-bar of an Indian casino. As patrons chat, eat and drink, barely paying attention, he says, “I had four hit records between the ages of 17 and 21… I did!”
As is obvious in that scene, the Cowsills long ago fell off the radar of most pop music fans, and are remembered today primarily for their hit recording of the title song from the musical “Hair,” which spent two weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969.
Filmmaker Louise Palanker, with lots of unflinchingly direct input from the surviving members of the family group that became the inspiration for “The Partridge Family” TV series, tells a fascinating story of a group that had briefly captured the attention of the pop world, but disintegrated under the iron fist of its manager father, Bud Cowsill.
The film traces the band's story from early days in Newport, R.I., where brothers Bob, Bill, Barry and John Cowsill started their own band after being inspired, like so many of their generation, by seeing the Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Within a few years, they were standing on the same stage, a slightly hipper version of the Osmonds, playing to a national TV audience of tens of millions with their 1967 hit “The Rain, the Park & Other Things.”
To the boys’ chagrin, their father soon insisted that they expand their ranks to include not just their baby sister, Susan, but their mother, Barbara, as well.
“We love our mom,” John Cowsill says, “but I challenge you to find a teenage boy anywhere who wants his mom in his rock band.”
The domineering stage parent is an all-too-common theme in show business, and the Cowsills’ version of the story includes many unfortunately familiar elements: the overbearing father, in this case a career Navy officer who was out of their lives as much as he was in them, whose alcohol use inflamed already volatile relationships; natural parent-child frictions magnified by the glare of the public spotlight; and family tragedies.
Barbara Cowsill died of emphysema in 1985 at age 56, the same disease that claimed Bill Cowsill 21 years later at age 58, less than two months after Barry Cowsill’s body was found in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Bud Cowsill died in 1992 of leukemia.
There’s also the harsh reality of coming out of an incredibly successful period in their lives to discover they had no money to show for it. “We all started our adult lives in debt,” Bob says. “What happened to the money? It’s a mystery, but suffice it to say our dad mismanaged it and it was gone.”
The 87-minute film is filled with examples of other negative fallout of Bud’s dictatorial control over his kids -- especially Richard, the one child whom Bud refused to allow to be part of the band with his five siblings. Executives at ABC-TV met with them while creating a TV series built on their blueprint -- a mother recording and touring with her brood of boys and one daughter.
“Partridge Family” star Shirley Jones talks to Bob about how they were shown photos of the Cowsills and fully briefed on their life story as that show went into production. Like “The Monkees” before them, the show spawned a life-imitates-art pop-rock group that charted several hits in the real world and produced a bona fide pop star in Jones’ real-life stepson and co-star, David Cassidy.
Among the others Palanker interviewed are musicians Waddy Wachtel and Tommy James, songwriter-promoter Artie Kornfeld, engineer-producer Brooks Arthur and radio personality Cousin Brucie. Clips from a broad swatch of TV shows the Cowsills guested on include some of the '60s most popular programs hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson.
“Family Band: The Cowsills Story” will run multiple times through March.