Bob Cowsill, of Rhode Island’s legendary Cowsills, comes full circle in his forty year musical career. Now living on the West Coast, the nationally-acclaimed musician and his band member siblings plan a trip back to his childhood home. He along with other Rhode Island musicians will be honored on Sunday, April 28th at the Hope Artiste Village mill complex, to be recognized by the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame (RIMHOF), as being the very best musicians the Ocean State has to offer.
Beginning a Musical Journey
The Cowsills, considered one of the most successful family musical acts in the 1960s who played pop and rock and roll, grew up just an hours drive from Pawtucket, on Aquidneck Island where their names are still carved into a tree on the family homestead. One of Rhode Island’s most notable bands, initially was founded by four brothers (Bob, Bill, Barry and John) in 1965, two years later encompassing the whole family of six siblings, whose ages ranged from 8 to 19, their mother, Barbara (Mini-mom), and father, Bud, who became their manager. Bob’s twin brother Richard was never in the band. The Cowsills later became the creative inspiration for the 1970’s television show, The Partridge Family (still on television today).
The Cowsills were the first of the rock family groups, opening the door for others, says Bob, the eldest of the musical clan. Others would follow in their footsteps, like The Partridge Family, Jackson 5, and the Osmond Brothers, said Cowsill.
“The family angle just evolved,” says Cowsill, stressing that it should not be considered “premeditated.” When it became difficult to interest musicians on Aquidneck Island to join the fledgling band, Cowsill noted that it became obvious that the younger siblings were the answer to filling the empty slots. The group would remain active in the music industry for over 40 years as performers, recording artists, songwriters, and producers.
In the mid-sixties, the Cowsills were hired as a regular act on Bannisters Wharf, playing weekly at Dorians, in Newport, “at that time a rough Navy town, where the under aged musicians would sing Beatles songs hour after hour. The self-taught musicians performed throughout New England and in New York, releasing a handful of singles on JODA Records and Philips Records during this time, that were moderately successful, said Cowsill.
Cowsill noted that his group’s first big career break in 1964, came after playing in the basement disco of the MK Hotel, 38 Bellevue Ave., in Newport. From this performance came an invitation to pay on the Today Show. The 20 minute performance in 1964 would lead to the release of their first single, “All I Really want to Be is Me,” getting the Cowsills the attention of Johnny Nash, who had started the JODA label. The group signed their first recording contract with JODA in 1965.
America’s Musical Family
Cowsill recalls how his first single, “All I Really want to Be is Me,” released in 1965 on the Joda label, was pitted against “The Sound of Silence” on WPRO radio contest. With the votes tabulated the Newport band “won by a landside.” In his later years he would still chuckle when remembering the Cowsills victory over America’s most recognizable musical duos, Simon and Garfunkel.
In the late 60s and well into the early 70s, the Cowsills appeared as guests and played their music on many popular television shows, among them: The Ed Sullivan Show, American Band Stand, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, the Michael Douglas Show, and the Johnny Cash Show. They even hosted their own NBC TV special, called “A Family Thing,” too.
“Bewilderment,” says Cowsill, thinking about his two performances on The Ed Sullivan Show. The group had contracted to appear ten times, this would put them on Sunday’s most popular show more than the Beatles. But a fiasco over a microphone that was accidentally turned off, between Sullivan’s son-in-law and the groups manager (their father) would result in the cancellation of the remaining eight shows, he said.
Before the young Cowsills had their first record hit they were hired to be the headliner with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, The Byrds, and The Beach Boys (all Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees) at Soundblast ’66 in Yankee Stadium., in New York. “We were in pop wonderland. It was just unbelievable. Some how my father worked magic and got us to Yankee Stadium for this show. We were not famous at the time but apparently good enough to play the crowd.”
Bringing Home the Gold
In 1967, the Cowsills first release, “The Rain, The Park, & Other Things,” sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold record, notes Cowsill. This song would ultimately reach No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 in Cash Box and also Record World.
One year later, the band scored another near million-selling hit with the song “Indian Lake,” reaching No. 10 on the charts and in 1968, the band had another No. 1 hit and another three million seller with their version of “Hair,” this song being nominated for 16 Magazine’s Best Group of 1970. :”Hair” was banned from Armed Forces radio in Viet Nam for being too controversial, noted Cowsill, stating that “we were amused at the time because our brother, Richard, who was in Vietnam reported back that they were playing it everywhere else.”
Baby boomers can remember the Cowsills took on the role as spokespersons, with their “Milk Song” appearing in commercials and images in print ads promoting milk. Cowsill said that his group was also referenced in trivia questions, David Letterman’s Top Ten List (twice), and were mentioned in numerous published books (fiction and non-fiction).
In 1969, The Cowsills became the first rock group to record a theme for a television show, “Love American Style.” Moreover their harmonic music can be heard in features movies from The Impossible Years to Dumb and Dumber and in TV shows from The Wonder Years to The Simpsons.
Look for a Documentary, “Family Band – The Story of the Cowsills” coming to cable television in March that will show the rise and fall of the Cowsills. “It will show what really happened in our family band,” adds Cowsill.
The Cowsills disbanded in the early 1970s but most of them have never really left the music business and various members have regrouped through the years.
Cowsill and his three surviving siblings, now including two of band member’s sons, continue to play concerts across the country at casinos, fairs and music festivals. For over 27 years the sixty-three year old musician plays “cover” music at Pickwick’s Pub in Woodland Hills, California, every Friday night. During the day, Cowsill coordinates medical conferences across the country, provides medical coding services to emergency departments, and assists in developing and installing software for use in emergency departments.
Today, Cowsill has come full circle in his career. The aging rocker has returned to his beginning roots, playing the songs of the Beatles and The Byrds every week at his local pub. Reflecting on his upcoming recognition one of nine Rhode Island’s legendary musicians, he says: “The fact that we are being inducted into the RIMHOF and not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is more special to us. There is a little bit more meaning to us because we are Rhode Islanders, to be recognized by our own.”
“It is very cool to go to Pawtucket rather than Cleveland,” he says.
For more information about the Cowsills or to leave a message on the group’s guestbook or to sign petition to get the musical group into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, go to http://www.cowsill.com.