The dairy ads milked The Cowsills for all their wholesome family worth.
In the 1960s, before the Osmonds, the Jackson 5 or the fictional Partridges were the reigning family dynasties of pop music, The Cowsills out of Newport, R.I. — kid siblings Bill, Bob, Paul, Barry, John and Susan, plus mom Barbara — ruled airwaves and TV variety shows with hits like "The Rain, the Park and Other Things," "Indian Lake" and "Hair."
They sang for Ed Sullivan, Dick Clark, Dick Cavett and other genial TV hosts; became pinups (mainly the boys) in magazines like Tiger Beat and 16; and served as the inspiration for TV's "The Partridge Family."
The clean-cut kids and their mom were thus the ideal messengers for an American Dairy Association milk advertising campaign.
In one print ad, the boys, decked out in white turtlenecks and blue double-breasted suits, with mom in a sunny orange frock and little sister Susan in a white dress, pose singing with their instruments and/or a glass or pitcher of milk in hand.
"Being famous is lots of fun, but it's exhausting, too," the ad reads. "Long film and recording sessions. Road tours. TV appearances. We need a whole lot of stamina just to keep going. But The Cowsills have an answer: milk."
If only the answer were that simple and pure.
What really drove The Cowsills — and at the same time held them back — was their dad and manager, Bud Cowsill, a Navy man who controlled the family with a clenched fist and tight leash. Emotionally and physically abusive, he mishandled the family's finances and career opportunities, deliberately left Bob's twin brother Richard out of the band, and eventually caused the group's demise.
"Our dad was a tough guy, along the lines of Murry Wilson with the Beach Boys, or Joe Jackson of the Jackson family," said Bob Cowsill, now 61 and a Woodland Hills resident, grandpa and businessman. Bob is still a successful musician, too, playing regular gigs around the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere, and will perform with his own band, a '60s tribute group (Cowsills songs are in their repertoire), on Sunday at the California Strawberry Festival in Oxnard.
No one knew about The Cowsills' behind-the-scenes paternal turmoil 40-plus years ago, Bob said. Internet gossip sites like TMZ didn't exist, and PR people were hired to keep messiness out of public view.
The Cowsills quickly collapsed in 1972 after Bud kicked leader-of-the-band Bill out for smoking marijuana. Other adorable singing siblings captured the public's attention, and the Cowsill clan members jumped into solo music careers and/or tried other professions, got married and divorced and remarried, raised kids, and in the case of brothers Barry and Bill, delved into drugs and alcohol.
In 2005 Barry drowned while in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and Bill died a few months later from many illnesses — on the same day the family held a memorial for Barry.
This ongoing family saga doesn't have a milk-and-cookies beginning, middle or ending, but the story isn't completely bitter either. In 1990, Bob, John, Paul and Susan reunited as The Cowsills and began a fresh round of concert and TV appearances around the country. They also recorded another album, "Global," with original songs written by Bob and his wife, Mary Jo.
The Cowsills were even the subject of a question on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' (the question, according to cowsill.com, was about which family "The Partridge Family" was based on; the contestant had to poll the audience to get the answer).
And now, a documentary that has been in the works for six years, "Family Band: The Cowsills Story," will be screened for the first time at The Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles on July 21, and at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August. The film, which digs into all the dark and gritty corners of The Cowsills' lives, might smudge your vision of a pristine, perky singing family — but it will be real.
Telling their story
"The whole image of this group was squeaky-clean and smiles and apple pie and mom," Bob said, "but it was manufactured in part by a PR firm. We were a real family like everyone else."
Documentary viewers, he said, might be "shocked at how horrific the guy (Bud) was. He was raised in the Navy, and brought us up in a military style that never works on families. We had to stay together 24-7. We got along, but it was unnatural. No one could get out or in."
Bud died in 1992; Barbara died earlier — in 1985 — of emphysema.
When Louise Palanker, a radio veteran (she cofounded Premiere Radio Networks, and now hosts a podcast), writer and producer-director who lives in Sherman Oaks, approached the family about making a documentary, they were reluctant.
"Our inclination was to say no," Bob said. "We're private people, and documentaries aren't private movies. We had to get used to sharing these experiences."
They decided as a group to go ahead with the project. "And it's not about making money; it's to tell a story," Bob said.
The story begins in the 1950s with the oldest brother, Bill, and third oldest, Bob (minutes younger than his twin Richard), who taught themselves to play guitar, then invited younger siblings Barry and John to create a four-piece band in hopes of modeling themselves after the Beatles. Paul, then mom Barbara and Susan, came aboard a little later.
"My dad didn't like Richard from the time he was 3," Bob said, "so he kept him out of the group on purpose; it really messed him (Richard) up."
The original foursome played around their hometown of Newport, where scouts from NBC's "Today" show spotted them and booked the boys to perform on the program in 1966. When Mercury Records chief Shelby Singleton saw The Cowsills sing, he signed them to his label. They later migrated to MGM.
Their first hit (No. 2 on the Billboard charts) was "The Rain, The Park and Other Things," described in the liner notes for a best-of Cowsills album as "a pop-perfect flower-power story song." Their self-titled debut album was a chart success as well, and they released additional albums with hit songs like "Indian Lake" and "Hair." The latter tune, from the rock musical, was the first recording made by The Cowsills where they played all the instruments themselves; they were known more for their vocal harmonies.
The milk campaign, endless TV appearances and other teen-fame marketing staples boosted their popularity.
Producers interested in creating a show about a singing family visited the Cowsills. The program became "The Partridge Family," but without any Cowsill kids.
"The show, basically, was designed to be us," Bob said.
Two issues paved the way for David Cassidy, Susan Dey and the rest of the "Partridges" instead.
First, producers decided to go with Shirley Jones instead of Barbara Cowsill as the mom, and Bud "would have none of that," Bob said.
Plus, "at that point some of us were gawky teenagers — not such cute little kids anymore," Bob said.
In 1972, Bob said, The Cowsills era "ended badly. The family and band just exploded. When Dad caught Bill smoking pot, he was tossed from the family and the band. I was asked to do a lot and couldn't come through; I wasn't ready for it. And Dad blew all our money."
Documentary producer Palanker disagrees with Bob's assessment of his leadership skills.
"Bob's a hero," Palanker said. "When Billy got kicked out, Bob had to figure out how to become the leader, and he did it so beautifully. Bob is the kind of person who gets done what needs to be done. Even now he holds down multiple jobs, and he raised five children."
Bob's first post-band job in 1972 was sweeping a garage as a janitor in Glendale, just two years after he'd celebrated a No. 1 record.
"That's how fast it can happen," Bob said. "It's like a Thanksgiving dinner; it takes forever to make, and then it's all gone."
Bob, Paul, Susan and John all stayed in music. Bill and Barry, unfortunately, "went down dark roads of abuse and drugs," Bob said.
Barry was planning to fly to Los Angeles to attend rehab and "get his life together" when Hurricane Katrina hit, Bob said. The family got one phone call from him during the disaster and never heard from him again.
Susan, too, lived in New Orleans. Her home was destroyed, but she and her family evacuated the city and eventually moved back.
John, who lived in Ojai for many years before marrying his second wife, Vicki Peterson of The Bangles (they now live in Malibu Canyon), plays drums with the Beach Boys' touring band.