Late one night a couple of weeks ago I flipped through some of the satellite radio channels beamed through my TV set.
I didn’t hear much happening on Outlaw Country. Surprisingly, I couldn’t get into the song playing on the Willie’s Roadhouse channel. (It wasn’t Willie.) I didn’t care for the offering on the Sinatra channel, either. (It wasn’t Sinatra). I did hear Elvis Presley singing on the all-Elvis channel, but all of my favorites must have checked into the Heartbreak Hotel for the night, for they were nowhere to be heard.
On I flipped, through a myriad of channels. Even the Grateful Dead channel held nothing I wanted to hear at that particular moment; my favorites must have kept on truckin’. None of the many contemporary music channels caught my musical fancy with their selections. Neither did Classic Vinyl, or the channels devoted to music of the ‘80s and ‘70s.
I flipped on down to the ‘60s channel, ready to check out the ‘50s and ‘40s channels before starting all over again at the top if necessary — but it wasn’t.
On the ‘60s channel, I heard someone tamping a minor chord on a keyboard for four straight beats, then a melodic voice singing “I saw her sitting in the rain, raindrops falling on her hair.”
I barely recognized the song, it had been so long since I’d last heard it. Despite the minor-key beginning, the song soon worked its way into a brighter-sounding major chord and a swirl of voices singing “I knew” — echoed three times by harmony singers — followed by the lines “she could make me happy” — echoed a couple of times in harmonic splendor.
The song’s production included the sound of cascading harp strings, I guess to signify both the rainfall and the parting of the clouds to make way for the sun later in the song. It included such a catchy chorus that many listeners to this day think its opening line, “I love the flower girl,” is the song’s title.
What caught my ear proved to be the song’s shimmering four and five-part harmonies— good enough to rival those masters of family harmony, the Beach Boys.
Oh yeah, I recalled, as I listened to the song from another room, that’s The Cowsills, the unusual family band that had a string of four hits beginning in 1967 and then disappeared from sight in the early 1970s — or so I thought.
The brothers in the band ranged in age from the upper teens down to 11. What really made the Cowsills different in the personnel department was the inclusion of their mom, Barbara, in the group, along with their 8-year-old kid sister, Susan.
They exuded such a wholesome family image — and such bright white smiles — that the American Dairy Association tapped them for its Drink Milk Campaign.
Remember the Cowsills had their biggest hits during the era of such groups as the The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and others. Here were The Cowsills, with their mom and their elementary school-age kid sister, Susan, in the band, beating on a tambourine and adding to the vocal blend.
Despite their image, I never thought of The Cowsills as another teeny-bopper bubble gum group. They were immensely talented, with the older boys in the band cutting their musical teeth, before signing with a major label, on songs by The Beatles, which often included not only creative chord progressions, but also intricate two-part and sometimes three-part harmony singing.
They also played their own instruments, maybe not always in the studio, but during their concerts, where they not only held their own with some of the major headliners of the day during package tours, but often surpassed them — based on contemporaneous reviews I’ve read.
With a seemingly endless array of family members who were growing into the band, the Cowsills could stack their harmonies higher than most groups, up to the five-part Beach Boys level. At times The Cowsills included seven members of the immediate family: Bill, Barry, Bob, Paul, John and Susan Cowsill, along with Barbara, their mother, who they dubbed Mini-Mom because of her small stature. Bob’s twin brother, Richard, was relegated to road manager duties by the band’s manager, who happened to be the siblings’ father, Bud Cowsill.
Their hits included “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” — the song I’d heard on the radio, along with the fun ditty “Indian Lake,” which featured a rollicking honky-tonk piano intro.
A musical question regarding their last big hit had long baffled me, however. How did a band such as The Cowsills, with their squeaky, clean image, come to record “Hair,” the title song from the so-called tribal Broadway musical extolling the values of the counter culture so in play at the time?
I’ve since learned what happened. The Cowsills were working on a television program with Carl Reiner, who thought it would be hilarious to have the family band record the then-controversial play’s title song proclaimings the virtues of — what else — long hair. He simply made sure the band members had a copy of the soundtrack from the Broadway version of the song and left them to their own devices to learn it.
The older Cowsills seized the opportunity. I’ve watched a video recording of Bob Cowsill relating how the group rushed into the studio, creating their own arrangement and production of the song. They liked the results so much they asked their label, MGM Records, to release it as their next single, which label executives promptly refused to do — not on any artistic grounds, but because it was so far from the band’s image.
However, some dee-jays got ahold of The Cowsills demo recording and launched in into heavy radio rotation — with the result that the label acquiesced and released “Hair” just as The Cowsills had recorded it.
The Cowsills definitely nailed their version of the song. It shot to number two on the charts in 1969, kept out of the number one spot by another recording featuring songs from the same musical — The Fifth Dimension’s medley of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”
Just when The Cowsills appeared on the verge of achieving greater things, the band seemed to disappear. A few more single releases failed to set the charts on fire and the group finally disbanded in the early 1970s. That didn’t prove to be the end, however.
Several of the members went on to record critically-acclaimed albums, either as solo artists or as parts of other groups.
Brother Bill moved to Canada where he recorded albums with the groups Blue Northern and The Blue Shadows.
John Cowsill went on to become a member of The Beach Boys, where he not only plays as the band’s drummer, but does solo vocals as well, notably on “Darlin.’”
And little Susan Cowsill grew up and learned to play guitar, winning critical renown and audience appreciation as both a singer and songwriter. In addition to her solo albums “Lighthouse” and “Just Believe It,” she sometimes joined with others, becoming a member of The Continental Drifters and teaming with Vicki Peterson, formerly of The Bangles, to form the duo, the Psycho Sisters.
Her version of Brian Wilson’s song “Don’t Worry, Baby” is so resplendent that it’s topped only by the one recorded by The Beach Boys themselves.
The Cowsills reunited at times in various reconfigurations. In 1998, some of them reunited for the album, “Global,” featuring songs written by Bob Cowsill, including the outstanding “Some Good Years.” In 2004, they reunited for a benefit for Bill Cowsill held in Los Angeles.
It’s well-known that The Cowsills were the real-life inspiration for the TV show “The Partridge Family” — with The Cowsills being a million times better than their fictional counterparts.
The year 2011 saw the release of a documentary called “Family Band: The Cowsills Story” — a film which reveals that the band’s father and manager Bud had a darker side, including his alleged bullying tactics and the loss of the millions the band is reported to have made in its early years. Band members have said they never saw any of the money.
Brothers, Bill, Barry and Richard are all deceased, as are the mom, Barbara, and the father, Bud. Sadly, Barry Cowsill, who like Susan, was living in New Orleans, died when Hurricane Katrina struck the city. Susan and her husband left before the storm hit.
That’s not the end of The Cowsills story, however. Their still-enthusiastic fans are advocating for them to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Today, Paul, Bob and Susan continue to tour as The Cowsills. They’re out this summer as part of the Happy Together Tour. They’ll be on the road with other performers such as Flo & Eddie, of the Turtles, The Box Tops and The Association. The Cowsills’ closest date to McAlester, so far, is an Aug. 4 show at Arlington Music Hall in Arlington, Texas. John Cowsill still plays drums with The Beach Boys and can be caught during their gigs.
Judging by videos I’ve seen posted of the current version of the group, The Cowsills are still talented, fun and energetic performers.
And with some of The Cowsills’ adult children and Susan’s husband, drummer Russ Broussard, now playing in the current group, it’s still a family band.