A pop group with your mom as a member?
Forget TV's "The Partridge Family" -- the Cowsills did it first.
Surviving group members Bob, Susan and Paul Cowsill are carrying on as the singing Cowsills, the 1960s hitmakers behind "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" (No. 2), "Indian Lake" (No. 10) and "Hair" (No. 2).
The Cowsills have four upcoming New Jersey shows as part of the Happy Together tour, alongside the Turtles, Chuck Negron, the Association and Mark Lindsay.
Virginia native Bob Cowsill, 68, spoke from Louisiana, where he, Paul and Susan were recording "Dockside Silhouettes," a collection of Cowsills covers sung a cappella. (The CD will be available for purchase at Happy Together shows.)
Q. You and your big brother, Bill (who died in 2006), started out playing local gigs as a duo. How did you get signed?
A. Someone from the "Today" show saw us playing one of those shows and booked us on "Today" (in 1965). We played 20 minutes with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters there. This led to our first releases in 1965, which tanked. Then Artie Kornfeld came in -- he became our producer -- and Mercury/Philips Records picked up the four brothers. We tanked again and they dropped us.
Artie quit Philips, and then he and his partner, Steve Duboff, wrote "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" for us. He took us into the studio with no label. They came up with the brilliant -- and suicidal, it seemed to us -- idea of putting Mom (Barbara Cowsill, who died in 1985) in the band. They actually brought her in to sing on it.
They took it to MGM, who said, "Oh, look, their mother is in the group!" MGM loved that. We weren't the Beatles, but we were different. "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" comes out, and we had a million-selling song for MGM. Now we have to go on the road, but we can't leave Susan home, so she joins the band. That was how the band happened.
Q. You were a teenager. When your mom joined your band, did that feel weird?
A. Oh, my goodness! That day they put Mom in the group, we were like, "Come on." Bill's 17, I'm 16. Our credibility at school is down to nothing now. We had three songs that tanked, and now I'm gonna go to school and tell everyone about our next great move -- to put our mom in the band? Are you kidding? We couldn't believe it. But it happened. When you're a kid, you do what you're told.
Q: Once you started having hits and doing tours and showing up in the teen magazines, did life become a circus?
A. The circus, you get used to. You learn, in the middle of a circus, how to manage it. My role was always more in the music. To me, it was very regimented: Touring, recording, TV, interviews and the teen magazines. The teen magazines were a pain in the butt, but if they liked you, oh my God. And they did. That was a very good thing, to be able to do that. In terms of touring, me and Bill were more into: Are we recording? Writing?
The family stuff was always there; it always had been, since we were babies. The acuteness of the family life was harsh, sometimes. At times, it seemed it would kill everything off, and eventually, it did. We were so focused on those tours and recording that the family part, to me, started diminishing. We were so focused on our career.
After "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" went to No. 2, me and Bill did the next one, which only went to No. 14. So they got rid of Bill and me, and did "Indian Lake." Then came ("Hair"), and you have your biggest hit of all time. Then you think there are 45 more hits on the way. Why wouldn't you think that? But "Hair" was our last hit. You have to learn your lesson.
Q. You call the family dynamic "harsh." It has since come out that your manager- father (Bud Cowsill, who died in 1992) was abusive to you boys. It must have been stressful for a kid. Has your perspective on it changed over the years?
A. Sure. What you get is understanding. When you're a kid, you're like, "What's going on?" You don't have understanding. You don't have the knowledge to process it. Later on, you do. Later, it dawns on you that Mom and Dad were 18 or 19 when they got married. She got pregnant with Bill. Neither of them knew how to raise a family, these parents of ours. That kind of start was not a good start.
Your job is not to continue something negative. Your job is to filter that out. That's what we tried to do. You get more philosophical. And, you know, Mom's gone, Dad's gone, three of our brothers (Barry, who died in 2005; Richard, who died in 2014; and Bill) are gone. What are you gonna do, mope about it for the rest of your life? You've got to move on.
Q: Mad magazine artist Jack Davis drew caricatures of you for "The Best of the Cowsills" (1968). Did you all get a kick out of his depictions? Were you Mad fans?
A. We were blown away, and we definitely knew who he was. We were quite honored he did that. We couldn't believe that happened, because somehow he heard of us and said he would do that. Yes, it was an honor. We were crazy Mad magazine fans.
Q. This is your fourth year with Happy Together. Is it gratifying to see new fans and old? Do you ever reminisce with Chuck Negron and Gary Puckett?
A. The other groups on tour -- in the old days, we all did this on our own. We followed each other on the road. You never played together. That was very rare. We never got to meet each other. We followed the Osmonds. Our mom would leave a note for their mom.
Now, we are friends with Chuck Negron and Gary Puckett. But I've got to say -- the Cowsills' stories are never going to measure up to Three Dog Night stories.
When the Association sings "Never My Love," everyone melts. We have such memories bonded to certain songs. A guy who served in Vietnam was telling us he had been in a helicopter crash. When he went down, he had a cassette player strapped around his thigh, which he was never without. He said he woke up in the jungle to "The Rain, the Park and Other Things." That's powerful.