The Cowsills were the family band who served as the real-life inspiration for The Partridge Family. Their hit songs included “The Rain, The Park & Other Things” (think “I love the flower girl”), “Indian Lake”, and “Hair”, and they made multiple appearances on TV shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Johnny Cash Show. Today’s Cowsills consist of siblings Bob, Paul, and Susan.
This interview was for a preview article for the Happy Together Tour concert at the Chumash Casino on 7/23/15, which also includes The Turtles featuring Flo & Eddie, The Buckinghams, The Association, The Grass Roots, and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders. It was done by phone on 7/10/15.
Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at the upcoming concert?
Bob Cowsill: Here’s the deal. The Happy Together Tour – this is our first year on it – is about the songs. We’re all a part of a bigger whole with the Happy Together Tour. It’s us – The Cowsills – The Grass Roots, The Association, The Buckinghams, Mark Lindsay, The Turtles. And everyone had four or five of the most amazing hit records, so that when you put that together for an evening, you walk out of there going, “I can’t believe what I just heard!” I mean, really, the audio of your teen years – I know I was a teenager back then.
Of course the audiences just tap right into that, we’re all just living these songs again. Because these songs bonded us. They bonded our generation. And that’s why they’re so powerful today. I don’t know if that’ll happen for subsequent generations, but it’s happening big time for ours. It’s just a blast. It feels so good because, you know, these songs were amazing. All of them.
JM: Back in the day when these songs were first coming out, did you know any of the other artists that are now on the tour?
BC: What’s interesting is that back then, at the time when we had our hits, number one, we were all very busy touring, and were just missing each other out there all the time. But, we were very young when we had our hits. I was 16, 17, 18. We were a family group, so we didn’t really get to jump out and go meet all the other acts out there with hit records, because we were kind of stuck in the family.
So that’s what makes it more special today. When we’re on the bus with The Association, we’re sharing stories. “How did you do your vocals?” “We did them this way. How did you do them?” Now we get to meet everybody, and everybody’s so nice. Back then, if you think you’re uncool at the age of 16, it doesn’t matter if you have a hit record, you know what I mean? You see Tommy James coming out of a limousine with gun belts criss-crossing his chest, and you’re in a purple tuxedo and you’re opening for him, he’s in a cooler band than you [laughs]. We didn’t really get to know any of the other acts back in the day, which makes it more special that we do today.
JM: You just brought up one of the questions I wanted to ask, which is, how did you guys do your vocal arrangements?
BC: Bill and I did the vocal arrangements. It was a matter of getting into the studio. Vocals were an instrument to us. In the scheme of things, vocals sit with strings and guitar in the sound. We used vocals instead of violins sometimes even. And we just got into the recording technique of stacking and double tracking vocals. In the studio, you can be very, very liberal with your vocals. And then of course, your challenge then is to put it onstage, but you can’t worry about that or you’ll hold yourself back. But Bill and I did all the vocal arranging. Even today, any song that you give to Susan or Paul or me or my brother John, we would all probably arrange it the same way. We kind of had a thing about that that was genetic, I guess.
JM: The first hit for Cowsills, I know it as “The Flower Girl” song, but itt’s officially “The Rain, The Park & Other Things”. How did that particular song come together?
BC: In high school and grade school, the four brothers of the family had been signed to two labels in those years – Joda and Mercury/Phillips. We were subsequently dropped from those labels, also. At Mercury, I was in the tenth grade when they dropped us. But at Mercury we met Artie Kornfeld. Artie Kornfeld was our producer – we were assigned to him at Phillips. And he became our George Martin and taught us things, because we were very young. When Phillips dropped us, Artie quit Phillips as a producer in protest, because he didn’t think they should do that.
At that point, between labels – we had no label – but Artie and Steve Duboff wrote “The Rain, The Park & Other Things” for us, took us into the studio, Artie did, to produce that in New York at A&R Studios, with no record label, paid for it, and we made that record. Now, remember, we were dropped from two labels, so everyone was wondering what’s wrong with The Cowsills [laughs]. But we weren’t really different from anyone else. But this, right here, was when they decided to put our mother in the band. Right here. We had no label, we were done recording “The Rain, The Park & Other Things”, and mom is put in the band. What happened was we went back in the studio to put her on the chorus of “The Rain, The Park & Other Things”.
And yes, it should’ve been called “The Flower Girl”, but Scott McKenzie was coming out with “If you’re going to San Francisco / Be sure to wear flowers in your hair”. And the president of MGM felt they’re both on the same label… It was called “The Flower Girl”, and Artie just came up with “The Rain, The Park & Other Things”.
So they put our mom in the band, they took this recording and this wonderful record and song, and took us, it, and our mother to MGM, and they bought it lock, stock, and barrel. And lo and behold, the fourth attempt was a million-selling hit record. Which meant that mom was in the band.
I’m glazing over that, because you’re dropped from two labels, you’re a junior in high school, your brothers are younger that you, and now they’re putting your mother in the band, and it’s like, “What is going on here? This is crazy!” It’s a nice story later in life, because we’re older. But think at the time. Your mother – who I think was 36 at the time, I don’t know – is coming into the rock band. It’s like, please! But anyway, we had a hit, now mom’s in, and then after that we brought Susan in, and then the family grew even more musically, and it became what it became.
JM: What inspired you guys to record “Hair”?
BC: It’s interesting because we were living in Santa Monica, California, at the time, and doing well. If you had hit records, you were doing OK. We got a call from Carl Reiner, the old comedian, Rob’s dad. There was a TV special he was inviting us to be on, to guest star on, and he sent us this album from the Broadway musical Hair. But it hadn’t really come out and been a hit yet, so we didn’t know what it was. It was all coming. His idea was, “If you guys just take Hair into the studio, and just record something you can lip sync to, on the special it’ll be a gas. We’ll put wigs on you.” They had this all planned.
Now, that sounded great to us, and we thought, “Wow, that’s kind of a different song.” And we took it into the studio and we made this recording that you’re familiar with. But at the time, nobody’s from MGM in there, nobody’s bugging us, we’re just doing it ourselves, taking our time. We were just kind of lip syncing, because back then you had to lip sync. The technology was not there for you to perform live on television, other than the Ed Sullivan Show, and even that was suspect. But that’s what it was at the time, OK? So we’re going to lip sync this thing.
Well, the recording turned out so well we just loved it. We sent it to MGM. They sent it back to us saying – now remember, we’re coming off “Indian Lake” – “This isn’t The Cowsills. What are you doing down there? We’re not releasing it.”
And then we went on the road, we had to go on a tour right then. So we took it with us. We were just kids, we’d had hits already. We said, “They won’t release it? What do we care?” We’re not standing up to MGM or anything. But on WLS in Chicago we had an interview during one of the evenings of the tour, and we told the disc jockey there the story. And WLS was huge. It went out all over the country at night, so if you got on at night a lot more people heard you. So we told him the story – off the radio we told him. And he said, “Let me play it, and we’ll see if anyone can guess who it is.” And he started this contest – “Who do you think this is?” No one could guess who it was, of course. But, it took off out of Chicago, and MGM was forced to release it then.
Of course then it’s a big hit, and then it’s caught up in this whole Hair phenomenon, where you’ve got Three Dog Night [“Easy to be Hard”] and Oliver [“Good Morning Starshine”] and “Aquarius” and the Fifth Dimension. There’s a whole thing going on that we didn’t even know we were going to be a part of that just swept all of us right up the charts. Everything went up. It was a multi-million selling hit. Amazing – that was amazing.
JM: I’ve seen the video of you guys wearing the wigs. Was that the thing with Carl Reiner?
BC: Yeah, it was. That TV show was called The Wonderful World of Pizzazz, and the focus of it was fashion in the ’60’s. Even though it was the ’60’s, but it was ’69, so we were saying goodbye to the decade. It was just a goof. We just had a blast. It became a real popular video [laughs], but they weren’t called videos back then. They were TV appearances. But thank God we did a lot of them, because have a lot of quote-unquote videos from TV shows. We did a lot of those.
JM: You mentioned Ed Sullivan. What was that experience like, being on that show?
BC: Being on Ed Sullivan – and most of these groups on this tour were – was the top of the bell curve in those days. If you got on the Ed Sullivan Show, and he invited you to do that, you had made it, bigger than you could imagine. Because the United States of America watched the Ed Sullivan Show. When you went on the Ed Sullivan Show, the whole country saw you. Because we were only watching three stations, and at 8:00 on Sunday night we were actually only watching one station – CBS and the Ed Sullivan Show. So this was the biggest thing that could happen to you, really, and we got to go on twice. We signed a deal for ten shows, but my dad got in a fight with Ed Sullivan’s son-in-law Bob Precht. They took eight shows away. But we got two of them in before that happened.
JM: You were on the Johnny Cash Show also, and I saw a clip of you singing with him. What was that like?
BC: That was like sitting next to God at the time. I’ll be honest with you. He was a strong, powerful man in the business, and in his presence he was strong and powerful. That was just like meeting an icon. Look, after that show, he even asked me personally if I wanted to go with him over to his house, because Carl Perkins was going and they were going to jam. But I’m like 19. My dad’s not going to let me go to Johnny Cash’s house. So I had to say “no”. But that was such an honor to do that show and sing that. We sang a spiritual with him, I know it was something he came up with, “Children Go Where I Send Thee”. It was really a moment. That was fun.
JM: The Cowsills were the inspiration for The Partridge Family. What are your thoughts on that show? Was it weird, or did you think, “Wow, that’s cool”?
BC: At the time, the reason we thought it was cool was because we didn’t have to do it, and I’ll explain that. I’m 19, Paul’s 17, we’re all just teenage guys finding our way. We’ve had hit records, we record, and we go on tour. Now, they came to the house in Santa Monica and said, “Look, we have an idea for a TV show. We just have to see if you kids might be the kids in the show.” Well, it didn’t work out – we weren’t actors. And we didn’t want to do it ourselves, the boys didn’t, because we just didn’t want to be in a TV studio every day during the week doing a TV show. Because we love touring and recording, that’s what we thought we did. But believe me, that’s just us talking in our bedroom. The word came down, “We’re doing it”, and we were going to do it because we did what we were told.
But it all worked out. I think for the show it worked out because they went to Central Casting and did a great job of casting that TV show. It was a hit TV show. And, yes, it’s based on our story. I talked to Shirley Jones about it, and “Yes, they brought in your records, your pictures. Here’s who you’re doing. This is what we’re doing here.” And it launched at least three careers, maybe four. Danny [Bonaduce], David [Cassidy], Susan Dey. Shirley Jones didn’t need launching, but you know what I mean. It was quite the vehicle.
So they took our record producer at the time, Wes Farrell, they took Tony Romero to the team – he wrote “Indian Lake” for us, and he wrote “I Think I Love You” for The Partridge Family. So they kind of took the team but left behind the family. Which was fine with the family. And look, we were coming to an end in ’70, ’71. We were down the back of our bell curve. So The Partridge Family came along, and they kept our name up there through the years that that series ran because when they were interviewed they were asked about us, and now we’re asked about them when we’re interviewed. So this relationship has been forever, and it’s been a good one.
JM: Do you know which character on The Partridge Family was supposed to be you?
BC: Well, David was a combination of me and my brother Bill. We were the older guys in The Cowsills, and Danny’s probably Barry. Paul jokes that he’s Susan Dey for sure. Other than that, there was a mother in the group, and they went on tour on a bus, which is what we did. I would say that’s about as much as it gets, in terms of comparisons. Their life in that TV show was certainly a TV show. Shirley Jones came to one of our concerts to introduce us, and explained beautifully on that stage that they were just a fake version of what we really are. So it all just worked out. I thought it was very cool.
JM: I saw the documentary Family Band: The Cowsills Story at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and that showed a lot of highs and lows. Was it tough to revisit the darker days of the history of the band?
BC: Because we only did that documentary once, it was very tough. We went into the project not knowing really much. We did know that documentaries had to tell the truth, and you’re going to dig deeper than any other time you have. And it did end up being that we even stopped for two years. But it ended up being worth it, of course. Hard things are. And it ended up being a success. It ran for two years on Showtime, and sells very well at our shows.
People are very interested in the story, because it’s more acute than most of the stories of the day. But it’s not that different, it’s just a more acute version of what other families were going through at the time. It’s kind of the way it was, with the strict dad. There’s nothing new there. The Beach Boys and Murry Wilson, Joe Jackson, and Bud Cowsill. They were all knuckleheads, but your history’s your history, and it’s very compelling what happened to our family because of it. It’s an interesting story. Every family has one, and I think every family could make a documentary.
JM: Yeah, but yours had a better soundtrack than most family’s documentaries would have [laughs].
BC: Well, you know, we’re a little different, and that’s why it’s more compelling. But people see themselves through it. It’s an interesting thing we went through there.
JM: Could you describe Waddy Wachtel’s involvement with the band?
BC: When we were all in high school in Newport, Rhode Island, we played at one club in Newport and Waddy had a band who played in another. And we were both very popular local bands. We were Beatles, Waddy and his band was always The Young Rascals kind of stuff. And we became very good friends with Waddy. He would come up and watch us on breaks, and we’d go watch him on breaks when he was playing. We formed a very forever bond there growing up as young musicians.
And then, after we made it and had hit records, we were so amazed at Waddy that our company brought him out from Vermont, and moved him to L.A. with his band, because they were so good, and put them in the studio. It didn’t work out or anything. But it put Waddy in L.A., and in the path of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, and in the path of his future. I didn’t know he would have such a great future. He’s a great guitar player and writer. So he just stayed very true to us. We love him, and he’s like a brother. He knew our dad and he knew our story, and he was a good person to open up with us. We were really thrilled he would do that.
JM: Is there anything you’d like to set the record straight about, perhaps something that you felt the documentary didn’t cover or you felt it didn’t do justice to?
BC: No, I think it hit the nail on the head. You know, there nine of us when this started. We’re now at four. So the four that are here now, of course, are thrilled to still be here. And we’re glad that the plucking of Cowsills has diminished, in terms of taking us off the planet. Because the four that are here, we have things to do. We got on this Happy Together Tour this year for the first time. You don’t think we haven’t been watching this for the last five years, going like, “Hey wait, we want to be on that! We had hits! Can we do that tour?” [laughs] But you have to wait for the universe to order it up. You can’t go busting down doors like that.
And, boy, once it did this year, to meet our peers and groups that had hits back then, and you get to talk to each other about those days – it’s a real special thing. But in terms of the documentary – dead on, 100 percent, we stand by it. There’s nothing to change other than to let everyone know that we’re fine, we’re in good shape, and everybody goes through a lot. We did, too, and we’re here to rejoice and sing on this tour with these other bands, and just to let you know that everything’s cool.
JM: It seems like you’re a perfect fit for this tour. I’ve seen it a couple times – The Association with all their vocal harmonies, Flo & Eddie doing The Turtles… [Here is a review from 2011.]
BC: They’re amazing. “Elenore” is just unbelievable. I couldn’t wait to hear them do “Elenore”, because to me the recordings are just so amazing. You want to see how they do it live. Especially at our age. I only mention age because clearly we’re all older. These are Oldies. We’re the generation who’s going to move on, who was so connected by music. The generations that watch us that came next, our kids, they watch us – because we’re all acting like nuts at these shows, it’s great, and the kids are going “Holy cow!” – I look at the kids and I go, “You’ll wish that you could be connected this way by music when you’re older.” Because it’s just so special.
Tell everyone they’re just going to have a great time. They’re going to know every single song. And being a smaller part of the bigger whole is very powerful right now, for all of these groups. It was easy in the old days – you had a hit, you do a tour. Now we need each other, and we’re there for each other. It’s a very amazing community now. I love it.