Like scores of adolescent boys who grew up in the 1960s, the Cowsill brothers wanted to be like the Beatles.
But after developing their musical abilities, gaining popularity and a legendary music executive's attention, they ended up being more like a different cultural icon that would come after them — The Partridge Family.
In fact, The Cowsills were the inspiration for the 1970s television musical sitcom that depicted the life of a singing, touring family of children led by their widowed mother.
The show, which had a four-year run followed by decades of syndication, launched the careers of Susan Dey, David Cassidy and Danny Bonaduce.
With the theme song "C'mon Get Happy," the show was a positive reflection of The Cowsills, who in the late 1960s produced upbeat hit songs such as "The Rain, The Park and Other Things," "Indian Lake" and their version of the title song from the musical "Hair."
But the real-life story of the Cowsills, who perform Saturday night at the Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks in Bethlehem, has been far more tragic.
As detailed in the documentary film "Family Band: The Cowsills Story" — which was co-written by brother Bob Cowsill — the band and the family itself splintered in the early 1970s under the weight of mental and physical abuse by Bud Cowsill, the family patriarch.
The watershed moment may have come when Bud Cowsill and oldest brother Bill, the lead singer and guitarist, got into a fight that ended with Bud in jail and Bill fired from the band.
In an interview from his home in southern California, Bob Cowsill describes life with his father as "'The Great Santini' in reality, but a lot worse."
"We had parents who got married too young, had seven children, like immediately, and had no skills and no tools on what to do with them," Bob says. "So the dad decided to bring in the military because he was in the Navy and that's all he knew.
"With six sons he had no choice. He didn't know what else to do."
The family matriarch, Barbara Cowsill, died of emphysema in 1985 when she was 56. Bud died at age 66 from leukemia.
The last decade also has been tough on the family. Barry Cowsill, the bass player, drowned in New Orleans in the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It took four months to find his body. He was 50.
Bill, already in failing health from emphysema and other diseases, died the day before Barry's memorial service at age 58.
Bob's twin brother Richard, the only non-performing sibling, died of lung cancer in July.
The Katrina floods also claimed the home of Susan Cowsill, the youngest in the band and the only girl. Along with her house went scrapbooks and many pieces of irreplaceable memorabilia that she had kept her attic, Bob says.
"You get scrapbooks. You're all brothers with one sister: Who are you going to give them to?" Bob says. "But look, this was a storm from the Devil himself."
"We're all glad to be here still," he continues. "Susan says, 'No more dying. There's only four left. We had nine. We're going to slow this thing down.' That's the attitude."
In spite of all the pain, Bob sounds relentlessly positive. He is as excited as ever to play music with his siblings, to meet and talk to fans.
"The atmosphere is very dramatic and cool and rock 'n' roll to us," Bob says of the SteelStacks property. "We can't wait to get to Bethlehem."
The Cowsills story begins in Newport, R.I., where the Cowsills grew up. Initially, Bill, Bob and Barry started out singing folk songs together at local hootenannies. But the focus changed after The Beatles hit the scene.
Three singing brothers became four, with John coming on to play drums. Bill and Bob played guitar and Barry played bass.
"We bought Gretsch guitars, box amps, Ludwig drums — we bought the gear The Beatles were using," Bob remembers. "Me and my brothers always played their songs well, to this day we could do it. It was just a little knack that we had, thank God. But it got us working in high school, in clubs and all of our sets were Beatles. That's your big influence musically, visually."
One performance in Rhode Island by the young quartet drew the attention of a "Today" show producer, who asked the boys to perform on the air. That led to a first record deal with Mercury Records and one unsuccessful single.
But that led to collaboration with Artie Kornfeld, the legendary music executive who would later organize the Woodstock music festival. Kornfeld co-wrote "The Rain, The Park and Other Things," and led the Cowsills to a new deal with MGM Records.
Part of the package, however, was adding mother Barbara to the band, which the boys vehemently resisted, Bob says.
"We go, 'You're going to put who in this band?' This is like: 'Are you nuts? You're going to embarrass the heck out of us. We won't want to go to school. What is going on?' And then we have a hit record."
Soon brother Paul and baby sister Susan were also on stage with the band, which made appearances at the Allentown Fair in 1968 with a live stage version of television's "Rowan & Martin's Laugh In."
"Of course with mom in the band, that makes us different," Bob says. "We got to do TV shows because of that. Johnny Carson loved mom. We did Johnny Cash. We did Ed Sullivan — twice.
"The 'Ed Sullivan Show' was the most exciting TV show we ever did in our whole lives," he continues. "It was live and everyone in America was watching."
When the wave of success ended in the early '70s, many of the siblings continued in music — occasionally reuniting for a show together, but mostly in separate careers.
John, for example, has played keyboard and drums for the Beach Boys since 2001. Prior to that, he played with Tommy Tutone — a band some might describe as a "one-hit wonder." John played drums and sang background vocals for that 1982 chart-topper "867-5309/Jenny."
Susan enjoyed some success as a solo artist with the Susan Cowsill Band. She also collaborates with John's wife, former Bangles lead guitarist Vicki Peterson in the Psycho Sisters. John and Susan also spent time together in Dwight Twilley's band.
Despite having a career working for a company that writes software for emergency management agencies, Bob has also never stopped performing or writing music. For 28 years, he held down a regular Friday night gig at the same pub near his California home.
He only quit it in January, he says, because the demand to see the reformulated family band has recently been on the rise.
"The kids today ended up liking our music," Bob says. "They like their parents' songs and The Beatles and all that we had back then. That's what kept us going, to be candid."
Bob also credits the 1994 movie "Dumb and Dumber," which included a sequence featuring "The Rain, The Park and Other Things," with helping to revive interest in The Cowsills.
The current lineup is again multi-generational. In addition to the surviving siblings, it also features Bob's son Ryan on keyboard and Paul's son Brendon, a former minor-league baseball player, on guitar.
It is impossible for the current Cowsills band to sound like the original, Bob says. After all, that lineup had a 7-year-old named Susan. But the sound still emphasizes big vocal harmonies, he says.
Shows feature the original Cowsills hits, music from their solo careers and also other hits from the 1960s. Bob also looks forward to meeting and greeting audience members after the show.
"The audiences are fun because we can talk to them now and we can meet and we have a website," Bob says. "It's a whole different world going through it this time and it's a lot more fun."
Back in the day, the only way for audience members to get to know The Cowsills was by reading teen magazines, he says.
"I think we think singing is just so fun and therapeutic," Bob says. "To be in the family band and still keep it going musically is just an honor."
Daryl Nerl is a freelance writer.