Little-known fact: Before the Cowsills became a hit-making ’60s family pop group, they lived right here in Canton.
Susan Cowsill, the kid sister of the brood, was born at Aultman Hospital in 1959 and spent the first two years of her life in the family home on West Park Avenue NW. (Then the family moved to Newport, R.I.)
On Sunday, Cowsill will return to her hometown for an intimate, informal concert at downtown Canton’s Kathleen Howland Theatre, part of the Don Dixon’s Basement series.
With amusement, she recalled a much earlier homecoming. While on a concert tour during their heyday, the Cowsills returned to Canton, revisited their old house and Susan’s brothers dared her to kiss the front porch. “There I was on my knees kissing the porch,” she said. “I was 7. I’d do anything those guys told me. They were rotten to the core.”
At her Sunday concert, “I actually will do one Cowsills song,” Cowsill promised, via telephone from her New Orleans home. “I mine material from everything I’ve done — the Continental Drifters, my two solo CDs, and I really love doing covers because I’m a singer at the core.”
HUSBAND IN TOW
Cowsill will play guitar with accompaniment from percussionist Russ Broussard, whom she describes as “my husband, co-writer and co-pilot.” They are touring from New Orleans by car.
“I’m insecure on the guitar, I’m really a rhythm guitar player, so I have to rely on my vocals and storytelling,” she said about the duo set-up. “People tell me, ‘Nobody’s coming to hear you play guitar anyway.’”
Sometimes, Cowsill and Broussard play with a six-piece band that includes violin, cello and bass. “But this economy doesn’t allow you to take a whole band with you and then come home with the rent money,” she said. “So we’ve learned to accomodate musically. On a musical-artistic level it’s more fun this way. It’s like hanging in the living room with me.”
Spontaneity is key. “I don’t worry about rehearsing. Music is like breathing, kinda,” she said. “It’s more fun to go up on the mountainside and jump. With wings.”
Cowsill is a fountain of candor and amusing stories. “I waitressed for two years at Marie Callender’s in Toluca Lake, Ca.,” she noted at one point. “I looked like some chick named Dot. I had my hair up, my uniform. Nobody ended up with what they ordered necessarily, but I had fun with them and they left happy.”
A COWSILLS PRIMER
Known for its vocal harmonies, the group was formed in 1965 by Susan’s brothers Bill, Bob and Barry. By 1967, Susan (on tambourine), her brothers John and Paul and mother Barbara had joined the lineup; father Bud, a military man, was the manager.
The Cowsills’ debut album earned a gold record and spawned the hit single “The Rain, The Park & Other Things.” Two more hit singles followed, “Indian Lake” and “Hair.”
The group toured heavily, playing about 200 concerts a year; appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “Ed Sullivan Show” and “American Bandstand”; recorded the theme song for TV’s “Love American Style;” inspired “The Partridge Family” TV series, and, memorably, appeared in a series of American Dairy Association ads for milk. In 1972, the Cowsills disbanded.
As a documentary called “Family Band: The Cowsills Story” sadly illustrates, behind the scenes of this cheerful, smiling, upbeat group, things weren’t so happy-go-lucky. Bud Cowsill (who died in 1992) ruled by intimidation, squandered the group’s fortune and even fired his son Bill from the band, for allegedly trying marijuana.
As the film painfully details, Bill struggled with substance abuse and failing health, and died in 2006; Barry, a New Orleans resident, vanished during Hurrican Katrina in 2005 and his body was recovered months later.
ONWARD AND UPWARD
Susan, who cooperated with the making off the documentary for a decade, admits it tells a dark story. “But that’s as light as it could’ve gotten. That’s the facts,” she said. “We did some film festival appearances and after about the third one, I told Bob, let’s not watch it anymore and we all stopped.”
The painful film has positive effects. “I can’t tell you how many beautiful letters I’ve gotten that thank me for our honesty from people who also have lived a life of secrecy and family abuse and been so inspired by us,” she said.
“Family Band” has found an avid audience on Showtime, where it has been airing for five months. “We have offers for a major motion picture (about the group), but I can’t say anything more right now,” she said.
Cowsill has been steadily involved in music all these years. She recorded and toured with Dwight Twilley, her boyfriend of 10 years whom she met when she was 18. From 1991 to 2001, she played in an indie-rock band called the Continental Drifters with her first husband Peter Holsapple (with whom she has a daughter), Bangles member Vicki Peterson (now married to John Cowsill, Susan’s brother) and future husband Broussard.
Then she went solo. “I started writing like a madwoman in my 30s. I had these songs that didn’t fit the Continental Drifters because they were too pop,” she said.
In addition to her solo career, which has yielded the solo albums “Just Believe It” (2005) and “Lighthouse” (2010), Cowsill plays occasional shows with her brothers Paul and Bob as the Cowsills.
“We do our four hits, a lot of ‘60s covers, and we do songs that belonged to our deceased siblings Barry and Bill. Russ is the drummer because my brother John is the drummer for the Beach Boys and they pay him,” she said. “It’s a really fun show. We’re just a barrel of monkeys.”