In the late 1960s, the Cowsills were the quintessential American family, a sweet, pop rock group of five siblings and their mini-skirted mother who later became the model for TV's "The Partridge Family."
By 1971, they had virtually vanished, the victim of a fickle public and poor management. Their $30 million fortune disappeared in bad investments. The breakup was so acrimonious, many members of the family did not speak until their mother's funeral in 1985.
"It wasn't just the end of a business, it was the end of a family," said group leader Bob Cowsill, 40.
Several of the Cowsills spent the last two decades battling drugs, alcohol and severe depression. The family declared bankruptcy in 1977.
Now they're planning a comeback - both as a group and as a family. They reunited for the first time in 20 years in Boston in early July, in a concert dedicated to their mother. In attendance at a packed club for the concert were singer Paula Abdui and two of the Beach Boys.
At their concert, the Cowsills sang the old hits as well as new material, in a surprisingly smooth, polished set reminiscent of such groups as Fleetwood Mac. They have a new manager and are shopping a tape of new music at different record labels.
The Cowsills had three No. 1 hits, including "Hair," "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" and "Indian Lake," and two other Top 10 singles from a total of eight albums. They starred in their own NBC-TV special, headlined in Las Vegas, did milk commercials and were plastered on the covers of teen magazines.
"We were the first family of rock 'n' roll," said Susan Cowsill, 30, who joined the group when she was 7, later sang backup for other artists and now collaborates with former Bangles member Vicki Peterson.
But the Cowsill brothers, who wanted to do serious music in the tradition of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, resented the bubble-gum image foisted on them by record companies.
"We'd worked hard to be a real creative band, and instead they had us tap dancing on the Ed Sullivan show," said Barry Cowsill, 36, who now lives in Carmel, Calif. "We didn't want to be these cute guys on posters for lonely girls in the Midwest."
Several of the Cowsills considered changing their names in an effort to be accepted as serious musicians. All have held a succession of day jobs in recent years and performed solo in small clubs.
The band consisted of Bill, now 41, Bob, 40, Paul, 38, Barry, 36, John, 32, little sister Susan and their mother, Barbara. Bob's twin brother, Richard, was excluded from the band by their father. Bill was later kicked out of the band after a fight with his father.
The wholesome-looking family from Newport, R.I., who shot to the top between 1967 and 1970, fell as fast as they had risen.
As their fame evaporated, so did the facade of the happy family. Years under the iron rule of their father, and manager, Bud Cowsill, took a toll.
"My dad was a seventh grade dropout who joined the Navy and he ran his family like the military, too," said Bob Cowsill. "We had spent our whole lives together, 24 hours a day. When it came apart, it was kind of an explosion."
At the time of their mother's death from emphysema, she was working the night shift in a Rhode Island nursing home, estranged from several of her children.
"She just wanted to be our mom, she never really wanted to be up on stage," said Barry Cowsill. "Her knees were rattling together up there."
Bud Cowsill, whom his children say has "mellowed," now lives alone in Rosarita Beach in Mexico.
The Cowsill kids were recruited for the "Partridge Family" TV show in 1970, but refused to sign on when producers rejected their mother in favor of actress Shirley Jones.
The Cowsills got their start very early in Newport. Bill and Bob taught themselves how to play guitar and Barry and John later joined in. By 1965, they had a regular gig at a local club and were spotted by a producer for NBC-TV's "Today" show who booked them.
The "Today" show led to a record deal and Bud Cowsill decided to add Barbara and Susan Cowsill to the band.
"Whatever Dad said, went," said Bob Cowsill, who has performed solo for the past decade in small Southern California clubs. "He wasn't the kind of guy you argued with."
That rule extended to the arbitrary exclusion of Bob's twin brother from the band.
"It was hard, man," said Richard Cowsill, who showed up backstage at the Boston concert. "People would say, 'Oh, are you a Cowsill?' and I had to say, yes, but it was hard to explain why I wasn't in the band. Dad had his own reasons, I guess."
Bill and Richard are both recovering alcoholics and several others have had serious problems with drugs. Many of the brothers saw each other no more than a few times in the past 20 years and rejected offers to go on "oldies" tours.
But after deejay Barry Scott, who hosts a "Lost 45s" program on WZLX-FM in Boston, taped an interview with Bob last year, the group decided to get back together.
The Cowsills hope to find a record company that will allow them to do the kind of music they envisioned in the early days in Newport. Only four Cowsills performed in Boston but the plan is to add the other three, including Richard, once they get more bookings.
"We all love each other very much," said Barry Cowsill. "It was just like the molecules got too close. I think if people just put away their prejudices, we can really come back again."