Note: Parts of this article were also published in the Lincoln Journal Star which I posted in 2017
“Hi, Norman, this is mother. How are you?” It was Mrs. Barbara Cowsill (sometimes known as Mini-Mom), leader of a singing, traveling family that produces hit records; and after her on the phone came the rest of her brood.
“Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi,” said all nine Cowsills including Bud (father) from their variety of extensions.
“All right now,” said Bud (Father) Cowsill. “Let’s identify ourselves, or he won’t know who’s talking.” And so they all tumbled out. There as Bill and Dick and Bob and Paul and Barry and John and Susan, every one of them Cowsill kids.
Three years ago, when Papa Cowsill retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer, he decided to turn all of them into a recording group, “come hell or high water,” as Mrs. Cowsill says.
Faced Ruin Before Fame
His determination and the family’s spunk almost led them to the brink of financial ruin. But last year they recorded a little song called “The Rain, the Park and Other Things.” It sold 1,000,000 single records and sent the Cowsills bouncing across the country promoting, singing and making friends everywhere.
Said Mother Cowsill on the phone: “In Barbados (West Indies) for five days, Chicago, then to San Remo, Italy, and then to England.” Then I’m going to Bellevue.
“Dick stop hanging over me. But really, there’s been no big changes in the family. Except for Bobby, he’s getting a bit punky.”
“Aw Mom, say, you know that story about us being in our house and down to peanut butter and bread before the big record came out? Well, it’s not true. We had jam too.”
“It was really down to the wire,” said Mom. “We hadn’t paid a bill in over a year. I always say the rest of the family was never daunted, but I was. I thought they were crazy.”
Some of the Cowsills dropped off the line at this point to watch television, so Mom provided a rundown on her family: Bill, 19. Then the twins, Bob and Dick, 18; Paul, 16 (he and Dick are the road managers). Barry will be 13 in September and he’s the bass guitarist. John, the drummer, is 11, and Susan is 8 ½, and you better add that half.”
Bob told briefly his version of how it all happened: “About 10 years ago, Bill started messing around with a guitar and then he taught me. We went along for four or five years. Then Barry, who is now our bass player, became our drummer. He was 8 and began messing around with bongos, John was 6 then, so we didn’t expect much from him. So for a while Bill, myself and Barry played dances and college stuff. Then John took up the drums and we didn’t know what to do with Barry, but he went over to the bass. We had three records out as a quartet and then Susan came along.”
“She just popped up,” said Mom. “She wanted to be in the group and she danced with them. Then she came to me crying that the guys didn’t want her. Why, I asked ‘Because Bill never hollers at me,’ she cried.
“Mom wasn’t really in the group at first,” said Bob. “But we bribed her with clothes and a washer and she joined us.”
“Since my family became famous,” Mom said, “I just added singing to washing, cooking, cleaning. You know, you wait and wait for something to happen and then it happens and nothing changes. The kids still go to school, the dog still needs his shots, and the apartment we live in is great, because the basement has 10 washing machines.”
Said Bob, “years ago, maybe six years ago, the whole family sang for the first time for an assembly at St. Joseph’s School in Ohio, where we all went. Our first professional appearance was perhaps 10 years ago when Bill, he’s the other oldest one, and myself were on a television talent contest singing ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ We lost to a magician.”
“You know I was nervous during our whole first tour,” said Mrs. Cowsill. “I mean they just asked me to sing on the album a couple of month ago and I haven’t been home since. Now, at 40, I’m starting a new career. I mean, I’m used to washing dishes, not singing in front of people.”
“But, I wasn’t nervous when we did the Ed Sullivan show,” Mom said. “I was proud of them. They worked for this for years. They arrived. I was proud, I sang and I wasn’t nervous. And now we’ve got eight more Sullivan shows to do.”
“There have been negotiations for a TV series,” said Bob.
“And a full-length move,” added Mom.
“It’s a good feeling,” concluded Bob.
And then all the Cowsills rested.