Bob Cowsill and his brothers had a hard-rocking band in the 1960s, and one day a record company suggested they add one more member – his mother.
“It was preposterous,” Cowsill said in a telephone interview. “What teenager wants his mother in his band?”
It could have been worse.
It could have been his abusive father.
The Cowsills appear at Savannah Center on Saturday, May 27 at 5 and 8 p.m. as part of the Magic Moments show, with hits from the Platters, Temptations and Drifters.
The Cowsills became stars in 1967. The lineup featured “mini-mom” Barbara singing along with her kids – Bill, Barry, John, Paul, Bob and later Susan. The hits included: “The Rain and Park And Other Things (The Flower Girl),” “Indian Lake” and “Hair.” They became the inspiration for the hit TV series, “The Partridge Family.”
Beneath the image of this squeaky-clean family band was a dark underside, personified by Bud, the domineering father and manager.
Bud Cowsill was an alcoholic who treated his children and wife like military underlings and regularly beat them, according to the documentary, “Family Band: The Cowsills Story.”
It’s a deeply troubling documentary, but also an inspiring story. Because the surviving Cowsills: Bob, Paul and Susan who perform together, and John — who plays drums with the Beach Boys — are a testament to family strength and a musical legacy.
“It feels good to have any legacy at all,” Bob Cowsill said. “I was just 17 and right out of high school when we were selling millions of records and going on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’ We were all kids. It was hard to believe.”
The turning point, ironically enough, came when the record company suggested putting Barbara Cowsill in the band.
Bob, his late brothers Barry and Bill, along with John –had been playing gigs in bars and halls around their home in Newport, Rhode Island.
“We covered every Beatles song we could,” Bob said. “We were a good cover band.” They had released a couple of records with little success.
Then came Mom.
“We didn’t like it, but it immediately differentiated us from every other rock band that was out there,” Bob said. “My mother didn’t want to do it. She was shy. She had stage fright.” Also, the company wanted Susan, Bob’s then 7-year old sister, to be in the group.
The record company took the song “…The Flower Girl,” that the guys had already been working on and had recorded. Barbara Cowsill’s vocal was added and the next thing you know, the Cowsills were right up there in the Top 10 with the Beatles, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. Here is a video:
Back in 1964, Bob Cowsill and his brothers were mesmerized watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
The Cowsills appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show
Three years later, there were the Cowsills on the same stage.
“Ed Sullivan loved us,” Bob said. “He wanted to book us for 10 shows.”
But Bud Cowsill got in the way. Bud, according to the documentary, got into a bitter argument with Sullivan’s producer. After two shows, the Cowsills were finished.
“We lost eight Ed Sullivan shows. That was the dominant music show of that time. I keep thinking how different things might have been had we done those shows.”
But there were some more hits.
“Indian Lake,” is a fun, bouncy summer party song. In 1969, the Cowsills were asked to appear on a comedy special headlined by Carl Reiner. He asked them to work on the title song from the Broadway musical “Hair.”
Bob and Bill Cowsill got together and worked out an arrangement. It was an immediate smash.
The Cowsill kids appeared with wild, long hairdos and hippie garb. The record company didn’t like it but that didn’t matter once it became a hit.
It was the last big hit for the Cowsills.
The following decades brought lawsuits, separation and tragedy.
Bud Cowsill did not want Richard, Bob’s twin brother, in the band. “Bud exercised some sort of personal vendetta and (Richard) was the lone Cowsill kid…never allowed on stage,” wrote Louise Palanker, who directed the documentary. She added in 1968, “Richard and Bud came to blows.”
Richard Cowsill then joined the service and went to Vietnam. He returned from the war “a heroin addict.” In 2014, Richard Cowsill, 64, died of lung cancer.
Barry Cowsill, 51, died in 2005 after he was reported missing in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Then, early in 2006 as the family was preparing a memorial service for Barry — Bill Cowsill, 58, died of natural causes in Calgary, Canada.
Barbara Cowsill died years earlier at 56, and Bud Cowsill was 66 at his death. The family had little money to show for all the hits and concerts that generated millions of dollars. Bud Cowsill handled the money and no one knows where it went.
The Cowsills lost more than money.
“Our family went through a lot, but so do most families,” Bob Cowsill said. “Only we were celebrities; rock and rollers. But ever since the documentary came out, people come up to us with empathy and understanding. People tell us they have faced the same problems and tragedies.”
Now, 67, Bob Cowsill has come to terms with the past and speaks of forgiveness. “Listen, I would advise anybody who has a problem with a family member or friend, to get it resolved: mend it. It’s a waste of time and in the end we’re all going to be dead.
“I ran out of time to forgive my mother and father,” he added. “They’re both gone. When you get to a certain age, you start to understand things. I’ve got 5 kids and 6 grandkids. It’s not easy raising kids.
“My Mom and Dad were young when they got married and they had 7 kids. We accomplished a lot. We had million-sellers; we were on Ed Sullivan. Yes, we had dark times, but when we were on stage playing together, it was great.”
Bob Cowsill paused for a moment, then added: “And it’s still great.”