Bob Cowsill, of Rhode Island's legendary Cowsills, has come full circle in his 40-year musical career. Now living on the West Coast, the nationally acclaimed musician and his band member siblings are planning a trip back to their childhood home. On Sunday, April 28 at the Hope Artiste Village complex in Pawtucket, they will be inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame (RIMHOF).
Beginning a Musical Journey
The Cowsills, who play pop and rock 'n' roll, are one of the most successful family musical acts of the 1960s. They grew up just an hour's drive from Pawtucket, on Aquidneck Island where their names are still carved into a tree on the family homestead. The band was founded by four of the Cowsill brothers (Bob, Bill, Barry and John) in 1965. Within two years, it encompassed nearly the entire family with the additions of brother Paul, sister Susan, and their mother, Barbara ("Mini-Mom"). Their father, Bud, became their manager. (Bob's twin brother Richard is the only sibling who never joined the band.) The Cowsills later became the creative inspiration for the 1970s television show, "The Partridge Family," still in syndication today.
The Cowsills were the first of the family rock groups, opening the door for others, says Bob, the eldest of the musical clan. Those following in their footsteps included The Jackson 5 and The Osmonds, who made the switch to rock following the Cowsills' success.
"The family angle just evolved," said Cowsill, stressing that it should not be considered "premeditated." When it became difficult to interest musicians on Aquidneck Island to join the fledgling band, Cowsill notes that it became obvious that the younger siblings were the answer to filling the empty slots.
In the mid-1960s, the Cowsills were hired as a regular act on Bannister's Wharf, playing weekly at Dorians in Newport, "at that time a rough Navy town," says Bob.
He notes that the group's first big career break in 1964 came after playing in the basement disco of the MK Hotel, 38 Bellevue Ave., in Newport. From this performance came an invitation to play on "The Today Show." Their 20-minute performance caught the attention of singer Johnny Nash and the group signed their first recording contract with his JODA Records label, releasing their first single, "All I Really Want To Be Is Me," in 1965.
America's Musical Family
Cowsill recalls how that first single was pitted against "The Sound of Silence" on a WPRO radio contest. When the votes were tabulated, the Newport band "won by a landside." To this day, he still chuckles when remembering the Cowsills' victory over America's most recognizable musical duo, Simon and Garfunkel.
From the late '60s into the early '70s, the Cowsills appeared on many popular television shows, among them: "The Ed Sullivan Show," "American Bandstand," "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson, the "Mike Douglas Show," and the "Johnny Cash Show." They even hosted their own NBC TV special called, "A Family Thing."
"Bewilderment," says Cowsill, thinking about his two performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The group had contracted to appear 10 times that would have put them on Sunday's most popular show more times than The Beatles. But a fiasco over a microphone that was accidentally turned off between Sullivan's son-in-law and Bud Cowsill resulted in the cancellation of the remaining eight shows, he said.
Before the young Cowsills had their first hit record, they were hired as one of the headliners, along with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, The Byrds and The Beach Boys (all Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees) for Soundblast '66 at Yankee Stadium in New York. "We were in pop wonderland. It was just unbelievable. Somehow, my father worked magic and got us to Yankee Stadium for this show. We were not famous at the time but apparently good enough to play for the crowd."
Bringing Home the Gold
In 1967, the Cowsills' first MGM release, "The Rain, The Park & Other Things," sold more than 1 million copies and was awarded a gold record. This song would ultimately reach No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 in Cash Box and Record World.
One year later, the band scored another near million-selling hit with the song "Indian Lake," reaching No. 10 on the charts and in 1968, the band hit No. 1 again with their version of "Hair," a 3 million seller that brought them a nomination for 16 Magazine's Best Group of 1970. "Hair" was banned from Armed Forces radio in Vietnam for being too controversial, noted Cowsill, stating that, "We were amused at the time because our brother, Richard, who was in Vietnam reported back that they were playing it everywhere!"
Baby boomers can remember the Cowsills taking on the role as spokespersons for the American Dairy Association with their "Milk Song" appearing in commercials and their images in print ads promoting milk. Cowsill also notes that his group has been referenced in trivia game questions and twice on David Letterman's Top Ten List.
In 1969, The Cowsills became the first rock group to record a theme for a television show, "Love American Style." Their melodic sound has also been featured in movies such as "The Impossible Years" and "Dumb and Dumber," and other TV shows including "The Wonder Years" and "The Simpsons."
A feature-length film, "Family Band - The Story of The Cowsills," which documents the rise and fall of the group, is coming to cable TV in March. "It will show what really happened in our family band," said Cowsill.
The Cowsills disbanded in the early 1970s, but most of them have never fully retired from the music business and various members have regrouped through the years.
Cowsill and his siblings John, Susan and Paul, plus two of the band member's sons, continue to play concerts across the country at casinos, fairs and music festivals. Today, he's come full circle in his career. For over 27 years, the 63-year-old musician has been playing at Pickwick's Pub in Woodland Hills, Calif., every Friday night, once again playing the songs of The Beatles and The Byrds. During the day, Cowsill coordinates medical conferences across the country, provides medical coding services to emergency departments and assists in developing and installing software for use in emergency departments.
On April 28, 2013, The Cowsills will be inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall Of Fame, along with Steve Smith & The Nakeds, Bobby Hackett, Paul Geremia, Jimmie Crane, Eddie Zack, Sissieretta Jones, George M. Cohan and Bill Flanagan.
Reflecting on this upcoming recognition, Bob says, "The fact that we are being inducted into RIMHOF and not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is more special to us. There is a little bit more meaning to us because we are Rhode Islanders, to be recognized by our own. It is very cool to go to Pawtucket rather than Cleveland!"
For more information about the Cowsills, to leave a message on the group's guest book, or to sign a petition to get them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, visit: www.cowsill.com.
Tickets for the 2013 induction are $20 in advance or $25 at the door for the evening ceremonies and concert, and $10 in advance or at the door for the afternoon events. The Cowsills will perform in the evening. Tickets are available at www.rhodeislandmusichalloffame.com.
Herb Weiss, LRI '12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He also serves on RIMHOF's Board of Directors.