Gary James' Interview With Bob Cowsill of
Before the Partridge family TV series, there existed a real musical family that played together. They were called The Cowsills. The Cowsills recorded some seven albums that yielded three Gold singles - "The Rain, The Park and Other Things", "Indian Lake" and "Hair". The Cowsills first sang their way into American households on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967. The group disbanded in 1970. Mother, Barbara Cowsill died of emphysema in 1985.
We spoke with Bob Cowsill about the history of The Cowsills.
Q - Once you're exposed to the kind of success The Cowsills had, and then one day it isn't there anymore, how do you adjust to that?
A - When it broke up, we went from literally having it all, to having nothing. Bankruptcy and all that goes along with that. The horrible Hollywood story. And then, the business kind of messed up our family a bit and splintered it very much so. I was living in Los Angeles in 1969 with the number one song in the country, "Hair" and by 1970, I had a job sweeping a garage. Now that was a real crash. Some of us handled it a little more traumatically. Others handled it a little more mentally, philosophizing that life's a roller coaster. We went down and we sort of stayed down. (laughs)
Q - At least there was never any scandal connected with The Cowsills.
A - Our departure from the music business was the quietest, most uneventful disappearance you ever heard of in your life. And I mean, we disappeared. No one really knows our history from the time it ended till now. It's another whole interview probably given at a more appropriate time, but it's interesting I'll tell you. It was kind of messed up at the end there.
Q - Maybe it's material for a book?
A - Oh yeah, there's a real good book there. (laughs)
Q - Your first hit was "The Rain, The Park and Other Things". You sing "I love the flower girl" in the song. Why didn't you call the song "I Love The Flower Girl"?
A - That's a good question. Now that song was written by Artie Kornfeld and Steve Duboff. Artie went on to do the Woodstock Festival. Apparently, they felt the flower girl was almost too indicative of the times. Now, in retrospect, it would've been great to call it that.
Q - How far did that song get in the charts?
A - It was a million seller. Number One. It did great. And the reason I think it did great was when it came out in 1967, it was acid rock, Motown and very, very hard, dark kind of stuff. Then this little, light, fluffy piece of music comes floating through. It flew, and it was great.
Q - The production on that record was great.
A - It's a wonderfully crafted record. Artie Kornfeld produced it. He did a good job.
Q - The Cowsills got hit with the term "Bubble Gum music", but maybe "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" was ahead of its time.
A - We got bagged with some things back then. Some of my brothers had trouble with that image. We were a family. We looked good. I see things in retrospect and look at old films and go "Wow, we were a bunch of cute, little kids. No wonder that thing sold." See, underneath, we were all serious musicians. For awhile there, we were not taken that seriously as musicians, and that can get under your skin a bit. Our age had something to do with that. For pete sake, I was 17. Barry was 14. We were teenagers. I'm finding out that it's pretty well respected. Some of our music stood the test of time. I like that. It sounds real good still. People tell me that. So, I appreciate that.
Q - "Indian Lake" still sounds good.
A - Yeah. At the time I hated it. I'm like 17, and I don't want to do that nerdy song. (laughs) Later on, I go, 'wow that was well done.' I heard Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) liked it, so I said 'well if he liked it, I liked it.'
Q - What was it like to be on the Ed Sullivan Show?
A - At the time, it was 'live' television. We were very excited because Ed Sullivan was happening and when you hit that show on a Sunday night, you knew you made it. He was wonderful to us. He thought we were wonderful. I think we went on (his show) two or three times. We'd do our song, and he'd call us over and talk to us. He was a swell guy who really enjoyed our family and liked having us on his show. We enjoyed doing the show because it was 'live', it was big time and we were Beatlemaniacs at the time, and we knew they did it, and we were so excited to be on the stage they were on.
Q - Wasn't your father the manager of The Cowsills?
A - Yeah, he didn't do a real good job.
Q - Why do you say that?
A - I will give him this, he knew what he wanted. He knew this was good and he was gonna get it out there, no matter what. In terms of that, he did a great job. He could not be waylaid. You couldn't move this guy left or right once he figured on this course, OK. And that's good. I got a little of that from him, and I appreciate that. What he wasn't good at, was handling it once it arrived. He was a great guy, but he only went to the seventh grade. When you go from Newport, Rhode Island to New York City, and when you go from nothing to millions, I feel you have to be ready for that kind of success and I don't feel he was.
Q - What did he know about management?
A - He was in the service for 20 years - that's what he knew about management, and he was raising seven children, that's what he knew about management. Dad managed it up to a certain point, then Lenny Stogel became our manager, when we got to New York and had record deals. Dad's a stubborn guy. He figured what you do with money is invest it. You buy land. It just didn't work out. Everything just failed.
Q - The investments?
A - Sure. He had the right idea, it was just no good. Then, when the family started falling apart, he and my older brother Bill had a falling out. When that happened, that kind of busted me and Bill up. We were the producers and writers, and pretty much the artistic overseers, and had been from the start, since we were seven. That was the beginning of the end. It was downhill from there. Then the 60s turned into the 70s...and I haven't been optimistic about the music business since the 90s to be honest. I think the 90s has great potential. There's a market for all that is good. It just a matter of finding your particular market and being able to crossover into others at times, and I just don't think that was the case in the 70s and 80s at all.
Q - What's your father doing these days?
A - He's retired and lives in Mexico and stays there all the time, and likes it. He's just kind of an old sailor that's retired and living out the sunset of his life.
Q - Did The Cowsills use studio musicians?
A - We used studio musicians in the early part of our career.The first record we totally produced on our own, totally arranged and played all our instruments was "Hair". We were getting older and wanted to wrestle control of some things away from people. It's just natural, when you're young and you think you're hot stuff.
Q - So, on "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" you just sang?
A - We just sang and did the arrangements. Those were crack, studio musicians on "The Rain, The Park and Other Things".
Q - Now, you were all living in Rhode Island, and in school, yet you would play the New York clubs on a regular basis. How did you manage that?
A - Well, first, my Dad, if he thought it was worth the cause, would just take us out of school. No problem. I'd be in Spanish class, somebody would come in, take me out, and I knew I'd be going to New York City. We played every weekend at home also, in Newport, Rhode Island, at the clubs around Newport. That's all I remember doing during high school. Playing the colleges in New York whenever, based on my dad's interpretation that it was worth going to New York. He was pursuing it, and so were we. We were right behind him. We wanted it.
Q - You managed to graduate from high school?
A - Oh sure. I was a real smart guy. (laughs) See, we had "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" released after we already had three flops. We were on Mercury Records putting out things we thought were good but just bombed. It was a real education for a young kid. "The Rain and the Park" came out the summer after my senior year in high school. I was gonna go to college, but this happened and I hit the road, and that became college. When we moved to California, everyone went to special schools for kids in TV shows or kids like us in rock bands, and got educated that way. We had tutors travel with us and all that, 'cause that was the law.
Q - What would happen when you would walk into a classroom? After all, you had a number one song on the charts, and you'd been on Ed Sullivan. Did heads turn?
A - When I went to college, it was known who I was and what I was doing. But everyone was pretty cool in New York. I went to Pass College. No one gave me a hard time. It was kind of like something everyone knew. It was so natural for me, that I wasn't walking around with some big head. (laughs) It was OK.
Q - How did you get signed to MGM Records?
A - We were playing at a club in Newport, Rhode Island when somebody from The Today Show saw us. At that time, it was when The Today Show would put people on in the morning and asked us if we wanted to do a show, and we said yes. Somebody from Mercury Records saw us on The Today Show and signed us to Mercury, where we put out two or three singles that flopped. When Artie Kornfeld, who wrote "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" wanted to record that with us for Mercury, Mercury dropped us from the label. We went in and recorded it anyway. Artie and Lenny Stogel, who was our manager by then, and my dad all took it over to MGM. They just jumped on it. They thought it was great. I gotta tell you, MGM in the good old fashion way that was good old labels back then, really got behind The Cowsills.
Q - Did MGM cheat you out of all your royalties?
A - Oh, I'm sure if I uncovered all the sawdust on the floor of what became our career, that there's some problems. Anytime you got a bankruptcy and something ends as bad as it ended; I don't think any of us want to dig up that mess. I don't care if it's billions, we only surrounded ourselves with real positive things right now. We don't want to dwell on anything negative. We're just interested in today and tomorrow.