WireImage Susan Cowsill may be the best-kept secret in Americana. Just ask the…
- Posted on Sep 24th 2010 5:30PM by James Sullivan
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
In the messy 1960s, the family members known as the Cowsills stood out for their well-scrubbed image. They got their start in Canton, Ohio, when schoolboys Bill and Bob received a four-string guitar as a homecoming gift from their father, Bud, a Navy man who'd been away at sea. The boys made their first appearance on a Cleveland television show around 1960, singing Hank Williams' 'Your Cheatin' Heart.'
Brothers Barry and John soon joined, playing bass and drums, and the adolescent group began playing long sets of Beatles covers at clubs and fraternities around the family's new home in Newport, R.I. By 1965, they'd recorded several singles on an independent label. Discovered by a producer of 'The Today Show,' the young Cowsills were said to be the first act invited to perform on that morning program.
Signed to MGM in 1967, the four Cowsill boys, ages 11-19, were persuaded to bring in their mother, Barbara (known as "Mini-Mom"), to capitalize on the family story. Younger siblings Susan and Paul were soon added; brother Dick, Bob's twin, became the band's road manager.
The Cowsills had a breakthrough hit in '67 with their version of 'The Rain, the Park and Other Things,' a flowery pop song co-written by Artie Kornfield (later a principal organizer of Woodstock). The multimillion-selling 'The Rain, the Park' went to No. 2 on the pop charts, followed by the Top Ten hit 'Indian Lake' in 1968 and another No. 2, the title song to the Broadway hippie musical 'Hair,' the following year. Their popularity landed the wholesome group a million-dollar endorsement deal with the American Dairy Association.
But despite their success, the group lost a chance at wider exposure when they were approached with an idea to star in their own sitcom. Producers wanted to cast singer-actress Shirley Jones as their mother, but the siblings balked. Jones eventually teamed with her stepson David Cassidy on the retooled version, now known as 'The Partridge Family.'
While the fictional singing family flourished on TV, the real-life one began to splinter. Brother Bill, who was once briefly considered as Brian Wilson's replacement in the Beach Boys, was kicked out of the group by his father after he was caught smoking pot. By 1972 internal squabbles had led to the disbandment of the singing Cowsills.
In various combinations, the siblings reunited several times over the years. An album called 'Cocaine Drain' (one of several titles to hint at another side of the group's image) was shelved in 1978 and would remain unreleased for 30 years. Meanwhile, brother John served a brief stint with Tommy Tutone, appearing on the power-pop band's hit single '867-5309/Jenny.' He later joined the Beach Boys as their touring drummer.
Barbara Cowsill's death from emphysema in 1985 brought all the family members together for the first time in years. When her husband died seven years later in Baja, Mexico, where he'd been living, their ashes were scattered together over the ocean.
In 1990, the Cowsills were invited to perform on Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars. After some discussion, the group declined, hoping to record new music together instead. Susan Cowsill soon formed a new band, the Continental Drifters, with then-husband Peter Holsapple (of the dB's) and Bangles singer Vicki Peterson. They moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans, where Cowsill would get remarried, to bandmate Russ Broussard.
Barry Cowsill -- "Weezer" to his siblings -- also relocated to New Orleans, where he formed his own new band. But Hurricane Katrina changed all that. Susan's home was destroyed in the hurricane. Worse, Barry went missing. Family and fans conducted an extensive but futile search. Nearly four months later, Barry's body washed up on a wharf with a self-identifying note in his pocket.
The day before Barry's memorial service, the family's grief was compounded when brother Bill died in Calgary.
Susan Cowsill recently released her second solo album, 'Lighthouse.' It is, she told the New Orleans Time Picayune newspaper, "a bit of a Survivors' Guide 101."