If you’re an American baby boomer, and female, chances are you remember The Cowsills. An enormously talented band of five brothers, Bill, Bob, Paul, Barry, and John, plus their sister Susan, PLUS their mother Barbara.
Their hit songs included: Hair, Indian Lake, We Can Fly, and Love American Style. But their most popular song was the 1967 “flower power classic,” The Rain, The Park & Other Things, commonly called “The Flower Girl,” for its catchy refrain — “I love the flower girl… she could make me happy, happy, happy.”
In the late ’60s, you couldn’t miss the Cowsills, who had quickly become pop icons. They were on every variety and TV talk show and had massive concert tours across the country.
If you were like me, you bought their albums, and every week you read about them in 16 magazine. You cut their photos out and taped them to your bedroom wall. And you went to bed dreaming about your favorite Cowsill, (most likely Barry, although Bill’s voice was to die for). I even got to saw them perform live at the Brockton Fair in Massachusetts.
Riding on the crest of popularity, in just a few short years the Cowsills were raking in millions of dollars. In 1970, they served as the model for the TV show The Partridge Family, starring Shirley Jones as a single mother performing with her children in a rock band.
But then, poof… they were gone. No more songs, no more TV appearances.
At the time, fans didn’t know what happened. There was no social media or TMZ to tell us what was going on. All we knew was the Cowsills weren’t making records together anymore.
What happened to the Cowsills remained something of a mystery for nearly 40 years, until a documentary by filmmaker Louise Palanker came out in 2011, titled Family Band: The Cowsills Story, which aired on Showtime. Narrated by Bob Cowsill, the film reveals that in contrast to the band’s likable public image, behind the scenes, their life was miserable, controlled by their overbearing alcoholic father Bud, who acted as the band’s manger.
It was Bud who insisted the boys add their sister and mother to their act (even though Barbara was incredibly uncomfortable and suffered from stage fright). It was Bud who handled their booking arrangements and all their money. If the boys disagreed with Bud, they would be met with was iron fist. Bud also had a volatile temper in public. Ed Sullivan liked The Cowsills so much he signed them up for 10 appearances on his show. But during their second appearance, one of the microphones went dead on the air. Bud yelled and screamed at the sound engineer — who turned out to be Ed Sullivan’s son-in-law. Sullivan canceled the rest of their appearances.
The final blow came in Las Vegas in 1970. Bud was arrested by state troopers in Las Vegas after getting into a drunken physical altercation with son Bill.
The next day, Bud fired Bill, the group’s lead singer and guitarist — not only from from the band — but from the family. Bill had to go live elsewhere.
The other kids were unable to assume Bill’s role in the band, and that was the end of the Cowsills’ ride.
The millions the family had earned were gone, squandered by Bud on bad investments. The Cowsills went from rags to riches to rags again.
I consider The Cowsills not only American pop icons, but American family icons. So many families were like them back then. It was an era when fathers were still trying to rule the roost and kids were rebelling. Women were seen but not heard. But they were rebelling too. Domestic violence was rampant, and what happened often stayed behind closed doors. No one knew your family’s private business.
Over the years, the Cowsill siblings stayed in touch but went their separate ways and had to deal with even more tragedy. Barry went missing in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and wasn’t found until months later. He had died from drowning.
During Barry’s memorial service the family learned that Bill had died after a battle with emphysema. Last year, Bob’s twin brother Richard (who was not in the band) died.
But the amazing thing about the remaining Cowsills is they haven’t given up on music — or family. Bob, Susan, and Paul are still performing together as The Cowsills, joined by Bob’s son Ryan on keyboard, Paul’s son Brendon on guitar, and Susan’s husband Russ Broussard on drums.
On Sunday, Jan. 31, the Cowsills are coming to the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut, and I’ll be there. I am bringing my daughter Katie to show her who my idols were, and hopefully she will like the joyful sunshine of their music, like I do, I do, I do. Because they make me happy, happy, happy.