Legendary Cowsills to Come Home to Be Recognized By Their Own

Published January 25, 2013, Pawtucket Times

Bob Cowsill, of Rhode Island’s legendary Cowsills, has come full circle in his forty 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 28th 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 1970’s 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,” says 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-sixties, 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 ten times which 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 over one 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 three-million seller which brought them a nomination for 16 Magazine’s Best Group of 1970. “Hair” was banned from Armed Forces radio in Viet Nam 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 may remember the Cowsills taking on the role as spokespersons for the American Dairy Assn. 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,” says 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 more than 27 years, the sixty-three year old musician has been playing at Pickwick’s Pub in Woodland Hills, California, every Friday night, once again performing 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 rooms.

On April 28th, 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 guestbook, or to sign a petition to get them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, visit: http://www.cowsill.com.

Tickets for the 2013 induction are $20 in advance or $25 at the door for the evening ceremonies and concert, and $10.00 in advance or at the door for the afternoon events. The Cowsills will perform in the evening. Tickets are available at http://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: hweissri@aol.com. He also serves on RIMHOF’s Board of Directors.

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Cultual Icons, Celebrities Give Us Cause to Reflect on Our Lives

Published September 7, 2012, Pawtucket Times 

             The death of those celebrities and cultural icons who were familiar to us growing up give us cause to reflect on their lives – and our own, as well as ones’ contributions to society.

             Astronaut Neil Armstrong traveled 250,000 miles from earth to the lunar surface and was the first man to walk on the moon.  At the age of 82, he died last month in Cincinnati, Ohio from complications resulted from cardiovascular procedures.

            With his death on August 25, 2012, hundreds of tributes would come in from all over the world, from world leaders, former astronauts and his family, calling him modest and humble, a “reluctant American hero,” an explorer –  an exceptional test pilot, recognized as a war veteran who flew 78 combat missions during the Korean conflict.

            Not unexpectedly, even President Barack Obama, American’s Commander-in-Chief, recognized Armstrong’s impact on the cultural fabric of the nation.  “When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation,” said Obama in a written statement released by the White House. “They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable – that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”

 Man on the Moon

          In July 1969, one month after my 15th birthday, as a young man, I was riveted to our television as my family watched the CBS news with Walter Cronkite, as he told a captivated nation that American astronaut Neil Armstrong and  lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, along with command module pilot Mike Collins, had reached the moon four days after being launched from Kennedy Space Center. Cronkite, America’s most trusted newscaster, detailed the landing, noting how the lunar module “Eagle” separated from the command module, making its descent to the moon surface.

           When making that lunar contact, the 38-year-old Armstrong would say, “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”  No aging baby boomer would ever forget the memorable quote of the young commander of Apollo 11 as he climbed down Eagle’s ladder and stepped on to the lunar soil on July 20, 1969 at 10:56 p.m…  “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

         According to NASA, Armstrong would prance around on the lunar surface for two hours and 32 minutes, while Aldrin, who followed him, spent about 15 minutes less than that.

         For years, a small framed replica of the front page of the Dallas Morning News featuring Armstrong’s voyage sat on my old dresser, which served as an inspirational reminder – a  piece of history I witnessed,  now recorded into the nation’s history books.

 Long-time Comedienne Passes Away

          Phyllis Diller, a high-profile stand-up Comedienne who during a 50 year career served as a role model to younger females (including Roseanne Barr, Ellen De Generes, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joan Rivers among others) trying to make a career out of telling jokes, died on August 20, 2012 at the age of 95.    She was one of the first women to break into this male-dominated standup comedian profession, even giving them a run for their money.

       Over her long career, she made dozens of movies, appeared in specials, situational comedy shows on television, recorded comedy LP records and even performed on Broadway, as well as breathing life into animated characters on films and television shows with voice-overs.   

       Keeping my mother company on the couch by watching Johnny Carson after the late night news, as a young child I would lay my head on her lap, watching The Tonight Show “Starring Johnny Carson” in the early 1960s.  Diller appeared on this show, as well as variety shows, hosted by Jack Benny, Dean Martin, Red Skeleton, and Ed Sullivan.  She captivated the nation with her quirky sense of humor and signature laugh.

       As I grew up watching Diller on television I can remember the self-deprecating professional jokester wearing an unkempt wig, wrist-length gloves, and cloth-covered ankle boots, carrying a long fake jeweled cigarette holder (even though she never smoked) and taking lob sharp barbs at her fictional husband, Fang, and her home life during her routines.  She was confident and proud of her place in the world, despite the trials and tribulations of “family life”.

       At age 37, Diller, a mother and homemaker, got her first break in 1955, playing San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub.  The two week engagement ultimately ended a year and half later.

       Diller, a longtime resident of the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, California, appeared regularly as a special guest on many television programs throughout her career, including What’s My Line? mystery guests.  She also made cameo appearances bringing her unique humor to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Love Boat, Chips, Love American Style, the Drew Carey Show and even appeared on ABC’s Boston Legal.

       Diller, who underwent 15 different plastic surgeries during her life (this noted in her 2005 autobiography), surprisingly was also recognized as an accomplished pianist as well as a painter.

       Archie Bunkers chair went to the Smithsonian.  So did Diller’s jokes, so to speak.  Even the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery at the National Museum of American History, from August 12 to October 28, 2011, displayed Diller’s gag file, a steel cabinet consisting of 48 file drawers holding over 50,000 jokes penned on index cards and costumes that became part of her “comedic persona.”

 The Passing of Cultural Icons and Celebrities

        When we are young, we feel invulnerable and that we will live forever. Unrealistically, we see death as no match for us. In our later year’s as aging baby boomers, we begin to see death close up, through the passing of our older parents, siblings, co-workers, friends and sometimes even our children.  Health conditions continually remind us of our impending mortality. 

        As we look at the passing of Neil Armstrong and Phyllis Diller, their impressive life stories should give us confirmation of their major impact on our culture. Their passing become “mortality markers” subtly giving us the gentle message that “generations come and go” and that we, like them, will not live forever.  Time becomes the most valuable commodity that we carry throughout our lives.

          If we use time wisely, we can better use our remaining days to make a positive difference in our community, whether it be through the professions we chose or simply our outlook on life to those around us.    Armstrong, to take mankind to where it has never has been –  Diller to make us laugh to forget the pains of life.

         Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.
Additional information about Armstrong is available on the Web at: