Thursday, March 5, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The Rain, the park and other things
Interview with Joan Rivers
When the decomposed body of 51-year-old Barry Cowsill surfaced at the Chartres Street Wharf in New Orleans four months after his disappearance during Hurricane Katrina, the news stunned fans who remembered him and the Cowsills.
It created a flood of memories of the clean-cut family of singers and their mother who inspired the TV series “The Partridge Family.”
Even though they had only a handful of hits — “Hair,” “We Can Fly,” “Indian Lake,” “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” — the Cowsills were one of the most recognizable groups from the late ’60s and early ’70s.
A second member of the group died soon after. Brother Bill, who had been the group’s lead singer, died at age 58 at his home in Calgary, Alberta, in February 2006. He suffered from emphysema and other ailments.
“The family was literally at Newport, R.I., preparing to have Barry’s memorial service,” brother Bob, 58, said during a telephone interview from his office in San Gabriel, Calif. “That night we had a celebration of two lives — Barry’s and Bill’s.”
The brothers’ deaths sparked the family’s interest in a rebirth of the Cowsills, who parted ways as a group in 1972.
“We all stayed under the radar after the breakup. We were active individually but not as the Cowsills,” Bob says. “When Barry and Bill died, it had a profound effect on all of us. Any event of that nature would drive grieving family members together, and that did.”
The Cowsills have since been performing 20 or so engagements a year. The 2009 tour marks the 40th anniversary of the group’s hit “Hair.”
The Cowsills will perform at the Suncoast this weekend. The group features original members Bob, Susan and Paul along with Susan’s husband, Russ Broussard on drums; Bob’s son Ryan on keyboards; Paul’s son Brendon on rhythm guitar; and Tad Armstrong on bass.
Brother John was the original drummer, but he has been with the Beach Boys for 10 years after playing with Jan and Dean for 12 years.
The Cowsills are still relatively young, compared with other dinosaurs from that era who are still touring. “I was only 17 when we started,” Bob says. “Susan was 7, so we still have a little bit of youth to us.”
The Cowsills’ name remained in the public eye (or ear) with reruns of “The Partridge Family” and “Love American Style” — the group sang the theme. Commercials and movies also have used the group’s music; Jim Carrey’s “Dumb and Dumber” included “The Rain, the Park and Other Things.”
“Believe it or not ‘Dumb and Dumber’ introduced us to an entire new generation,” says Bob, who has had a successful career in the software industry after giving up music.
The Cowsills’ star was like a super nova, shining briefly but brightly before exploding.
They shared the pop idol spotlight with the Osmonds and the Jackson 5. Encouraged by their career-Navy father, William “Bud” Cowsill, Bob and Bill started it all singing covers of the Everly Brothers.
“Bill and I began working together when we were 7 and 8 years old,” Bob says. “Our first gig was a duet for the Newport Women’s Guild. We were paid 10 bucks.”
Younger brothers Barry and John joined them at the dawning of the Beatle invasion and they performed at school and church functions in their native Newport.
Their mother, Barbara, who died in 1985, joined the group in 1967 and sang on their first hit, “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” — just in time for the Summer of Love.
“We were in the middle of the ’60s’ birth of rock ’n’ roll,” Bob says.
The Cowsills were among the top artists of the late ’60s when a small group of TV executives, including a 20-something Michael Eisner, visited them at home in Santa Monica. The group’s story inspired the producers to create “The Partridge Family,” which starred Shirley Jones, David Cassidy, Danny Bonaduce and Susan Dey.
“We were real musicians, not pop, fluffy stuff like ‘The Partridge Family,’ ” Bob says. “We were unfairly grouped over in the bubble gum side rather than rightly grouped in the power pop side. We have had to fight the image at the same time we are embracing the image.”
When they broke up a couple of years later, Bill formed the country group Blue Shadows, Susan joined the Continental Drifters, and Barry just drifted, performing here and there as he battled drug abuse and mental illness.
The group’s demise happened suddenly.
“It didn’t end well,” Bob says. “To be candid, the start of the breakup was the day Dad caught Bill smoking pot — a Sunday in Santa Monica, when ‘Hair’ was No. 1 on the charts. We were headed for the airport to fly to Annapolis, Md., to start our tour. My nutty father kicked Bill out of the band — he was military all the way, with 20 years in the Navy.
“Bill took his guitars out of the car and he was kicked out of the band and the family right there. We had to go to the airport without him.”
Bob is critical of his father, who died in 1992 of cancer. The Cowsills haven’t made any residual money from their hit songs, which are owned by the record company Universal.
He says the group has considered filing lawsuits to try and get some money from their old recordings. With the Cowsills back onstage, Bob says the value of their older material is being enhanced and it’s unfair for Universal to benefit at the expense of the family.
A documentary about the Cowsills should be finished within six months.
“It’s an incredible story,” Bob says. “All the money that was lost. Dad was uneducated and in over his head yet he took us right to the top in the late ’60s — but it was difficult to stay on top. It was a heady time. But we were holding our own against the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas and the Byrds. We were doing OK.”
And they’re still doing OK.
“It’s like a family reunion now. We’ve had a blast. People are enjoying the shows. We’re performing at Disney World and a lot of other places. It’s fun and we’re making people feel good.”