The story of Barry Cowsill comes to us from the long and tragic file of former teen idols. Barry was the drummer and bassist for late ‘60s family band, the Cowsills. In 1965, brothers Bill, Bob and Barry began performing together for the tourists who flocked to their hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. Barry was eleven at the time.
Early festival appearances led to a brief spot on The Today Show, a short-lived deal with Phillips and, subsequently, a far more lucrative deal with MGM. By 1967, the Cowills’ roster had expanded to include 5 siblings and mother Barbara, with father John channeling his military experience into management. That year, the Cowsills hit #2 on the charts with “The Rain, the Park and Other Things,” which (I hope) you will remember from the kung-fu fantasy sequence in Dumb and Dumber.
This was followed by another million-seller in the bubblegum Beach Boys rip, “Indian Lake,” complete with a so-naive-it-might-not-even-be-racist war-whoop.
Bubblegum Blows Up
The individual members of the Cowsills bristled for greater rock and rock credibility, especially Barry. But their sweet harmonies and youthful appearance shoehorned them perfectly into the post-Monkees era of semi-psychedelic confections made by bubblegum groups like the Archies, the Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Company.
The Cowsills Get Hairy
In 1968, the Cowsills reached greater audiences yet with the title tune for the naked hippie musical, Hair. The song earned the family band another #2 hit. Still, if Hair was a daring and provocative statement in the world of theater, those in the counterculture viewed it with cynicism. To wit, John Lennon called the soundtrack “dull” and remarked “I do not know any musician who thinks it’s good.”
Hey, I Think I Love You…But Not As Much As These Guys
Regardless of Lennon’s opinion, television executives loved what they heard, enough to audition the Cowsills for their own singing family band primetime television show.
Well, it turned out that they loved the idea of the Cowsills, but they didn’t so much love the Cowsills themselves. ABC network execs felt the Cowsills were simply too old and opted for a faux-family band featuring David Cassidy, Susan Dey and Danny Bonaduce. The Partridge Family debuted in 1970, released their first single– “I Think I Love You”–and quickly topped the charts.
As a consolation prize, The Cowsills recorded the theme song for ABC’s Love American Style. If you’ve never seen the show, you’ve never heard the theme.
As you can hear, the theme song ages almost as poorly as Indian war-whooping. It would also be the last gasp for the Cowsills. When John Cowsill caught young Bill smoking a joint backstage during a show in 1972, he pulled his son’s guitar out of the car, kicked Bill out of the band and exiled him from the family.
The Cowsills splintered. Each of its members pursued various musical endeavors and chemical dependencies over the next several decades.
In a case of life imitating art imitating life, the Partridge Family went off the air in 1974, felled by time-slot competitor and beloved bigot Archie Bunker, leaving stars Cassidy and Bonaduce to descend into their own respective post teen idol substance abuse problems.
Bubblegum Loses Its Flavor
As for the Cowsills, the next several decades would bring an array of reunion performances and, for some of the siblings, steady involvement in their own touring bands.
Sadly, brother Barry could never reconcile the critical disregard suffered by his family band. Nor could he ever quite shake the feeling that the Cowsills deserved to be seen as a serious rock band.
But the Partridge Family simply maxed out the potential of the bubblegum formula. After that, artists like the Cowsills were seen as irrelevant to the world outside of retro train-car style diner jukeboxes.
The Rain, the Dark, and Other Things
Barry’s later years were marked by alcoholism. He was also one of the lesser-publicized casualties of Hurricane Katrina. Barry Cowsill became one of the innumerable musical treasures washed away by the floodwaters in New Orleans.
His body surfaced two months later on the banks of the Mississippi. Drowning was declared the official cause of death.
That said, a mysterious plaque appeared on an oak-tree near his home in New Orleans declaring “In honor of Barry Cowsill, who died a true genius on the levee, Sept. 2, 2005.”
Barry’s own necklace was wrapped around the plaque, leading his sister Susan to conclude that her brother had erected the monument himself before voluntarily submitting to the flood at age 50.
At a memorial service for Barry in 2005, the family received a phone call and learned that Bill Cowsill had passed away from emphysema complications that very same day.
Bob Cowsill and his remaining siblings continue to tour both in oldies packages and in their own separate bands.
That was heavy. Let’s finish on a high note. Below are the Best Bubblegum Pop Oldies, a sugary mess of teen harmonies, fuzzy guitars, and ace session arrangement. Welcome to the sunshine-smile-time-paisly-daisy-flower-hour.