Seeking refuge from the complexity of these troubled times? Polygram has found a place that’s simple, sweet and comforting: a little harp glissando here, a glockenspiel tingling there, all in a veritable musical oasis from yesteryear. Welcome to the nostalgically happy sounds of the late 1960s and early 1970s as performed by America’s original coed musical family the Cowsills. Was life easier then? It sure sounds like it.
What you get here is a nice (though not comprehensive) collection of the Cowsills’ own brand of soft pop stylings, well mastered and covering most of their big hits, a nice holiday gift for the casual fan. They were the bona fide thing: a wholesome family who wrote most of their own songs, played their own instruments and sang with multi-layered angelic harmonies that seemed like bottled sunshine.
The Cowsills were the real-life inspiration for television’s Partridge Family. Siblings Bill, Bob, Barry, John, Susan and Paul joined their mom Barbara in crafting harmonic pop a la the Mamas & the Papas, the Association and the Beach Boys. Bill and Bob were the first musicians, playing guitar together and singing in the manner of the Everly Brothers. As the British invasion hit the U.S., the need for a foursome convinced them to teach younger brothers Barry and John to play bass and drums, respectively.
Soon, school dances all around Newport, Rhode Island, featured the teen quartet. After landing a regular gig at a local club, the foursome recorded a single that went largely ignored. After an appearance on NBC’s The Today Show, the group signed with Mercury, but the three singles that followed generated little enthusiasm and lackluster sales.
However, when a producer at Mercury convinced mother Barbara to join in with vocal support, something definitely clicked. They landed a new record deal with MGM and this new recording session yielded “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”, released as a single in 1967. The wholesome family image proved popular, and the hit sold over a million copies, reaching the number two spot on the national charts. Their self-titled LP followed and two additional Cowsills were added to the musical team: Susan and Paul. The seven Cowsills had a second hit with “We Can Fly” in 1968 and “Indian Lake” landed in the Top Ten later that year.
In the summer of love, the clean-cut Cowsill family scored their single biggest chart hit yet, recording their version of the title song from the rock musical Hair. This anthem to the wonders of hair allowed all family members a chance to shine, harmonies weaving in and out impressively (though I’ve always been bothered by the lyric—“It’s not for lack of bread, like the Grateful Dead”—as if Garcia, Lesh et al couldn’t afford a haircut). Success and popularity (including requisite Ed Sullivan Show appearances) followed, and some folks from Columbia Pictures’ television division thought it might prove inspired to create a show based on the Cowsills’ lives. Writers were sent to observe the musical family, but nothing came of it.
The idea later was turned into the germ of the fictional Partridge Family series in 1970, which made its on-air debut at about the same time that the Cowsills’ star was beginning to fade. After another LP in 1971, the Cowsills ceased to appear as a group. Bill Cowsill went on to do a solo LP later that year (from which the song “When Everybody’s Here” is included on this collection).
Though sadly Barbara Cowsill passed away early in 1985, many of the Cowsills remain musically active. Barry Cowsill had a solo career, Bill founded the country group Blue Shadows, and Susan is an integral part of The Continental Drifters, along with husband Peter Holsapple and ex-Bangle Vicki Peterson. Additionally, four of the Cowsills (Bob, John, Susan and Paul) released a studio album of new songs in 1998.
A pleasant addition to Polygram’s “20th Century Masters” series, The Best of the Cowsills: The Millennium Collection includes all the above-mentioned hits and then some. This is a different compilation than previous ones from MGM and Rebound, and the dozen here do fill some gaps, including “Most of All”, the group’s very first single, and precious mono “45rpm single” mixes of hits “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” and “We Can Fly”.
You also get the odd musical quasi-religious ramblings of “The Prophecy of Daniel and John the Divine (Six-Six-Six)” which proclaims: “six is the number of a man” and a nice stereo mix of the country-tinged “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”. Another nostalgic treat here is the mono mix inclusion of The Cowsills’ theme song for TV’s “Love American Style” (where else can you find such patriotism as “And on a star-spangled night my love, you can rest your head on my shoulder, while by the dawn’s early light, my love, I will defend your right to cry”). I defy you not to be awash in memories when you hear that one, fireworks and all.
Bubblegum and yet more than that, they were sweet without being insipid and soft and light but with musical merit. Their harmonies turned sometimes-questionable lyrics into very listenable music, even in the face of musical arrangements that sometimes seemed little more than a spruced up David Seville and the Chipmunks.
The photos included in this new compilation capture that wonderful simpler era: matching suits as well as the gazebo set from a TV appearance. It’s comforting to hear this music again, and I suspect that others might agree. While hardcore Cowsill fans (they do exist) might desire a lengthier, more extensive compilation, most will find this set a wonderful way to access distant memories.
// Notes from the Road
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