By Eleni P. Austin
Five years ago, Derrick Anderson released his solo debut, A World Of My Own. The 12-song set is brilliant front to back and remains in heavy rotation here at the maxi-pad. But the song that gets the most repeat action is a winsome number entitled “A Mother’s Love.” A sunshiny slice of Power Pop, it’s buoyed by the beatific harmonies of three Cowsill siblings.
The Cowsills, in case you didn’t know, were a family band out of Newport, Rhode Island, and were the inspiration for the hit TV series, The Partridge Family. Much like the rest of America, oldest brothers Bill, Bob and Barry had their minds blown by The Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. By the following year, the preternaturally talented trio became The Cowsills, with Bill and Bob on guitars and Barry on drums. Soon enough, Barry switched to bass and younger brother John took his place behind the drum kit. The four-piece began making a name for themselves locally.
After their father, Bud, retired from the Navy, he took over managing the band and they secured a regular gig at Bannisters Wharf playing hit songs of the era, and plenty of Beatles covers. They recorded a handful of singles for an independent label. Once they hired Leonard Stogel as their manager, they signed with MGM Records. Their mother Barbara joined the band right before they recorded their first hit single, “The Rain, The Park & Other Things. Released in 1967, the only thing that kept it from reaching #1 was The Monkees’ Daydream Believer.
Between 1967 and 1970, The band, which grew to include younger siblings Paul and Susan, went on to record five albums for MGM. (Although Bob’s fraternal twin, Richard, exhibited just as much musical talent as his other family members, Bud excluded him from the band. Their dad ruled with an iron fist, literally. Apparently, he was cut from the same cloth as The Beach Boys’ overbearing father/manager, Murry Wilson).
The Cowsills reached the upper echelons of the charts three more times, hitting #7 with their sunny original, “We Can Fly,” the treacly “Indian Lake,” (foisted on them by Bud), made it to #10. Their iconic take on “Hair,” which was produced and arranged by Bill and Bob, shot up to #2. Left to their own devices, Bill and Bob had become exceptionally talented songwriters, creating music that split the difference between Psychedelia and Sunshine Pop. Following one too many clashes with his dad, Bud kicked Bill out of the band. Bob dutifully soldiered on with the rest of family. By this time, they had relocated to Santa Monica, California. TV executives spent time with the band, intent on crafting a sitcom tailored to their musical strengths. While the network was happy to cast the kids as themselves, they insisted Shirley Jones portray the Mom character based on Barbara Cowsill. When the family balked at that suggestion, the network cast singing actors, including future teen heartthrob, David Cassidy, and The Partridge Family ran on ABC for four seasons.
Despite the fact that the band averaged 200 live performances a year, by the early ‘70s, they discovered their finances were in a tangle, thanks, primarily to Bud. The Cowsills quietly disbanded and the family members went their separate ways. Bill relocated to Canada and had some modest success with his band, The Blue Shadows. Other siblings dipped their toes in and out of the music business, and reunited on and off, most prominently with their 1998 album “Global.”
Susan has sustained a career in music, performing with Dwight Twilley in the ‘80s and as a member of The Continental Drifters (which included future sister-in-law, Vicki Peterson of The Bangles, as well as her first husband, ex-dB, Peter Holsapple). She has carved out a intriguing solo career with her second husband, Russ Broussard. The couple live and work in New Orleans, and she has released a couple of excellent solo albums. She’s also collaborated with celebrated singer-songwriters, Freedy Johnston and Jon Dee Graham as The Hobart Brothers And Lil Sis. Barry released a solo album in 2004 and Bob occasionally performs solo sets.
John is also a working musician. For more than 20 years he has pounded the drum kit, played keys and provided backing vocals for Mike Love’s touring version of The Beach Boys. His wife, Vicki Peterson of the Bangles, and Susan have performed on and off as The Psycho Sisters for years, releasing their first album, Up On The Chair Beatrice, in 2014.
The Cowsills have endured their share of heartache. Their mother, Barbara died from emphysema in 1985 and Bud lost his battle with Leukemia in 1992. Tragedy struck in 2005 when Barry was trapped in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. He tried to ride the storm out, but went missing, and then his body was recovered months later. When the family gathered for Barry’s memorial in early 2006, they received word that eldest brother Bill had succumbed to myriad health issues in Canada. Sadly, Richard, who performed on and off with the family (once Bud was out of the picture), passed away in 2014. Of course, their story is told in more poignant and eloquent terms in Louise Palanker’s documentary film, Family Band: The Cowsills.
Happily, for the last several summers, siblings Bob, Paul, Susan and occasionally John, perform together as part of Happy Together, an annual package tour with The Turtles and several vintage bands from the ‘60s. Recently, Bob, Paul and Susan collaborated on their first new music in decades. Although it was delayed a bit due to the pandemic, their new 11-song set, Rhythm Of The World has just been released. The album opens with a couple of anthemic Rockers, first up is “Ya Gotta Get Up.” Anchored by vroom-y bass lines plinky keys, rollicking guitars and a walloping beat, the siblings start off in sync before trading lines on the chorus. Motivational lyrics offer up a Hang In There, Baby, philosophy that is tough to resist. Susan’s warm contralto goes it alone on the bridge; “Watching, waiting…. timing is everything, but ya gotta be willing to play, so hold on, yeah, hold on, you’re risking everything so you can touch the golden day.” On the break, the beat accelerates, pounding out a punishing salvo, followed by wily bass and a skittery guitars. Crunchy percussion envelopes Bob, Paul and Susan as they repeat the chorus like a mantra, before the song quietly powers down.
As though someone has spun the radio dial, “Lend A Hand” leaps out of the speakers even before the previous song recedes. Threading bass lines partner with jingle-jangle guitars, swelling synthesizers, plush organ and a propulsive beat. Bob’s still-boyish tenor is out front, as lyrics urge us to step out of our collective comfort zone, replace judgement with compassion and advocate for those less fortunate. He easily slips into the skin of a person who must rely on the streets; “I don’t want to be on this street corner flyin’ my signs, I’m all out of pride, I don’t have anything that’s mine, I had a lot of plans like you, then I fell on hard times, saw them all fall through… Life’s so short, there’s so little time, it’s not black and white, you don’t know my mind, tried so hard to make to make it all right, but slipped in the cracks that were in plain sight.” Spitfire guitar licks and pliant keys speedshift on the break, but ultimately, it’s their beatific harmonic blend that really resonates.
Bob and Paul each take the lead on a couple of tracks apiece. On the yearning “Largo Nights” a romantic rapprochement that is powered by chiming, 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, lean bass lines, sturdy electric and acoustic rhythm riffs, lush keys, percolating congas and a junky backbeat. It’s equal parts sleek and shaggy. If AM Pop radio was still a thing, this song could sandwich easily between Fleetwood Mac and The Byrds. Bob’s lonesome vocals are suffused in longing, as he tries to reconnect with a lost love; “Friend said you’re missing me, feeling blue ‘bout everything since you left, I’ve been missing you, I was wrong…. my mistake…. now you’re gone, that’s the price I pay for these lonely, lonely days.”
“The Long Run” matches a swoony synth fanfare with ringing Rickenbacker riffs, barbed bass and a thunky beat. Although it shares its title with The Eagles’ smug 1979 hit, Bob displays none of none of that laid-back complacency. His angsty mien on the verses is mirrored by the jittery instrumentation; “I was looking for a way to find a better place and a time where I could deal with it all, I can only survive with you, I’ll bide my time, I don’t care for how long, and so I’ll take my chances on the long run, and I’ll take my chances and get to you.” That diffidence melts away by the chorus, as their symbiotic harmonies take flight. Guitars collide and coalesce on the break as a stompy rhythm takes hold and the song glides to a close.
Meanwhile, Paul attempts to mend fences on the Fab Four-flavored “Goodbye’s Not Forever.” Wistful keys ebb and flow across a crush of guitars, tensile bass and a snapback beat. Lyrics advocate for redemption and second chances; “There will come a time when then this time’s over, I’ll pick you up, you’ll be a few years older, we’ll travel together, we’ll be side by side, I’m sorry I made you cry.” On the break, prickly lead guitar is supplanted by spiraling rhythm guitar riffs just before the trio’s majestic harmonies usher the song to a close.
If Beach Boys ever collaborated with N.R.B.Q, it might sound something like “Try To Believe It Too.” Paul attempts a bit of romantic subterfuge involving a former-flame. His sanguine vocals are buoyed by rippling guitar riffs, loose-limbed bass, swirly Hammond B3 and a brawny backbeat. But he reveals his insecurities with a roundabout request; “You see I was tellin’ my friends down the street, that you were my baby, they said they’d sure like to meet you, and I told them maybe, so could you lie and tell them you need me, that I am the only one for you, could you tell a lie and try to believe it too?”
The best tracks here, stack back-to-back, beginning with “Hawks On The Line.” Surprising Spaghetti Western guitar riffs ride roughshod over descending bass lines, chugging keys and a locomotive rhythm. Lonesome lyrics limn the loss and heartache this family has endured, framing it as a recollection of happier days; “When my mind turns me home down that old farm road, I remember those days how free we felt, every day on our ride, we’d look up at the line, there’d be 10 hawks watchin’ in a row, and as I look back on those memories of mine, I’ll always remember those hawks on the line.” Harmonies shapeshift, almost mimicking moments of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, along with the unmitigated joy of shared remembrance.
“Every Little Secret Thing,” an elastic little rocker, is fueled by sitar-iffic guitars, crushed velvet keys, spidery bass, twinkling percussion and a driving beat. The lyrics pull no punches, admonishing a friend who is compelled by temptation and avarice; “Playing with fire in a dangerous game, dodge a bullet…cover up your tracks…play in the shadows of a sidebar, don’t let it show, you wear a poker face…you’d give up everything for just a taste, don’t get discovered…lays it all to waste.” Even as the trio’s ethereal harmonies dovetail, the urgent arrangement and muscular instrumentation can’t camouflage feelings of anger, betrayal and loss.
Meanwhile, “Nuclear Winter” weds an angular pogo rhythm to darting keys, boinging bass and slashing guitars. Lyrics take aim at a political agenda intent on dividing the country; “I read the morning paper…I can’t believe it’s true, when the left says they’re right and the right thinks the left is to blame/I watch their anger grow….what if they lose control/All I know is that things get a little bit worse every day, there’s something that’s going on….I get the feeling that it won’t be long, ‘til the world is wound up so tight it’s ready to break.” Guitars spit and snarl on the break, walking a tightrope between Punk and Power Pop, bookended by a bellicose backbeat.
Finally, Susan steps into the spotlight on the title track. Knotty guitar chords (which share some musical DNA with the classic Plimsouls cut, “Inch By Inch”), cut across some shivery hi-hat action, jaggy rhythm guitar riffs, phased synths and a clip-clop beat. Something of an eco-warrior’s lament, the lyrics urge us to stop taking the planet for granted and “Pay attention to the light outside how it moves through the sky, let it serve to remind that there’s this planet where we all get to live, it can’t take too much more, something big’s gotta give, there’s a billion stars up in the sky, telling all their secrets to the night.” Things get kaleidoscopic on the break, as the tilt-a-whirling Rickenbacker, polychromatic keys, whirring bass are fueled by a delirious backbeat. It’s a Psychedelic-Sunshine Pop triumph.
The album closes with its magnum opus, “Katrina.” Opening with filigreed acoustic fretwork, the instrumentation expands and contracts, layering in heart-pounding percussion, crashing cymbals, roaring keys, whiplash guitars and agitated bass. It nearly emulates the chaos and verisimilitude of a category 5 hurricane. The frenetic saga is from Barry’s perspective; “It’s not like I was scared, not like in a panic…but I didn’t know what I was in for.” Even as the arrangement descends into a cyclonic maelstrom, their hushed and familial harmonies attempt to cradle and cocoon their brother. It’s a brave, beautiful, ragged but right, complex elegy to a magnetic man, gone too soon.
The Cowsills have weathered some storms, spiritually, emotionally and otherwise. Although their numbers have diminished, they’ve persevered. Even after half a century of making music, their indelible harmonies remain irresistible. Rhythm Of The World marks the triumphant return of the original family band.