Who was the youngest person to perform on a U.S. top ten hit record? Thinking Michael Jackson or Little Jimmy Osmond? No, it was Susan Cowsill, 56 today, of The Cowsills – a family band that proved you could make psychedelic music even while promoting milk for the American Dairy Association. Susan had just turned 9 when she sang background vocals on the group’s “Indian Lake,” which reached #10 on the Billboard charts in 1968.
The Cowsills’ original lineup featured brothers Bill, Bob, Barry and John. Siblings Susan and Paul, plus mom Barbara (known as “Mini-Mom for her short stature), joined the group after their breakthrough hit, “The Rain, The Park & Other Things.” Released during the height of psychedelia in 1967, this dreamy song about a “flower girl” reached #2 on the Billboard charts and spent 16 weeks in the Top 100. (It was written by Artie Kornfield and Steve Duboff.) The Cowsills’ other big hit was the title song from “Hair,” the hippie-dippy rock musical written by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot. It spent two weeks at #1 on the Cash Box Top 100 and reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. And, like all the bands of that era, they released an album with a really groovy title: “Captain Sad and his Ship of Fools.”
The entire Cowsill family was involved in act. Bob’s twin brother Richard acted as road manager and family patriarch Bud served as manager.
Based on this charming scenario and the group’s popularity at that time, the Screen Gems production company planned to develop a TV series about a musical family starring the Cowsill kids. But the deal fell through when studio execs insisted that Oscar award-winning singer/actress Shirley Jones play the part of the mother. Thus, the show became “The Partridge Family,” starring Ms. Jones and her teen idol stepson David Cassidy.
The fictitious Partridges ended up getting along much better than the family that inspired the characters. By 1973, internal squabbling had taken its toll, and the siblings began moving on to other projects. Today, Bob, Paul and Susan perform once a month as The Cowsills, but they mainly work independently. Susan has provided backing vocals on more than 200 albums by artists such as Paul Simon, the Smithereens and Hootie and the Blowfish. She released her first solo album, “Just Believe It,” in 2005, and her second, “Lighthouse,” in 2010. She and her band appeared in an episode of the HBO series “Treme” in 2011. John has been touring with The Beach Boys since 2000. Bob works in the software industry and Paul is a farmer. Barbara, Bud, Barry and Bill are all deceased.
Okay, call me square, but I’ve loved this song since it debuted when I was a kid. Can I help it if I have eclectic taste in music? Besides, it’s a first-cousin to Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).” Susan is pictured in the video playing tambourine, although she didn’t sing on the record.
Check out this color clip of The Cowsills’ trippy performance of “Hair” – the song from the groundbreaking Broadway musical. Susan is famous for her line in the song: “and spaghetti’d”. Wow, I remember wearing outfits like that! Headbands, love beads, the whole works. What fun to be a kid in the groovy ’60s.
© Dana Spiardi, May 20, 2015