Family act the Cowsills will perform in Phoenix as part of the Happy Together Tour.
In the late ‘60s, the Cowsills were the image of the ideal all-American family. The musical group — five teen brothers performing with their mom and adorable little sister — scored three major pop hits between 1967 and 1969. They hosted their own network-TV special and made the variety-show rounds. They did milk commercials for the American Dairy Association, and you can’t get much more wholesome than that.
Heck, they even served as the inspiration for TV’s “The Partridge Family.”
But there was a dark undercurrent beneath the sunshine pop and giddy harmonies. The group splintered apart and fell out of fashion in the early ‘70s. Later came allegations of abuse at the hands of Bud Cowsill, the family patriarch, who died in 1992. Among members, there were problems with addiction and substance abuse. Barry died at age 50 in 2005; brother Bill died a few months later at age 58.
These days, the band features Paul, Bob and baby sister Susan, not such a baby anymore at age 58. And while the group’s backstory is certainly far from sunshine and roses — the 2011 documentary “Family Band: The Cowsills Story” is particularly harrowing — Paul takes a mellower approach to the group’s history.
“It’s a big family,” Paul says, calling from a tour stop in California. “We had a lot of personalities: Some gelled, some didn’t. I’ve always been about being positive. I know what’s important in my life. I have two incredible kids, two grandchildren and I get to live on a farm in Oregon. It’s wonderful.”
The documentary, which was made with the participation of the family, paints a portrait of young men with dreams of rock credibility until Bud shoved Susan and mom Barbara in the group. The Cowsills were popular in teen magazines but with “serious” rock fans? Not so much.
“I think Bill and Barry just had tragic souls, and were thinking way too hard about everything,” he says. “Music is just music. It’s not a religion. My perspective was always that music makes me really happy and look who I’m doing it with.”
But come on: It’s the psychedelic ’60s and you’re in a band with your mom?
“Yeah, Mom and Dad were always around and it was crazy,” he says with a chuckle. “Who wants your mom and dad around at that age?”
That killed any chance of the critical respect Barry and Bill craved.
“That got them kind of down,” Paul says. “You know: ‘We’re not cool. Nobody likes us.’ Bill wanted to have a Beatle band and a Rolling Stone band. He was the oldest, but for me, it was good. I was always proud to be a Cowsill.”
Paul says there’s not much friction in the current lineup. He’s 65 and Bob is 67. Most nights on the road, they travel back to the ‘60s, when songs like the gauzy “The Rain, the Park & Other Things” and the title song from Broadway’s “Hair,” both million-sellers, made them stars.
“We’ve never been the type of band where it’s like, ‘Oh, I hate doing ‘Hair.’ It’s just not us,” Paul says. “Even though we’ve sung those songs thousands of times, every night is a whole new experience. Me and my brother and sister are really tight right now and the crowds are amazing, and it’s just full-tilt boogie.”
This marks the group’s third year with the Happy Together Tour, which gathers acts that peaked in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The tour will play the Celebrity Theatre on July 21. They travel by bus around the country.
“Dude, the guy who sleeps across the aisle from me is Chuck Negron,” Paul enthuses, talking about the former Three Dog Night singer. “We watch the Association from backstage and we sing along. It’s almost like all these groups we thought we weren’t cool enough to play with. It gives me goosebumps.”
Last year, Cowsill brother John (he’s been the drummer for the Beach Boys for 17 years) reunited with the family for one show in California. It was both happy and sad.
“It was bittersweet, because we have family who are no longer with us, but the Happy Together Tour makes us feel like we’ve made it,” Paul says. “We’ve had a second career. We persevered and persevered and we always believed and now it’s happened. And it’s sad because so many people die so early in life.”
Barbara, the family matriarch, moved to Mesa in the ‘80s; she died in the Valley in 1985. She was 56.
“My mom was a big baseball fan and my son got drafted by the California Angels, and she never lived to see that,” Paul says. “But when we’re up there singing, we don’t feel like they’re really dead. They seem to be omnipresent all the time. Sometimes good things will happen, and I think, ‘Oh, I guess maybe Bill or Barry sent that down for us.’”
‘Happy Together’ Tour
What: An evening featuring the Cowsills, the Turtles, the Association, Chuck Negron, the Box Tops and Ron Dante.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, July 21.
Where: Celebrity Theatre: 440 N. 32nd St., Phoenix.
Details: 602-267-1600, celebritytheatre.com.
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