SOME GOOD YEARS: Blitz Magazine joined the Cowsills in celebration after the veteran band's performance at the Ritz Theare in Tiffin, Ohio on 07 April. Standing, left to right: Blitz Magazine Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell, Michigan Music's Mike Jackson. Seated, left to right: The Cowsills' lead guitarist Bob Cowsill, rhythm guitarist Susan Cowsill and front man Paul Cowsill (Click on above image to enlarge).

By Michael McDowell

What Is Happy?

The Cowsills posed the question in that 1968 cut from their We Can Fly album, which is rife with the trademark blissful vocal harmonies that have characterized their vast and diverse repertoire for more than a half century. And on 07 April, the veteran family band once again underscored the point before a near capacity crowd at the Ritz Theatre in Tiffin, Ohio. 

With a set that balanced familiar originals, sympathetic cover material and a generous helping of the band's unique sense of humor, the Cowsills captivated their audience decisively through an hour and a half, seventeen song set, earning multiple standing ovations in the process.

If a seventeen song set list seems sparse within the prescribed time frame, it is because the transitions were anything but what (in the parlance of radio) would be referred to as "dead air". On the contrary, their nonstop in jokes and one liners (most of which were born of archetypal sibling rivalry and revelry) were both universal in their appeal and sufficient to sustain their momentum.

Opening with their beloved 1967 MGM Records single, The Rain, The Park And Other Things, the Cowsills carried the "happy" of that track with them throughout the first half of their set, which also included two of their most enduring 1968 singles for the label, We Can Fly and the utterly stupendous vocal workout, Indian Lake. They were augmented most capably by spot on renditions of We Five's You Were On My Mind, Simon And Garfunkel's The Boxer, the Beatles' This Boy, Lulu's To Sir, With Love and the Hollies' Bus Stop.

From the onset, diversity has been a byword within the band's recorded and on stage legacy. To that effect, the second half of their set broke rank with convention and opened with what was arguably the highlight of the evening. A four-song acoustic segment rendered solely by band mainstays Paul Cowsill (who currently serves as front man) and guitarists Bob and Susan Cowsill (all of whom contribute vocals) was a combined tribute to the Gospel and folk roots. 

The segment opener, Samson And Delilah, chronicles the tragic life of Samson, as detailed in Judges 13-16 in the Old Testament of the Bible. Also known as If I Had My Way, that impassioned Gospel raver has been recorded by such beloved greats as Blind Willie Johnson, Reverend Gary Davis, Dave Van Ronk, the Grateful Dead, the Blasters and Peter, Paul And Mary. It is the latter version that apparently most resonated with the Cowsills, with their duly inspired soaring three-part harmonies bearing witness accordingly.

While perhaps not as anointed spiritually as that stunning opener, the remaining three offerings from their acoustic segment, Peter, Paul And Mary's Puff The Magic Dragon (complete with pertinent theatrics by Paul and Susan Cowsill), Trini Lopez's If I Had A Hammer and Crosby, Stills And Nash's Helplessly Hoping (referred to by Susan Cowsill as "MY folk music") were nonetheless equally well received.

With the remaining band members (Paul's son Brendon Cowsill on guitar, Bob's son Ryan Cowsill on keyboards, Susan's husband Russ Broussard on drums and long time bassist Mary Lasseigne) then returning for the home stretch, the Cowsills rallied by once again confounding expectations. Long credited as the inspiration for the acclaimed 1970-1974 ABC Television series, The Partridge Family, (underscored by the fact that the late Tony Romeo, who wrote several of the Partridge Family's best known tracks, also composed Indian Lake) the Cowsills returned the compliment with a moving tribute to the late Partridge Family front man, David Cassidy via an emotional and impeccable rendition of their 1970 Bell label signature single, I Think I Love You.

Once again raising the "happy" quotient for the finale, the Cowsills reprised their 1969 MGM label rendition of the theme song of the ABC Television series, Love American Style, which was originally issued as the flip side of their ambitious take on the Springfields' Silver Threads And Golden Needles. A few bars of the 1965 McCoys standard, Hang On Sloopy followed as a tribute of sorts to the host venue (that Bert Berns-penned and often covered standard has long been an integral part of sporting events at Ohio State University in neighboring Columbus), which served as a stirring segue before deferring to a rare moment of high drama with their faithful reading of the Four Tops' Reach Out, I'll Be There (which the band had committed to record on their The Cowsills In Concert album for MGM in 1969), followed by the evening's closer, their 1969 signature single, Hair.

Interestingly enough, the aforementioned album track, What Is Happy? ultimately became the flip side of Hair upon its release as a single. And while that sentiment most definitely resonated with those in attendance, there was nonetheless an undercurrent of sadness among some when taking into consideration the Cowsills' overall legacy. Family matriarch Barbara Cowsill (who served as a vocalist with the band throughout their tenure with both MGM and London Records) succumbed to a lengthy illness in February 1985 at age fifty-six. In turn, long time band bassist Barry Cowsill was a victim of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy in New Orleans, Louisiana in August 2005, drowning at age fifty. The band's one time road manager, brother Richard Cowsill also died in July 2014.

Tragically, original Cowsills front man Bill Cowsill passed away in February 2006 in his adopted home town of Vancouver, British Columbia. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bill Cowsill was the mastermind behind the acclaimed Blue Northern, who recorded an album, a twelve-inch EP and several singles for Polydor. Blue Northern's sublime Searchers-flavored Can't Make No Sense and Hank Williams-inspired Vagabond were among the finest tracks of the era. Blitz Magazine was immeasurably blessed to have spent an afternoon discussing music with Bill Cowsill in Vancouver in 1988, five years before he once again returned to form with two albums for the like minded and extraordinary Blue Shadows for Columbia.

Nonetheless, the Cowsills' relentless optimism was sufficient to keep the overall proceedings at the Ritz Theatre uplifting. If indeed there were any regrets, they would have been in the fact that a wealth of material was omitted from the performance for the sake of time.

Among the more obvious selections that would have been more than welcome would have been the band's Bill and Bob Cowsill-penned 1965 garage rocking debut single for Johnny Nash's Joda label, All I Really Wanta Be Is Me, Bill Cowsill's academically-inclined 1968 In Need Of A Friend single for MGM (the title of which Bill Cowsill once explained to Blitz Magazine as, "I was an English major!"), John Cowsill's exuberant solo single, The Path Of Love (John Cowsill presently serves as drummer for the Beach Boys), pretty much any track from Susan Cowsill's 2004 Just Believe It album for Blue Rose or the Cowsills' game changing 1998 Global album for Robin Records (which was among Blitz Magazine's picks for the five best albums of the 1990s), and the 1968 Cowsills single that set the absolute standard of excellence in vocal harmony euphoria, Poor Baby.

"If you like Poor Baby, wait until you hear our new album", said Paul Cowsill after the show.


Indeed, the good times continued after the show, as Paul, Bob and Susan Cowsill greeted a sizeable group of well wishers in the lobby. Many of those in attendance brought items from their personal archives in the hopes of having them autographed, including a copy of their 1966 Philips label single, Most Of All (with picture sleeve), as well as a German pressing of their 1967 debut album and a tour program from the band's tenure with MGM.

Most assuredly, in terms of What Is Happy?, the band has answered (and personified) their own question.