Speaking of Singing Families…

I’ll one-up the Osmonds with the Cowsills, who could be very good.  The real-life inspiration for the Partridge Family series (and the Osmonds too, I’d guess), they were dismissed as bubble-gum by those who would be cool.  And they were sometimes bubble-gum, but they could also do what I’d consider advanced baroque pop as well as anyone.  No time to hunt down the hidden gems on YouTube today, but they had some very good songs (and plenty of cheese) in addition to their hits.  Below is a live-TV version of their first big hit, preceded by the studio version for reference.   Note how well they nail their vocal harmonies live.  It’s a pretty amazing feat.

11 Replies to “Speaking of Singing Families…”

  1. Great post. I had no idea that the Family Partridge was based upon the
    Rhode Island von Trapps.

    My pursuit of this rich vein turned up their performance of Hair (with wigs). The recording story is fascinating, and included the first 16 track tape machine available in California:

    The process would begin with Bob and Bill explaining the parts for each Cowsill. The family would position themselves in a circle around a tube Neumann U47, which Balestier placed in the center of the room, with Susan up on a stool to allow her to be at the same height as the rest. The younger boys would often pair on one vocal part, with Susan high in the stack, singing the high harmony.

    “We’ve got Susan, Barry and John, me, Paul and Bill, and we got it going,” Bob relates. “The best we ever were going to have, in terms of everyone there and onboard. Group parts would be changed up, with the a cappella stack at the end of the bridge (“Don’t ever have to cut it…” different from that in the intro). “That’s just us working the voices, changing them here. ‘You sing this, we’ll sing that’ kind of thing.”

    Cowsills BVs were also always doubled, with those parts changed up, as well, to create a fuller track. Balestier had his own technique. “For each pass, I would have one mic set up in the center of the room for them, and then I sent that to a Leslie speaker we had for our B3 organ.” The signal from the Leslie’d U47 was then sent to the TTG echo chamber, and its return, plus the original Leslie signal, was recorded to tape, on a separate track from the main vocal mic. Then the process was repeated on a second pass, giving four vocal tracks for backgrounds.

    Was it on brand for a squeaky-clean bubblegum family to cover Hair?
    Not sure, but it was a hit. And no going back, I guess, as the Playboy Mansion performance revealed that Bob Cowsill married a bunny.

  2. Wow, thanks, that’s a nerdogasm of info. It’s amazing how inventive engineers/producers could be in the analog era. I’m guessing that nowadays most of the innovation occurs at the manufacturing/software stage, so producers aren’t forced to get as creative.

    Likewise in the classical realm, some late 50’s/early 60’s recordings made with two or three well-placed mics still arguably have not been equaled.

    I’ve read somewhere that when label bigwigs decided to get out a single of Hair, they liked the contrast of the wholesome Cowsills doing it. And, obviously, the Cowsills had the vocal chops to pull it off.

  3. Yes, their father (mis)managed them for a while and was an abusive alcoholic. At one point he was arrested after one of the sons fought back. A lot of money disappeared. Interesting parallel with the Beach Boys’ situation, especially as you can hear so much Brian Wilson in the Cowsills, and not just vocals: note the staccato organ at the beginning of The Rain… and the Good Vibrations theremin at the beginning of Indian Lake. They’d started as four Beatles obsessives, but I guess as more family joined, the template expanded a bit (although you can still hear Beatles harmonies).

    Another fun fact: the boys resisted letting the mother join. What teenager would want his mother in his band? It was the idea of a record company executive, and she wasn’t keen on the idea either. They all became more agreeable after she added a vocal part to The Rain… and they had a monster hit on their hands.

    There’s a documentary out there somewhere.

  4. I’ve become obsessed with the Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast, and he uses the term Blood Harmony to describe acts like the Everly and Louvin Brothers, where they have some sixth sense of where each other will go when harmonizing, and can match each other in a way impossible for non-family members.

    He also coins the term “stage telepathy” to describe that situation where musicians make a mistake or do something improvisational in perfect sync.

  5. Yeah, the Louvin Brothers especially were a case of sibling telepathy. They’d seamlessly switch vocal parts in the middle of a song, to the point that listeners couldn’t always tell who was singing what. They were so good at it that it sounded spontaneous, and maybe it was. Blood Harmony is the perfect term for it. Sounds like a great podcast, I’m in.

  6. It’s a phenomenal podcast. It takes him awhile to find his groove, but by the midpoint of the first season, it gets great. Tyler Mahan Coe, David Allan Coe’s son writes and records it. Meticulously researched.

  7. The documentary is Family Band: The Cowsills Story. Free on Amazon Prime.

    I thought I´d only watch a few minutes. It starts off somewhat light-hearted, as one might expect, but builds beautifully into Shakespearean levels of pathos. I couldn´t turn it off.

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