PROVIDENCE, R.I. — They got their start playing frat parties at Brown University and doing gigs at school dances and church gatherings in Newport. They covered Beatles songs on Bannister’s Wharf, which was fitting enough. They hoped to be the next Fab Four: Bill, Bob, Barry and John.
Bob, Paul and Susan Cowsill, the surviving members of the group that enjoyed a meteoric rise in the 1960s - the family would serve as the inspiration for the TV show “The Partridge Family” - were scheduled to perform Wednesday evening in Providence. It was to be a rare on-stage reunion in the state where they saw their beginnings.
The performance was to follow the premiere of a new documentary about the band’s rise and fall, “Family Band: The Cowsills Story,” at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
Filmmaker Louise Palanker said the 90-minute film is a story of tragedy and triumph - of a family that seemed flawless on the surface but grappled with a physically and emotionally abusive father who was involved in the band’s promotion at every turn and a mother who chronically felt she came up short.
“We’re all hit with tragedy, and we all have the capacity to triumph - and they have,” Miss Palanker said.
Like the Beatles before them, the Cowsills went on the “The Ed Sullivan Show.” They did “American Bandstand” and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” With their wholesome faces, they were hired by the American Dairy Association to promote milk in commercials - earning $1 million for 10 spots filmed in Newport. Bob appeared on “The Dating Game” in 1969; he wasn’t selected.
Rick Bellaire, founder of the Rhode Island Popular Music Archive, which has compiled a history and discography of the Cowsills, remembers the group playing locally before it went big, including at Crescent Park in East Providence and Rocky Point amusement park in Warwick, which has long since been shuttered.
“A lot of kids in Rhode Island and southern New England were aware of the Cowsills even though they hadn’t made it nationally,” he said.
“They were extremely popular. They did not at the time get a lot of critical acclaim because they were considered a bubble gum group,” he said, ticking off some of the group’s hits. Among them were “Rain, the Park and Other Things,” which was featured more recently in the Jim Carrey movie “Dumb and Dumber,” as well as “Hair,” featured in the musical by the same name.
The band broke up in the early 1970s almost as quickly as it had risen. There had been clashes with father Bud, who managed the band and its finances - badly, by all accounts - and eventually kicked Bill, the lead singer, out on the spot.
“Anyone who said no to Bud had to go,” Miss Palanker said.
Richard “Biggy” Korn, a restaurateur in Newport who helped the Cowsills get their start and traveled on the road with them in the early days, called Bud “stifling.”
“He entirely took control over them,” said Mr. Korn, who served as the Cowsills’ legal guardian for a time. “The big crime of it was that there was so much talent, and it was never allowed to come out. People would not let them be who they were.”
Bud was in charge, and the record label wanted one image and one image alone: that of an all-American, spit-polished band.
Even after earning a fortune - Mr. Korn estimates it was anywhere from $10 million to $20 million - the family was left broke in a matter of years, Mr. Korn said. The siblings drifted apart, pursuing musical careers of their own. Susan joined a band called the Continental Drifters. Bill was in the Blue Shadows. John became the drummer for the Beach Boys.
The Cowsills’ mother, Barbara, died in 1985, Bud in 1992. Barry would die in Hurricane Katrina in 2006. He was missing for four months before his body was found under a wharf in New Orleans. On the day they were to hold a memorial service for Barry in Newport, family members learned of the death of Bill, who had struggled with heroin addiction and other illnesses and lived in Canada.
“They felt like they really needed to be together as often as possible, and that was the best way to do it,” she said.
Bob Cowsill, who lives in California and still performs, said his family’s story - “intense,” as he described it - is one of the last Hollywood stories to be told. And its telling has helped the family process and understand everything it went through, including the fame and their fall from it.
“You have to make the decision: Am I going to let this harass me for the rest of my life?” he said.
“We’ve gotten to a better comfort level with the openness of this process,” he said of the documentary. “It’s pretty cool. It’s a whole new world, and we love it.”