William "Bill" Joseph Cowsill, Jr., also known as Billy, (January 9, 1948 – February 18, 2006) was an American singer best known as lead singer and guitarist of The Cowsills who had three top 10 singles in the late 1960s.
Bill Cowsill was born in Middletown, Rhode Island. At a young age Bill began singing with his brother, Bob, and they formed The Cowsills in 1965 with their brothers: Barry on bass; Bob on guitar and organ; and John on drums. They started playing around Newport before they recorded their first single "All I Really Wanna Be is Me" in 1967 on the independent label, Joda.
While the first single failed to chart, an appearance on the NBC Today Show to promote it led to Mercury Records offering them a contract. However, three singles on that label failed to spark interest, and they were dropped. Artie Kornfeld, their producer at that time, remained convinced of the band's potential and persuaded Barbara to contribute to backing vocals behind Bill's lead on "The Rain, the Park and Other Things", their first single released on MGM Records, which was also included in their first eponymously titled MGM album.
This single sold over a million copies in late 1967 and reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their second MGM album, We Can Fly spawned a second Top 40 hit with the title track. In 1968, "Indian Lake" (from their third MGM album Captain Sad and his Ship of Fools) became another top 10 hit, while in 1969 their version of the title track from Hair also peaked at #2. After they had signed with MGM their younger sister Susan, and later another brother, Paul, had also joined the band.
The Cowsills made regular television appearances, which led to Columbia Pictures considering a sitcom based on their story and starring most of the members of the band; the deal was abandoned when the producers of the show wanted to replace Barbara in the cast. The show would later become The Partridge Family, with David Cassidy playing the lead singer and Shirley Jones as the mother.
Bill's involvement with The Cowsills came to an abrupt end in 1969 when his father, Bud, caught Bill smoking marijuana. According to his brother Bob, Bill was immediately kicked out of the band. His dismissal was the beginning of the end of the Cowsills as a group.
By 1972, after Susan, Paul and Barbara opted out, Bill briefly rejoined Bob, Barry and John, reforming the original Cowsills' lineup, and released one single, "Covered Wagon," which also failed to chart (possibly owing to, among other things, the fact that the song was hard rock, a significant departure from their previous bubblegum sound). Shortly afterward, The Cowsills disbanded completely in a storm of bitter acrimony that left some members estranged from each other for several years.
Blue Northern 1977-1982
Bill arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia from the USA and became a fan of the local band "Blue Northern". He began sitting in with the band on a regular basis, and not long after became a member. The group recorded a few tracks at Don Tarris' Buttertree Studio, in Richmond, and released 4 songs on a 12" blue vinyl EP in 1980, complete with a blue-tinted cover. Two of the songs were by Ray O'Toole, and two were by Billy Cowsill. The radio picked Ray's "Can't Make No Sense" as the one to play, and the group had a national hit on its hands. Polydor Records scooped up the band, and sent them back into the studio while a second single was released. It was Ray's "Too Late To Turn Back", a song he had done when he was a member of Shakedown a couple of years or so earlier. It too was a hit. The group toured, and played concerts in halls like the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver and other similar halls across Canada. The group did some TV show (this was before MTV) Polydor released the self-titled album in early 1981, and a couple of more singles followed. Both were O'Toole's songs, and both were hits.
Blue Northern Band Members:
- Billy Cowsill ~ Rhythm Guitar, Vocals
- Ray O'Toole ~ Lead Guitar, Vocals
- Brady Gustafson ~ Drums
- Larry McGillivray ~ Drums, Vocals
- Lee Roy Stephens ~ Bass, Vocals
- Garry Comeau ~ Fiddle, Vocals
- Jimmy Wilson ~ Pedal Steel, Guitar, Synthesizer, Accordion, Dobro
Blue Northern information from Pacific NorthWest Bands.
The Blue Shadows
Bill ended up in Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1980s where he fronted The Blue Shadows, who were known for their Everly Brothers-like harmonies. In 1990 Bill produced the second album for rockabilly act, The Rattled Roosters. In 1993, The Blue Shadows landed a deal with Sony and released its debut album, “On the Floor of Heaven” receiving great reviews and found themselves on the forefront of a Canadian Alt.country movement. In 1995, the Blue Shadows recorded its second and last album, “Lucky to Me”. During this time, a drug addiction that began in the 70s became worse, until Bill was rescued by members of Calgary's music scene, including Jann Arden.
Newly sober, Billy formed The Co-Dependents, a country-rock quartet, in 1998 in Calgary. Other members were Steve Pineo (guitar and vocals), Tim Leacock (bass and vocals) and Ross Watson (drums). Billy considered the band to be a "weekend party band", but they were much-loved on Calgary's thriving roots-music scene. At this time, he was also enrolled at Mount Royal College in Calgary, where he was studying toward a degree in psychology. In late 1999, Billy came to know the members of local Calgary hard rock act Optimal Impact. He went on to produce and arrange the vocals for Optimal Impact's debut album "Sun Sittin'" in July 2000. The album saw modest radio play, and included the hit song "Serenity" which, despite the band's reputation as a hard rock group, charted a regional top ten on a country radio station in Dallas Texas, USA, with additional recognition amongst other rock stations across North America. Other features from the album included the title track "Sun Sittin'", for which Billy created the term "Surf Metal". He assisted other Calgary-based artists, such as co-producing Dyin' to Go, the 2002 debut album from Calgary country and blues singer, Ralph Boyd Johnson. He produced a number of releases for Alberta groups, and did guest vocal spots on CDs such as roots rock group The Shackshakers and Gary Pig Gold's Gene Pitney tribute He's A Rebel.
After releasing Live At The Mecca Cafe: Volume 2, which showed Billy's commanding stage presence, the band rarely played due to Bill's health problems.
Cowsill died on February 18, 2006, aged 58, at his home in Calgary, Alberta. He had been in poor health for the last few years of his life, suffering from emphysema, Cushing syndrome and osteoporosis.
Family members learned of his death while holding a memorial service the same day for his brother and bandmate Barry, a victim of the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina, whose body had not been found and identified until January 2006.
- See Ralph Boyd Johnson website; www.moose-meadow.com/rbj/.
- Heath McCoy (2006-02-20). "Rock legend Cowsill dies in Calgary home". The Calgary Herald / CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc. Retrieved 2011-03-04.
- Blue Northern
- Allmusic.com Bill Cowsill entry
- Allmusic.com The Cowsills entry
- Allmusic.com The Blue Shadows entry