William "Bill" Joseph Cowsill, Jr., most commonly known professionally as Billy Cowsill, (January 9, 1948, Middletown, Rhode Island – February 18, 2006, Calgary, Alberta) was an American singer, musician, songwriter and producer. He is particularly notable as the lead singer and guitarist of The Cowsills, who had three top 10 singles in the late 1960s. From the mid-1970s until his death, he developed a career in Canada as an alt-country artist, as well as being the producer of a diverse number of Canadian artists.
- 1 History
- 1.1 The Cowsills
- 1.2 Early 1970s: Tulsa
- 1.3 Calgary, Bryan Fustukian, c. 1975-1977
- 1.4 Vancouver, Blue Northern, 1977-1982
- 1.5 Vancouver, Calgary, 1983-1991: Continuing in Music
- 1.6 Vancouver, The Blue Shadows, 1992-1996
- 1.7 Calgary, The Co-Dependents, 1998-2004
- 1.8 Personal Life
- 1.9 Illness and Death
- 2 References
- 3 External links
- It's never been about stardom, about making millions. I've done that, and it made me miserable, man. For me, it's just about getting the harmonies right. It's about getting the sound down. That's all I've ever wanted to do. It's about the music. That's all there is. I'd rather die a pauper, having put a sweet tune on people's lips, than have the world in the bank.
- Billy Cowsill, 2001
William Cowsill was born in Middletown, Rhode Island on January 9, 1948. He was the eldest child of the seven Cowsill children, six boys and one girl, and was named after his father, William "Bud" Joseph Cowsill, Sr. (1925-1992). At a young age, Bill began singing with his younger brother, Bob (born August 26, 1949), playing guitars provided for them by their father, Bud, then serving in the U.S. Navy. The brothers had originally wanted to form a rock band. At their father's insistence, Bill and Bob Cowsill formed The Cowsills in 1965 with their brothers Barry on bass and John on drums. Their father became their full-time manager, following his retirement from the Navy.
The group 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.
Cowsill's involvement with the family band 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.
Early 1970s: Tulsa
- My odyssey really began in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was playing for ten bucks a night and all the whisky you could drink, but I was sitting in with Harry Nilsson and JJ Cale. I got to play with Carl Wilson. And finally I was playing with roots people, playing the kind of music I wanted to play. That’s when I really started learning.
- Billy Cowsill, 2001
Following his dismissal from The Cowsills, Billy Cowsill was briefly considered as a replacement for Brian Wilson in The Beach Boys' live performances,. Cowsill was dissuaded by Wilson, who reportedly cautioned Cowsill that "They'll drive you crazy." In 1971, having relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma Cowsill released a solo album, Nervous Breakthrough, on MGM Records. The album, on which Cowsill had also acted as producer, failed to chart. During his period, he befriended Joe Ely and also explored starting a country music band with Gary Lewis, of Gary Lewis and The Playboys Around this time, Cowsill also purchased a bar in Austin, Texas, which ended up failing because, as Cowsill admitted, he "drank it dry".
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, a cover of Danny O'Keefe's "Covered Wagon", which also failed to chart. Shortly afterwards, The Cowsills disbanded completely in a storm of bitter acrimony that left some members estranged from each other for several years.
Calgary, Bryan Fustukian, c. 1975-1977
Cowsill moved to Canada in the mid-1970s, originally settling in Calgary. Alberta, where he started to sing locally. He later joined the band of Alberta country singer Bryan Fustukian as guitarist and second lead vocalist.
Vancouver, Blue Northern, 1977-1982
Cowsill moved from Calgary to Vancouver, British Columbia as of 1977, 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. In 1979, the group released Blue, a four-song, 12" EP. Two of the songs were written by Cowsill, who also produced the record. The band's self-titled album was released on Polydor Records in early 1981, and was co-produced by Cowsill. The band broke up in 1982, notwithstanding continuing public interest, as well as Juno Award and Canadian Country Music Award nominations.
Vancouver, Calgary, 1983-1991: Continuing in Music
Following the breakup of Blue Northern, Cowsill continued in music, both as a performer and a producer, ultimately returning to Calgary. In 1988, he produced a cassette release for The Burners, a rock band based in Calgary, whose members would form Cowsill's last band, the Co-Dependents, a decade later.
Returning to Vancouver as of 1990, Cowsill produced Year of The Rooster, the first album for rockabilly act, The Rattled Roosters, based at the time in Vancouver. Cowsill also produced the initial demos for the band.
Vancouver, The Blue Shadows, 1992-1996
- Three vegetarians and a junkie--what are the chances?
- Billy Cowsill, 2002, in relation to the breakup of the Blue Shadows
In 1992, Cowsill became the co-lead singer, with Jeffrey Hatcher, of The Blue Shadows. Cowsill and Hatcher became known for their Everly Brothers-like harmonies. Cowsill regarded his association with The Blue Shadows as his most positive experience as a musician, to that point in his career. In 1993, The Blue Shadows were signed to Sony and released their debut album, On The Floor of Heaven receiving positive reviews. The group found itself at the forefront of a Canadian Alt.country movement. In 1995, the Blue Shadows released their second and last album, Lucky to Me, breaking up one year later. Both Blue Shadows albums were co-produced by Cowsill and Hatcher. In later years, there has been increased interest in the band's music, particularly following the re-release, in 2010, of On The Floor of Heaven.
During his period with The Blue Shadows, Cowsill's drug addiction, which commenced in the 1970s, became worse. Cowsill blamed his addictions for the breakup of the band.
Calgary, The Co-Dependents, 1998-2004
Following the breakup of The Blue Shadows, Cowsill returned to Calgary, where he was assisted in overcoming his addictions by members of Calgary's music scene, including Jann Arden, as well as entering a formal recovery program in Calgary. It took Cowsill approximately two years to completely overcome his addictions, from which he remained free for the balance of his life.
Newly sober, Cowsill started to play engagements in Calgary with Tim Leacock, whom Cowsill had first met and taught to play bass in the 1980s. They were later joined by Steve Pineo, on guitar and vocals and Ross Watson on drums, forming the Co-Dependents, in 1998. All had been members of The Burners, whose cassette release, Low Tech/High Torque, Cowsill had produced in 1988. Cowsill also enrolled, as a full-time student, at Mount Royal College in Calgary, where he studied towards a degree in psychology, with the objective of becoming a counselor for troubled youth. Cowsill and The Co-Dependents performed as Cowsill's study schedule permitted, rather than on a full-time basis. The band became quite popular in Calgary and in parts of western Canada and the United States, playing a mix of country, bluegrass, blues, rock and rockabilly music. The band obtained a regular weekend engagement at The Mecca Café in Calgary and, in June of 2001, recorded their performances over three nights. These were released as Live Recording Event (2001) and Live At The Mecca Café, Volume 2 (2005). Live Recording Event was regarded, as of 2004, as one of the most successful Alberta roots recordings in memory.
Despite Cowsill's serious health challenges, the Co-Dependents continued to perform until late 2004, as Cowsill's health permitted.
During this period, Cowsill assisted other Calgary-based artists. In 2000, he produced and arranged the vocals for Sun Sittin', the debut album of Calgary hard rock band Optimal Impact. Cowsill also coined the term "Surf Metal" in relation to the album's title track. In 2002, Cowsill co-produced Dyin' to Go, the debut album from Calgary country and blues singer, Ralph Boyd Johnson. Cowsill also appeared as a guest vocalist on various recordings, such as on recordings by roots rock group The Shackshakers and on Gary Pig Gold's 2002 Gene Pitney tribute He's A Rebel (The Gene Pitney Story Retold).
Cowsill married Karen Locke in 1968, which whom he had a son, Travis. He later was in a fifteen year relationship with Vancouver-based Mitzi Gibbs, with whom he had a second son, Delaney.
Illness and Death
- At that point, his bones, according to Gibbs, had literally started turning to dust.
- Comment of Cowsill's partner, Mitzi Gibbs, in relation to Cowsill's physical condition, as of six months before his death.
In the last few years of his life, Cowsill was in declining health, suffering from emphysema, Cushing syndrome and osteoporosis. Cowsill's health went into serious decline in 2004. He required a cane to assist in walking, and was subject to total hip replacement surgery and a major back operation,, a complication from which resulted in a collapsed lung. That year, a benefit concert for Cowsill was held in Los Angeles, featuring the Cowsills, Peter Tork, Susanna Hoffs and Shirley Jones, among others.
Despite his profound health challenges, Cowsill continued to write, perform and record. Six months before his death, he accepted an invitation to perform two songs onstage with Calgary honky-tonk singer-songwriter Tom Phillips. His last recording was "The Days I'm With The Horses", recorded in Calgary on July 18, 2005. The song, written and performed by Stewart MacDougall, was produced by Cowsill, who also sings background vocals. It is included on Rivers and Rails: A Tribute to Alberta, a compilation album by various artists, released in 2007. The album had originally been planned as a 2005 release, to coincide with celebrations of Alberta's centennial. Cowsill also co-wrote, with Ralph Boyd Johnson and Suzanne Leacock, the title song to the album, on which he plays guitar.
Cowsill died on February 18, 2006, aged 58, at his Calgary home, survived by his two sons. Family members learned of his death while holding a memorial service the same day, in Newport, Rhode Island, for his brother and bandmate Barry, a victim of the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina. Barry Cowsill's body had not been found and identified until January 2006.
Billy Cowsill was cremated, and his ashes later scattered in Newport, Rhode Island.
At the time of Billy Cowsill's death, his last album with the Co-Dependents, Live at the Mecca Cafe, Volume 2, was the top selling independent album in Alberta.
Cowsill's last residence, located at 1723 9th Street SW, Calgary, is regarded as of heritage significance, and has been officially so designated, in part due to Cowsill's residency there and it being the place of his passing.
- Derek Hannah, Billy Cowsill, The Road and Other Things. Calgary Straight, 2001. As reprinted in Silver Threads - Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2014-09-14.
- Steve Dougherty, As Apple-Cheeked Stars of the '60s, the Cowsills Lost Their Family to Fame; Now They're Finding Harmony Again. People, December 17, 1990. Retrieved 2014-09-05.
- Allen Baekeland, Billy Cowsill-Americana Music List, February 19, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-08.
- Wilson also reportedly asked Cowsill, "Do you think there is enough bass in 'I Get Around'?”. Derek Hannah, Billy Cowsill, The Road and Other Things. Calgary Straight, 2001. As reprinted in Silver Threads - Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- Particulars of Nervous Breakthrough; waddywatchellinfo.com. Retrieved 2014-09-05.
- Billy Cowsill Discography; Billy Cowsill Website. Retrieved 2014-09-05.
- Michael Bates, Billy Cowsill, Gary Lewis and Tulsa's "Mazeppa Scene"; BatesLine, January 15, 2014. Retrieved 2014-09-08.
- Originally released on O'Keefe's eponymous 1971 debut album.
- Heath McCoy, Rock legend Cowsill dies in Calgary home, Calgary Herald, February 20, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-10.
- Profile of Bryan Fustukian; fustukian.com. Retrieved 2014-09-06.
- Gerry Wand, The Bryan Fustukian Band, With Billy Cowsill: Hair-Trigger Cowboys, On Occasion; June 12, 2012. Retrieved 2014-08-29.
- Profile of Blue Northern; canadianbands.com. Retrieved 2014-09-06.
- Profile of Blue Northern; Pacific Northwest Bands. Retrieved 2014-09-05.
- The Burners, Low Tech/High Torque; Calgary Cassette Preservation Society, June 20, 2010. Retrieved 2014-09-09.
- Mary-Lynn McEwen, Cowsill finds music a hard habit to break, June 14, 2001, as reprinted in Billy Cowsill Website. Retrieved 2014-09-09.
- Steve Pineo biography; stevepineo.com. Retrieved 2014-09-09.
- Uncredited, Biography of The Rattled Roosters; Artistdirect. Retrieved 2014-09-07.
- Joal Ryan, Another Cowsill Family Tragedy, Eonline, February 21, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-04.
- Kerry Doyle, The Blue Shadows Revisit On the Floor of Heaven, Exclaim!, June 16, 2010. Retrieved 2014-09-07.
- Charlotte Dillon, Profile of The Blue Shadows; Allmusic. Retrieved 2014-09-07.
- Ken Tucker, Seventeen Years Later, The Blue Shadows Reach U.S, NPR Music, July 19, 2010. Retrieved 2014-09-07.
- The Recovery Acres Society, otherwise known as "1835 House".
- Ralph Boyd Johnson, Recollections of Billy Cowsill, in relation to Johnson's involvement with Billy Cowsill and Cowsill's influence on Johnson's later album, 1723 9th Street S.W.. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Fish Grikowsky, Bands on the run. Jam! Music, November 30, 2004. Retrieved 2014-09-16.
- Profile of the Co-Dependents; canadianbands.com. Retrieved 2014-09-16.
- The restaurant was severely damaged by arson in 2002 and did not continue as a major entertainment venue: Mecca Café Update, City of Calgary News Release, July 26, 2002. Retrieved 2014-09-16.
- Indelible Music, Particulars of The Co-Dependents. Retrieved 2014-09-16.
- Uncredited, Biography of Optimal Impact; metalunderground.com. Retrieved 2014-09-09
- See Ralph Boyd Johnson website
- Particulars of He's A Rebel (The Gene Pitney Story Retold); Discogs. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Cowsill Family Tree; Silver Threads - Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- Travis Cowsill later became involved with the film industry, principally as a storyboard artist; Travis Cowsill credits; IMDB. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- Mitzi Gibbs died in November, 2006, nine months after Cowsill, and had also been in poor health prior to her death. Gregg Simpson, Mitzi Gibbs, November 27, 2006. Vancouver Jazz Forum; Retrieved 2014-09-19. Brian Nation, Mitzi memorial, January 2007. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- That Voice, That Stare, Calgary Herald, May 12, 2006, via Canada.com. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Delaney Cowsill, professionally known as Del Cowsill, is a professional musician, associated as of 2013 with Dustin Bentall and The Smokes. Bentall is the son of Canadian singer Barney Bentall; Profile of Dustin Bentall; www.dustinbentall.com. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- Billy Cowsill Website; Notice, December, 2004. Retrieved 2014-09-10
- Billy Cowsill Obituary, Country Music News, April 15, 2006, as reprinted in Silver Threads - Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2014-09-10.
- Particulars of Tom Phillips; KerfMusic. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Stewart MacDougall bio; www.troubleclef.ca. Retrieved 2014-09-14. Stewart MacDougall is erroneously credited as "Stuart" MacDougall on the album.
- Particulars of Rivers and Rails: A Tribute to Alberta; www.moose-meadow.com. Retrieved 2014-09-14.
- Heath McCoy, CD a late present for Alberta. Calgary Herald, June 19, 2007. Retrieved 2014-09-14.
- " 'Suzanne Leacock, who is the wife of Tim Leacock of the Co-Dependents, thought she had a good hook for a song with the line "rivers and rails", so she, Billy and myself ended up getting a song out of it. Suddenly the idea for a collection of songs about the history of Alberta was born' says Johnson, who enlisted the services of 27 writers for the 15-song album." CDs dig deep into Alberta roots, The Edmonton Journal, May 26, 2007. Retrieved 2014-09-14.
- In the years prior to his death, Cowsill had lived in a house with fellow musicians Ralph Boyd Johnson, Back Alley John and Duris Maxwell, among others. The Johnson album, 1723 9th Street SW, references the house address as the album title: Amy Nakaska, Ralph Boyd Johnson sings about home, The Three Hills Capital, June 15, 2011. Retrieved 2014-09-01.
- Daniel J. Wakin, William Cowsill, 58, Leader of Family Pop-Rock Band, Dies. New York Times, February 21, 2006. Retrieved 2014-08-30.
- Jessica Robertson, Billy Cowsill dead at 58. Rolling Stone, February 21, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-01.
- Kit Benson and Morgan Benson, William Joseph "Bill" Cowsill, Jr.; Findagrave. Retrieved 2014-09-05
- Billy Cowsill Website, Notice of Event. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Dennis McLellan, Billy Cowsill, 58; Lead Singer for 1960s Teen Pop Band the Cowsills. Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-03.
- Billy Cowsill home Lower Mount Royal, Calgary Heritage Initiative Forums, April 13, 2007. Retrieved 2014-09-01.
- Jason Markusoft, Pop star's old home spun into showcase, Calgary Herald, November 18, 2009. Retrieved 2014-09-01.
- Billy Cowsill Website. Fan-generated website, left as memorial website, with updates, following Cowsill's death.