Singer and Songwriter
January 9, 1948 – February 17, 2006
Billy Cowsill’s voice captured the anguish of the accused, the pain of the broken-hearted and the frustration of the unrequited lover.
He first won an audience as the lead singer of the family group The Cowsills, who had a trio of Top 10 hits in the late 1960s. he launched the band with three of his look-alike brothers, but it was his father’s insistence on including a little sister and their mother that made the Cowsills a novelty act and the inspiration for the later television series, The Partridge Family.
Cowsill resented the addition of other family members. He wanted to lead a rock group and did not particularly care to be the front man of a wholesome family band. The Cowsills became a target for critics of manufactured pop music in part because of a squeaky-clean image reinforced by an advertising campaign for milk.
Though the Cowsills produced bubblegum pop, the group deserved greater respect for pleasing harmonies evocative of the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers.
Cowsill left the group in 1971 to embark on an unsuccessful solo career, eventually settling in Canada. He found redemption through live performances in small clubs and the admiration of other musicians.
Those who caught any of his innumerable dates in those years were treated to a singer who could rave on like Buddy Holly, or be as lonely as Roy Orbison. On classic country tunes, at which he was peerless, he sounded like Hank Williams as channeled through George Jones.
A variety of additions and a tendency toward self-destruction kept him from wider acclaim. Critics found much to praise in his later work, particularly the recorded work of his Blue Shadows, a brilliant Vancouver country-rock quartet Cowsill once described as “Three vegetarians and a junkie.” After moving to Calgary, he formed a group called the Co-Dependents, whose two releases of live music have been well received. He had talent, but he also had demons. He was, in many ways, a survivor of an unforgiving father and a heartless music industry.
Billy Cowsill grew up the eldest child of a US Navy sailor. His father, William (Bud) Cowsill, spent six months at a time at sea, yet managed with wife Barbara to produce offspring in rapid succession: Billy, 1948; twins Richard and Robert, 1950; Paul, 1952; Barry, 1955; John, 1956; Susan, 1960. The boys shared a gap-toothed grin and jet-black hair.
The peripatetic family changed zip codes almost as often as they changed diapers, as Bud’s postings took them from New England to Virginia to California, and back again.
“One of my first memories is when I’m three or four years old, my dad bringing me into a beer joint and just popping me in front of the Wurlitzer jukebox,” Billy Cowsill once told me. “All he had to do was keep the quarters coming.”
Unfortunately, Bud Cowsill came from a troubled family. “He was a real good guy, a guy who would give you the shirt off his back,” Bill Cowsill said. “But if he’d got a gut full of liquor, he’d beat your head into the wall.”
Retiring from the navy in 1963, Bud Cowsill settled his large brood at Newport, RI. A hustler by nature, and struggling on an inadequate pension, the family was so poor they chopped up furniture for the fireplace after being cut off from heating oil. They also neglected to shovel the driveway in an attempt to discourage bill collectors. When his sons formed a band, Bud Cowsill eagerly followed a neighbour’s suggestion of putting the children on stage.
Led by Billy, the Cowsill boys had put together a quartet, a reflection of the family’s insular nature after years on the road. None had formal musical training. With Billy on guitar, Bob on guitar and organ, Barry on bass, and John on drums, the young quartet played church socials, school sock hops and weddings.
At one gig they were spotted by a holidaying writer for The Today show and they soon made their network television debut. After that, success was assured for “America’s First Family of Music,” whose lineup often included the boys’ mother, Barbara, and sister Susan. The band’s hit singles included The Rain, The Park, and Other things (1967), Indian Lake (1968) and Hair (1969), the title song of the rock musical. Five other singles also reached the charts in those years, a stunning reversal of fortune for the family.
They lost it almost as suddenly. Bud Cowsill, who was the group’s business manager, filed for bankruptcy in 1975, owing about $450,000 to creditors.
Billy Cowsill had long since left the band. He had an explosive argument with his father in Las Vegas and was fired the next day.
A Cowsill by name but no longer by profession, he recorded a solo album that sank without a trace and then wandered across America, playing in coffee shops and taverns. Along the way, the Beach Boys invited him on tour to replace Brian Wilson, who had suffered a nervous breakdown. Cowsill decided to seek out his hero before taking the gig. By then, the corpulent Beach Boy had retired into a world of his own making that included a sandbox in his living room.
“Oh, Billy, don’t do it,” Wilson warned. “It’ll drive you crazy. It’ll get you nuts.”
Cowsill followed his idol’s advice. “I looked at him and thought . . . obviously this guy knows what he’s talking about.”
Instead, he used the last of his Cowsills money to buy a bar in Austin, Texas. As might be predicted, he and his coterie drank the joint dry. Cowsill headed north, stopping in the Northwest Territories, where he found work driving trucks from Hay River over the frozen Great Slave Lake to Yellowknife.
By 1979, he had landed in Vancouver, where he fronted Blue Northern, producing a four-song extended-play record in 1980 and an album the following year.
He continued to drink heavily until the birth of a son inspired him to stop. It was a short-lived abstinence. He would later joke he had considered writing a song titled, “How Can I Look up to Daddy When He’s Passed Out on the Floor?”
One of the highlights of his live performances was a Dead Man’s Set, in which Cowsill and his band would play only tunes by deceased rock stars.
Larry Wanagas, who was singer k.d. lang’s manager, brought Cowsill into his stable, but was unable to get him aligned with a record label. “No one would sign me because my name was Cowsill,” he once complained. “For three years if I was a space heater, [Wanagas] couldn’t have sold me to the Eskimos.”
Cowsill was about to move to Nashville when he hooked up with Jeffrey Hatcher, a prolific tunesmith with whom he formed The Blue Shadows. The rocking country outfit called their ringing harmonies “Hank Williams goes to the Cavern Club.” Their 1993 debut album, On the Floor of Heaven, won a Juno nomination for country group of the year. They followed with a second album, Lucky To Me, which also won critical acclaim, but once again proved too country for rock radio and too rock for country radio. The group dissolved in 1996.
Cowsill suffered from a serious back problem, an injury whose pain he tried to mask with ever more serious bouts of drinking and pill popping. Friends brought him to Calgary, where he once again went on the wagon and underwent back surgery. Despite a deteriorating physical condition, Cowsill continued to perform, even taking to the stage despite needing a cane following hip-replacement surgery.
His death, while sudden, was not entirely unexpected. Cowsill was known to suffer from emphysema, osteoporosis and Cushing’s syndrome, a hormonal imbalance. The news reached his surviving siblings as they gathered in Rhode Island to mark the death of brother Barry Cowsill in New Orleans. He had gone missing in Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, and his body was not identified until the following January. A day after their older brother’s death, the surviving Cowsills recreated their sunny sound at a memorial service.
February 28, 2006