The news hit hard for many fans on Tuesday that David Cassidy, the former teen idol who starred in the early-1970s TV show “The Partridge Family,” had died at 67 with organ failure. Many “Partridge Family” followers knew that the clan’s onscreen saga was based on the real-life adventures of 1960s family band the Cowsills. But few Austinites may be aware that Billy Cowsill, the musician on whom Cassidy’s Keith Partridge character was based, once lived here and briefly owned a local bar.
The Cowsills were from Rhode Island and became stars in the late 1960s, when their songs “The Rain, The Park & Other Things,” “Indian Lake” and “Hair” became top-1o pop singles. Billy, the oldest of the six Cowsill siblings in the group, wound up in Austin in the mid-late 1970s and for a brief time owned the old railroad-station bar that is now Donn’s Depot.
According to Donn’s Depot owner Donn Adelman, Cowsill owned the bar for a few months in 1978, when it was still known as McNeil Depot. Adelman took over the renamed bar in November 1978, and Cowsill eventually ended up in western Canada, where he was co-leader of the acclaimed country-rock band Blue Shadows during the 1990s. He died in Calgary in February 2006 at age 58 after several years of ill health from conditions including emphysema.
There’s one more Austin connection. Longtime local troubadour Joe Ely, the official 2016 Texas State Musician, encountered Cowsill in New York City in 1970, around the time that “The Partridge Family” began airing on television. Ely says Cowsill helped him escape an angry bunch of bikers who objected to Ely playing Kitty Wells’ 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” at a gig in a Greenwich Village bar.
“These Hell’s Angels guys walked up and said, ‘I don’t think we like that song,'” Ely recalled. “Cowsill grabbed me by the collar and said ‘Let’s get out of here.’ From then on, we just hung out in New York.”
Ely eventually returned to his hometown of Lubbock, with a little help from Cowsill. “I was broke, so I sold him my cowboy shirt for the plane ticket,” Ely said. Cowsill turned up in Lubbock a little later and played a few shows around town.
Cowsill last visited in Austin in 1994, playing a South by Southwest showcase with the Blue Shadows at a Sixth Street Bar. Adelman recalls that Cowsill stopped by Donn’s Depot while he was in town.