My name is John Cowsill and I’ve been a Vater artist for – since 2000. I’m going to give you a brief history – that will only take an hour.
I was once a child star. I was not born a child star, I worked towards it. No, seriously, I was in a band called The Cowsills that was formed in 1963. I used to sing around a table. We used to sing a lot of folk songs. We had hits. 1967 was our first big hit which was “The Rain, The Park and Other Things.” We had a Top 40 hit with “We Can Fly.” And we had a Top 20 hit with “Indian Lake” and then we a – our biggest hit was a song called “Hair” from the Broadway musical. We wish we had written it. We did not. We only performed it, but that was that.
But before that, I think I was seven when I started playing drums and The Beatles came on Ed Sullivan and that’s what started it for me. Ringo is my hero and so would go in the back room and pretend with air drums, oatmeal boxes and stuff. But I would be playing piano, not a drum. My brother Barry was the first drummer. But then soon The Beatles did come out and we needed a bass guitar at that point so I became the drummer. I didn’t – I used to play in a dark room with the amplifier Fender red light on and I learned in the dark to play drums so if I see the drums, I miss them, so I’m usually looking at you or my microphone. I started when I was seven. Shortly after I was probably six months of playing in that band, we played a couple carnivals. We got a bar playing four sets a night. That didn’t go over very well at seven years old. The very first night the cops had raided the place. It was called the Muenchinger-King Discotech and it was a wine cellar. We talked to the mayor, because it was a very small town, I come from Newport, Rhode Island. And they said it was OK that a seven-year-old plays the bar as long as he’s not drinking and he’s not sitting in the bar area. Go figure. You can’t do that today, kids. We would play this bar all the time and people come to Newport, Rhode Island, to vacation and rich people who live on the outside areas. They would come and they would come to the clubs in the summertime. And there were some people from The Today Show there and they ask us if we wanted to be on TV. They put us on TV because they thought it was phenomenal that such little kids could play their instruments. I don’t know how good we were, but we were working. And that kind of started it.
Then a guy named Johnny Nash saw us on that show and I don’t know how they contacted him because I was just seven. I didn’t really pay attention to that logistics of the business, but we ended up on a --- our first record label was JODA Records. And we were a R&B band. Beatles, Stones, but with this record company we were doing R&B because Johnny had a lot of songs he had written. They had songs like (singing?) ‘ You can’t go half way You got to go all the way To have my love’ and he was like this diga diga diaga diga diga diga diga diga, that’s what he would say. And I always thought that was cool. And those were the first sessions that I played on and just as of recently – I can’t say where I got them – but I just got the masters to that. I have the original 19 tracks that we did in 1960 – late 4, early 5. And literally got them three days ago and I don’t know when this is going to date, but anyway it’s really cool.
But then we went to Mercury from there and they thought we were a cute little band. Look at the little boys and their older brothers. It’s a family, so it’s give ‘em some cute music. So they give us things like – we went from R&B to this ridiculous kiddy thing. ‘I love my Siamese cat because she’s not very fat’ (singing ?) ‘She leaps in the air and lands in a chair I know I couldn’t so that. So I hate my Siamese cat’ Anyway I guess, but … ‘Don’t put your feet in the lemonade we’re running out of water. Go soak your car in some ginger ale, so it gets sticky – sorta’ So that’s what they were giving us at Mercury.
We met a guy named Artie Kornfield there who is watching this horrific thing go down and said ‘Do we want to get outta there?’ and we said ‘Yeah’ and he took us and financed the first recording we did for MGM as an independent producer. He wrote the first hit for us, “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” with a guy named Steve Duboff. And took us to Lenny Stogel. We signed with the management company that afternoon and we had an MGM contract and we put a record out and toured. It was a big hit. And we rode it for a little while. But we wanted – MGM put our mother and sister in the band when we signed with them and that was OK for me because I was little and it didn’t really affect me yet. My older brothers who wanted to be The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, it put a damper on it. Definitely, to have my Mom in the band. And my Dad managed it and he was like Joe Jackson – all those bad guys in family bands – anyway, whatever.
So we rode fame for awhile – until about 1972 – and then we slowly rode down the hill. People were asking us on the way down, “Hey, I got a great hit song for you kids to record, it’s called “Oooh Weep, Chirpy Chirpy Cheep” Bye. We keep going. Not interested. So we were really done with being The Cowsills, that family band. And though I look back now, it’s very endearing, but man during that time, being the age we were.
And then we disbanded. We actually called a -there were three of us left, my brother Bob, Barry and myself – we were in a hotel room. We were scared as …. scared to death of my Dad. But we said if we band together, we’ll all be OK. And so we called him into our hotel room. We were in Texas somewhere. We said, “We want it to end. We want to break-up The Cowsills.” And we thought he was going to stuck ---- and beat us up. He didn’t do that. He got worried and he said, “Look guys, all I need is two more years. We’ll be back on top.” And we said, “No.” I mean we were wearing tuxedos. We weren’t even doing our own songs. We were still being a cover band, live. Look at a Cowsills’ Live In Concert album. It’s “Good Vibrations” “Monday, Monday” “Walk Away Renee” “Paperback Rider” “Act Naturally” “Sunshine Of You Love” I mean that’s what our Live In Concert album. And we put “Hair” on it to sell it, you know. And you know we were good. We did the songs good, but it was just a weird thing. And it ended up my Dad kept us in these tuxedoes and like we didn’t want to be that. So we broke up.
And then time went by. I never knew how to get a gig because I always had a gig. So if my phone didn’t ring, I wasn’t working so …. I wasn’t into starving so I capped shampoo bottles at Nature’s Gate Herbal Cosmetics for $2.50 an hour. That was kinda cool. Met nice people. I’m never afraid of hard work, so I was good to go.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know how to do get a gig. I think I had one band after The Cowsills for about nine months and we broke up and I moved back east. I was living in California at the time. I’m from Newport, Rhode Island. So I moved back over here and I joined a band in – must have been 72 73 - called Grease The Cat. And you know – another cover band. We played up and down the New England Coast and it was during the kind of glitter rock thing so we were all decked out – kinda cool. And it was cool for me because I had never played with another band in my life, OK. I just played with my family, so and there was a lot of sibling stuff. “Your time is shitty” and “Your this is that” and “Hey don’t do that” So I was in a band where they actually – people were saying, “Wow, man, this is cool. We have John Cowsill in our band.” You know I don’t use that name often because it is almost embarrassing to use it. That is we were embarrassed. I’m OK now. But I mean if you did use your name, they’d say “Ah no, you’re from that family band, right? No, that’s OK, we got Ricky Fatiaar” But that was a cool band. We did a lot of Led Zepplin stuff that I just love Led Zepplin, ZZ Top. Old ZZ Top. We did Flash so that was pre-Yes. So, we were doing some prod back then. That was fun for me. And I didn’t sing. I said, “No, I’m not singing.” Cuz I sing all the time when I play – which I’m glad I know how to do and that’s why I get fired now but then it was the first band I could just play drums. And what a difference to be able to just move away from the microphone because we didn’t have headset microphones then so you always like (head cocked to the side) this or you’re like this (head stuck to front) and you’re doing this. I used to sing backgrounds a lot and that’s where you are. So that was my first time not to have that and it was strange. I prefer to sing and play now.
But after that I got a call from my brother Paul, who was working for Helen Reddy at the time, so this was 1973 or so. And man he called us up cuz he got a deal with Capital, because Helen was on Capital. And my brother Bill and he were partners on this project. And I got a call from my Dad who had – you know – called me up and said, “Hey I think your brother Paul needs you.” So I called my brother Paul up and he said, “Hey man why don’t you come back to California. I got this band called Bridey Murphy put together and I got a Capital deal.” I go, “Oh my God Great Big time again. Here we go. Yeah! Get me out of the bar.” So, I fly out to California. God bless my brother Bill, but man when I show up there he’s got the blue bottle ice Schmirenoff in his back pocket and everybody ---- It’s like if you’ve ever seen the movie Apocalypse Now and they get to the end of the trail and the guy asks “Where’s the CEO?” And the place is like fireworks everywhere and everybody’s high and drunk you know and get me some more blow and that’s what I walked into and …. I had an odd relationship with my oldest brother Bill, who I always wanted his approval as a drummer because I was growing up and they had to put up with me. I don’t know if I was any good or not. But he says, “Come on man” My meter wasn’t great as a kid. I’m going through puberty now and it’s even worse now cuz I’m thinking too much. And Waddy Watchel who was a friend was always involved with us. I’ve known Waddy since I was seven. Everybody knows him. Anyway, he was in on this Bridey Murphy project as well. So I was already scared to play with them because last time I played with him it was a f****** mess, that’s what I hears, so … So those guys, I always wanted their approval. So now I’m going into the studio with these guys we’re rehearsing. Trying to hire other people. So Lindsay Buckingham was going to come and be in Bridey Murphy. I think he was for about three days or something. Waddy whispered to him, “Get out of here while you can." it was a run-away train. Yeah, we had a release on Capital --- no it didn’t get released. It got shelved. John Carter was the in-house producer there and it got shelved.
Anyway, after that, that disbanded. Worked with Bob Crew on a couple of things trying to put a band together with just me and Paul and Susan. Bob was now out. And we just drifted. And I drifted for a long time and I should have been playing drums in a band. And I didn’t. I was trying to coat-tail on everybody else. “Hey you need me?” “Hey you need me?” “What do you need?”
Oh my God and the story goes on and on. And so then I was a regular worker. Some stuff. Oh my God, I can’t put this all together.
Let’s skip my 13 year hiatus from playing on the road or anything. I was just in a marriage, had two wonderful kids. I’ve been married two times. I’m married now. Still have two beautiful kids, but a wife I really get along with. Her name is Vicki Peterson. She’s in The Bangles, but you know that.
So then the late 70’s, Bob, Paul, Susan and I decided we want to get together again. I don’t know. We kept doing it. Bob wrote a batch of songs and said, “Hey man we need to record these things.” So we do that. We’re friends with Jackson Browne and Jackson took us to a guy named Chuck Plokin, who produced Bruce Springsteen’s The River, Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Really started with Bruce as a mixer, but anyway. He had a studio called Clover Studio. He took us on as his private project. And we worked with Chuck Plokin for about five years in Los Angeles at this studio called Clover Studios where it was like my second home. And we recorded a lot of stuff. Chuck helped us out a lot. We sang on Harry Chapin’s last album there. I sang on Bette Midler’s No Frills album. I played and sang on Tommy Tutone’s 867-5309. Actually don’t know that exact though because there were several who played on it and it’s got a lot of splices on it.
My name is John Cowsill and I’ve been a Vater artist since 2000. I started getting calls from The Beach Boys guys to sub for their drummer. I subbed for their drummer for a week. I subbed for one of their guitar players for two weeks. And then I was going to sub for the guitar player again so I learned all the guitar parts and they called me up like a week before I was going out and I mean dude, I cashed out my thing. I had no money so I paid my rent – I don’t play guitar well. I’m a drummer first, a piano player, guitar player, bass player. But they ask me to play guitar and I said, “OK, sure, no problem. I can play anything.” And so I paid my rent with a credit card for a whole month. I didn’t go to work. I just played guitar every day. Learned the frickin’ songs. And a week before we go out, they say, “You ready to go?” I say, “Yeah, as long as I don’t have to play leads,” because there was another guitar play who plays the leads and he was going to play them all. I said, “As long as the other guy plays lead guitar.” He says, “Guitar?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Didn’t anybody call you? You’re going to be playing piano.” So, I said, “Really. “ I said, “OK.” I said, “When was somebody going to tell me?” “Well, you do play piano. I know you do. That’s your second instrument.” I said, “Yeah.” So I hung up the phone. I don’t know any Beach Boys songs on piano, you know, so I have to learn them. And a lot of this stuff didn’t even have piano on it. So, I get a CD from the band and I’m trying to learn it off the CD and finally I called their old piano player who’s my very good friend, Billy Hinche, who played with them, was Carl’s brother-in-law. And he came and met me and gave me charts to learn the stuff, so I was good to go. So I was the Beach Boys piano player for seven years after that, after I got that call. And I was just auditioning – not auditioning, I was just subbing for somebody, but he never came back, so I stayed in. And then a few years ago they wanted to change up the musicians in the band and I became the drummer. They ask me if I wanted to play drums and I said, “Yes I do. Thank you very much.” So, I’ve been playing drums for The Beach Boys for almost four years now but I’ve been their percussionist also as I was their piano player. I played all their percussion parts also.
But when I joined The Beach Boys and was their percussionist I called Vater sticks. I had a friend who said, “Man you should get some drum sticks and what kind do you use?” I said, “I don’t know. Whatever is sitting on the stand.” I’m playing timbale sticks and timpani sticks and stuff. And he say, “Man I got a friend at Vater, give him a call.” I said, “Can I get a signature stick?” He said, “Well you can get your signature ON a stick, but you can’t have a signature stick. You’re not BIG enough yet.” So, that was probably 2000, 2001, 2000 I’m not sure. And so now when I play The Beach Boys, I have a timpani set up so I use the sizzle stick because it works. I can flip it around really quick like that after I’m done with the timpani, I need to get back to the cymbal so I do that and then for later rims I like the Manhattan 7a as you can see – can we get a close up there with our other camera – just kidding. I love the 7A’s. You know I was using 5A’s for a long time and power 5B’s for certain rims. Whenever I felt strong and not as old as I am, I would use the heavier sticks and then I would go back to the “flash sticks” I would call them. After using 5B’s and you go to a 7A, when you’re a drummer, you know what I’m talking about. But Dennis Diken, from the Smithereens, said, “Man.” I said, “What do you use?” He’s a big guy. He says, “I use 7A’s.” I said, “Really?” He says, “Yeah” And I love them. One of my favorites. They don’t come in nude, but that’s OK. I just rub them on the sidewall before I use them and scrap off some of the varnish.
My hero as far as drummers, Buddy Saltzman. He played on all the Four Seasons records. Very famous sessions drummer. A lot of people you say his name to …. He was the east coast Hal Blaine, Buddy Saltzman. Actually Dennis Diken from the Smithereens and I did an article about him in Modern Drummer and that was kinda cool. He used a very light stick too. He gave me a pair of his sticks, man. They were these ro-mojo Jazz sticks with red print on it. And they were bent and cricked. And he always played with the – his back beat with the stick backwards. And even though he was an accomplished jazz drummer, he played with the traditional grip. He – in the studio when he played rock and roll, he played with the match grip, so I thought it was cool too.
I will say, I think – there was a TV show that was based on my family, The Cowsills. And it was called The Partridge Family and a lot of people don’t know that. I don’t know which one I was. I think I was Suzanna Croft in the TV show, probably. I definitely wasn’t the drummer, Brian Foster, he was too cute. But actually Screen Gems approached us to do this show and I think they already had Shirley Jones in mind and they were looking for this other entity. And so Screen Gems spent some time with us. I don’t remember exactly how long. So, we weren’t cute anymore for them. They needed younger kids for that stuff, you know what I’m sayin’, and so …. and plus the fact that they wanted Shirley Jones and Dad wanted my Mom who would NOT have wanted to do it. My Mom didn’t even want to be on stage. She was knocked kneed. This whole time she was shaking on stage. And she was really cute and she had an absolutely beautiful voice, but she had no timing. She’d start a song and she’d come in like way off the mark and we were pros at turning the beat around to suit her needs. And but she was just a housewife man. She washed dishes and she sang around the sink and they put her in the band. She never really wanted to be in there but … so she definitely wouldn’t have done the show. And they didn’t want her, so they made The Partridge Family, which was great. I laughed my ass off at the show. They let us see a preview of it. I met David Cassidy once. I was really … I had just finished puberty again. You know my height of my success was in puberty. Thank you God. That was great. So, I’m going to meet David Cassidy. There’s a lady named Gloria Stavers. For years, guys my age will know that 16 magazine and Tiger Beat. They had these teen magazines, so we were always in it. So I always get nervous when I meet somebody famous. I just do. Still do to this day if somebody’s famous, I feel like crying. Because I don’t … I want them to be my best friend and I don’t know how to make that happen. And they’re going to leave me. Anyway and … so we get in her car to go to the Beverly Hills Hotel. She has to drop something off. Take a picture of him and I’m getting nervous as I’m approaching, you know, because I want to be cool. So, and I get there, and I get out of the car. He comes down. I see him in the lobby and I go “Oh my God, it’s him.” And I went up to him and I did the stupidest thing. I went, “Mr. Cassidy” and I shook his hand and that was it. That was all I had to say to the guy.
I’m actually involved with my companies that take care of me. Vater, I love you. You’re the best. You guys are, man, and I like those blue nylon brushes with black handles on them. I don’t’ know what they are. In between the brush and they got rubber bands and they go up –what are they called? Monster brush Those are my favorite thing. I’ve turned so many people on to those brushes because, wire brushes are great and I’ll play with those but just sometimes they sound so much better, you know.
I’m an old dog. I play a four piece kit. I’d have more cymbals if I didn’t have a timpani so I could hide. I sit high in the seat, always have. Ringo sat high like that. So it’s just how I stay. I don’t slouch. I sit up straight.
When I joined The Beach Boys and became the drummer. When I first joined I was playing the piano. They had these artist rendition versions of The Beach Boys songs and they sounded like The Beach Boys songs but they weren’t the right arrangements. And some of the drum stuff wasn’t the right stuff – that was on the record, you know. And Carl was all good for the change and let’s do a Latin beat and “Don’t Worry Baby” will sound really cool. And let’s slow everything down to where I can sing it and get to my amplifier and get a drink of water. So, when I became the drummer I just, it was a great seat to have because I listened to all the records. I mean I sit there. I just have the tracts only and I would listen to Hal Blaine’s drum parts. So basically I play most of the signiture parts. Sometimes I’ll get excited towards the end of the show and throw in some s*** in, but I keep it pretty original cuz that’s what made it a hit. And I don’t have a problem playing simple. I’m not a big technical drummer. If I can’t do it with the right hand, it won’t get done. So, this muscle is that big and this one is just a back beater, you know. I’m not a great reader. I can read. I learned later. But playing the classic songs with The Beach Boys, you know, another classic again. We fixed all the vocal parts so they’re the original ones on the record and it’s a great catalog for me. I sit back there and I’m a big Beach Boy fan and I have the best seat in the house, is what it amounts to. And, you know, I wish they were all alive, and that they were all working together, but two are dead. Brian does his own thing. Al does his own thing. There’s a 50th Anniversary coming up. I don’t see them getting together, but I’m just a side guy in the circus.
It’s a great catalog. It goes endless. In fact, he does some cover tunes, and you know, a couple of us in the band are going, “Why’s he doing a cover song when they have like the catalog of doom?” But I guess, I figured out that, you know, that’s his stuff. If I played my own stuff I’d want to do some of my heroes music too in a show I guess. So, he’s into Doo Wop. That’s what he grew up singing. The Four Freshman, so we do some of that stuff. Some of it that they recorded and some of it that he just loves. And it’s his band. People love it. People always come and the kids are singing the songs. The little grandkids, I laugh at that. I – it’s an amazing machine. It just keep going because they never stopped touring. They’re talking about a 50th Anniversary tour and that’s great and the big cities like New York, Chicago, things where they know who Brian Wilson is and they know the break up. But most of the people in the United States don’t know who they are personally, they just know that the Beach Boys were in their town a week ago …. what’s this reunion thing? But I wish that they would have one. I would probably …. I wonder who the band would be. Brian’s band or our band? That’s what we think about. Their band and our band, because we’re all friends. And we say, “God, if they did that who would they take? Who are they taking?” “I get to play percussion.” “Well I want to be the drummer.” So, it’s a funny bit.
You know, even people who say, “I can’t believe you play with The Beach Boys guys, man. It’s not the real Beach Boys.” And I just look at them and man – a couple times I called them out. I said, “Dude, you’re a drummer, right?” Says, “Yeah” Said, “What if they offered you the gig? Would you do it or would you say ‘No, I’m not playing with that. That’s not cool.’ You know, would you take the gig? Would ya? Huh? Would ya? Would ya take the gig? Yeah you would.” I put my kids through college. It’s all good. And, fortunately for me, I have a job doing what I love to do and I’m playing with a band that is legendary, man. And it’s a good gig. Best gig I ever had outside my family gig.
Guys, this has been b******. You know what? Vater has been good to me. My life is good. Drums are good. Keep rockin’. Talk to you later. John Cowsill signing off for Vater.