It’s with great sadness that I say goodbye to Billy Cowsill. Sing and dance your heart out now with God. You’re safe, secure and pain free for all eternity in arms of love.
This is not meant to be the story of Billy Cowsill's life. It’s just a glimpse of the man we loved as documented in magazines and interviews.
William Joseph Cowsill, Jr. was born Friday, January 9, 1948, in Providence, Rhode Island, the first of six sons and one daughter born to Barbara Claire Russell and William Joseph Cowsill, Sr.
Billy’s love of music started early when, at about age 8, his father brought home a guitar from Spain. Billy picked it up right away and taught brother Bob what he had learned. Billy and Bob enjoyed singing with their natural harmony. The boys sang at various church functions where they were told they “sang like angels.” After a couple years of living in Canton, Ohio, where Billy and Bob performed on a local TV talent show called Spotlight On Talent, the family returned to Newport, Rhode Island, where their music began to flourish. Billy, Bob, and Johnny Flanders would sit on Johnny’s porch and work on their music, dreaming of the spotlight.
Billy said once in a magazine article, “In Newport, Rhode Island, our home, we had a normal, settled, routine, day-to-day way of life. We would sit in our 22-room-mansion, which is completely emptied of furniture, and practice each day. At school, all the kids knew who we were, because (this might sound conceited) we've been celebrities in Rhode Island for a few years now. Everything we did made headlines in the local papers, but at school we were just like any other kid. It was great!”
“Well there were two things I wanted to be when I grew up. One was a cowboy and one was to be a rock 'n roller. And that was it. And one was like Beatles rock ‘n roller. That was my rock ‘n roll. I missed Elvis Presley and all those early guys. I was like 8 and 9. I wasn’t 12 or 11, 13. I wasn’t a teenager when that went down. I missed it by about 2 years as far as being conscious of what it was. My young adolescent, I was growing fast. I grew into my adolescence fast,” Billy confided in a 2004 interview.
When asked what was the first thing that awakened him to music, Billy replied, “There was a song called "I Want To Hold Your Hand.” When I heard that ‘I get high’ ‘I get high.’ There’s that first interval, I believe right there. And that’s what brought that Everly’s third thing out. I may have the intervals wrong here, but I believe that’s what it is. But it had those two voices, so tight together, so immaculately joined that it elicited a third tone. That and "Don’t Worry Baby" by the Beach Boys.” When questioned if getting that extra voice (due to harmony) was natural for The Cowsills, Billy answered, “Well the point is we didn’t know what it was, but we knew we were doing it. We knew what it was and it made my hair stand on ends.”
Career highs? Billy responded “Standing where Paul McCartney stood on the Ed Sullivan show. Right on the spot.” and “The best song I ever wrote I think was "On The Floor Of Heaven".
It was this strong Beatles influence that led Billy and Bob to recruit brothers Barry and John to form a band. Their goal? To become the American Beatles.
Their first performance was at a festival at King's Park in Newport, Rhode Island, just down the hill from their home of Halidon Hall. The four boys (billed as The Cowsill Brothers) started playing for fraternity parties and the likes at Brown University and Providence College, along with a host of clubs in the Newport area. The boys played Beatles songs for up to 4 hours a night, several nights a week. The Muenchinger-King Hotel and Dorian's were two regular spots they played. Occasionally at Dorian you could find Barbara standing in with Billy and Bob singing folk songs and being billed as Family Sing.
Billy says that they wanted to be a “crack rock-and-roll band.” However the powers-to-be had another idea, adding Barbara to the mix full time. “It was a maneuver to have a different look. It was rather a drag when you're 19 and there's a waitress giving you the eye, who wants to take you home, and you're up there with your mom and your sister."
But the road for Billy and his family wasn’t easy for sure. Times were very hard in those early days. Once, not only were they close to losing their house, but Billy had to chop up his dresser for firewood as the family huddled around the fireplace during a cold Rhode Island winter.
Eventually, the family moved to New York City and continued to pursue their dream. Nine people in one apartment became too much and so Billy and Bob got an apartment next door. It was here that The Cowsills were signed by MGM and the group took off.
Billy was in every way the leader of the group. He could play every instrument and he taught the younger siblings. Billy once said, “I am what the family calls the 'musical coordinator' of the group. I am the bad guy who calls rehearsals, makes Barry practice his bass, makes John drum till he's blue in the face, and tells Mom that this is more important than washing dishes.” Billy was a songwriter, arranger, and producer. The first album that Billy produced was We Can Fly.
When asked why they chose to do so many Cowsill written songs, Billy answered, “Well, for one thing it's become important in the music business that a group only record material written by members of the group. But more important than that is the fact that we know what we can do best and write with that in mind." The Beatles, Hank Williams, The Beach Boys and The Merseys were cited as influences to his writing style. As for writing he continued, “I can only take it in little bits because when I take a little bit there’s so much to it. So what I know is just what I know and what I’ve lived mainly. You know, experience.”
By this time in life, Billy was of college age and he took classes at Pace College in New York as well as Rhode Island College back home. Ironically, Billy just earned passing grades in his music courses at Rhode Island College. His best subject was English. He liked to write creatively, especially poetry and verse.
Billy married Karen Locke on June 9, 1968, in New York City. Soon the whole family made the big move to California, where Billy and Karen lived in the guest house of the Santa Monica property.
Billy tired of the goody-goody image as "America's First Family of Music." Billy’s comment? "I didn't like the schmaltz. I couldn't take the showbiz glitz." "I can't stand them (Cowsill songs). Well, "Hair," I like "Hair," but that's it."
Bob tells the next step of history this way: "Bill got tossed out of the band by my Dad for smoking pot. It was the night before we were going out on tour. It was the beginning of the end. The flame was gone.” And so it was. For Billy was more than a leader. He was the heart and soul of the group.
Billy went on to get his own record deal with MGM and put out a solo LP titled Nervous Breakthrough. The album cover held one word, which looking back, held so much meaning. That word? WHY
It was during this time that Billy started producing for other musicians. During his career Billy produced for such musicianss as The Cowsills, The Osmonds, Patti Mayo, Patricia Convoy, Terilyn, Bodine, Lightmyth, Craig, Korth, Optimal Impact, Ralph Boyd Johnson, Steve Pineo, Rattled Roosters, Popcorn, and Tim Leacock and Ross Watson’s band The Burners.
Billy explains this stage of life this way, “I had no idea what I was going to do, so I ended up with a #1 record in the country, started drinking, didn’t know I was an alcoholic and was soon to become one. No, I was one but soon to have it brought forth. And, was living in Laurel Canyon and I walked into Hormel Studios one day, which was the state of the art studio of the time. Met Geordie Hormel who introduced me to Gary Usher, who wrote “In My Room” with Brian. And Gary came to me and said, ‘Listen, there’s a movie coming out called M.A.S.H. Would you like to sing the title song called "Suicide Is Painless"?’ which is di did di did di dida Da da da da da da da da. And I listened to the song. I said 'Naw.' ”
Also during this time, Billy had a Beach Boy encounter. He started hanging out with Brian Wilson and remembers it this way, “Now Brian wasn't feeling too well in those days - he was literally digging his grave in his backyard - and I went and I said, ‘Brian, Carl just asked me to go on tour.' And he said, 'Don't do it - it'll get you crazy.' So I took his advice. Plus I thought he might be hurt if somebody took his place."
Another project that occurred during this time frame was Billy, Barry, and Paul, along with Waddy Watchel, formed a group named Bridey Murphy and had one single released on Capital Records.
Billy and Karen eventually left California and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here they raised Irish Settlers and Billy was a part of the Mazeppa, a Tulsa youth-culture scene, and in contact with musicians such as J.J. Cale, Leon Russell, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and David Teegarden. Billy became part of a band called Medicine which included Gary Lewis.
Karen and Billy separated in 1970 and their son, Travis, was born here in Oklahoma in January 1971.
Bob once told this story, “Bill had money to demo some songs in New York at the Record Plant. It was not a good period in his life, he was pressed for time, his wife had just left him and just as he was about to pound out these songs he broke his guitar. ‘I was bluer than blue,’ says Billy. That meant unless he found a new guitar, the session was shot and he had wasted his money. Just then, the engineer remembered someone recording there previously had left his guitar behind for an upcoming session. He retrieved a black leather soft case with an acoustic inside and handed it to Billy. ‘Use this,’ the engineer said. Billy unziped it, and inside is a black Gibson acoustic, real old, with Everly Gibson inscribed on the head-stock. It's an original Everly acoustic, belonging to John Lennon. Billy broke down crying and huging this thing like it's a baby. As he says, it was the first nice thing that had happened to him in months. So he used the guitar for the session, left a thank you note in the guitar case and wrote “Johnny's Guitar”.”
"I was starving a bit," Billy says. "Starving a lot, actually, but learning." Stints like street singing and playing for beer were a welcome change from the Cowsills and all that sweetness and light." He bought a bar in Austin, Texas, but "Drank it dry. I was drinking my face off in those days."
Billy eventually migrated to Vancouver, Canada, in 1979. It was here that his country music career kicked into high gear. Asked about crossing into country, Billy answered, “I’ve always been country. Right from the beginning. My mother was a country-western fan. Uh, traditional country-western fan. We lived in Virginia. She just loved that hillbilly music.” He formed a country pop band called Blue Northern and the band stayed together from 1977-1982. Then he formed a band called The Blue Shadows, whose sound is strongly reminiscent of the Everly Brothers, a sound truer to the spirit of Billy's musical aspirations. The Blue Shadows, was nominated for a Juno Award (Canada’s Grammy) for Country Group of the Year in 1993. The Blue Shadows reigned from 1992 to the winter of 1996.
It was here
in 1980 that Billy had his second son, Del who has followed his father’s lead into a music career.
Also during this time Billy “paid the bills” by driving a truck for United Van Lines and fulfilled his dream of being a cowboy with a guest star role on the TV show Lonesome Dove.
Billy chose not to join his siblings when they attempted a comeback in 1990 for he feared he had burned too many bridges in the US recording industry. Billy spoke of his siblings in a 1990 People Magazine article, “They're my babies.” He gave each of his siblings a necklace that is wings and a heart as a symbol of love and support.
Unfortunately, Billy’s drinking continued and his health reached a critical stage. With the help of some wonderful friends, he entered rehab and moved to Calgary in in 1998 to start this process.
Billy was always much loved by friends and fans. At least two songs were written about Billy. Jan Arden wrote “Weeds” and Marilynn Manfra wrote, “Don’t Die Billy”
After completing rehab, Billy attended Mount Royal College, working on becoming a counselor for troubled youth.
"I'm 53 years old, and I don't know who'd even want to hire me at this age, by the time I do a masters after this, but I have to do this for my brain. I lived in a haze for 25 years, and a lot of memories were gone after I came out of rehab three years ago. I started the course to work my mind – I had to do something for it," Billy reflected. "I figured I'd be good at (working with adolescents) because I've been a misdirected adolescent myself."
Billy Cowsill was nominated for Canada’s Outstanding Producer at the Prairie Music Awards in 2001 and 2002 (for Steve Pineo - A Perfectly Good Friendship and Ralph Boyd Johnson's - Dyin' To Go).
It was at the Mecca Café in 2001 that Billy and The Co-Dependents recorded a live CD, Live Recording Event. The Mecca Café burned to the ground on July 26, 2002. Billy was later kind enough to headline a benefit for the folks who worked there.
By 2004, as his health failed more, it almost seemed Billy became philosophical about the love of his life – music. He said, “I don’t have the power that I used to invoke and so part of me wants to go no. I can’t do this because it’s too heart breaking. Breaks my heart.”
The CKUA interview continued:
Unfortunately Billy’s health started to fail once again. “I’ve had three major back surgeries, and the last back surgery was up by my right lung. And they had to deflate my lung for all of about eight hours. And when they re-inflated it, it didn’t come back. You are looking at a man who is singing with one lung.” Billy also struggled with emphysema, osteoporosis, and had a hip replacement.
Tom: Is that because you’re a perfectionist? People have always said that there is only one man. That you’re so on the mark when you’re producing voice. You can tap into, not only that fifth voice we talked about before, but you can tap into something else that that person didn’t know they had. How do you step up to a person that’s a singer and that you have to guide them. Kevin Dunn that you helped a few years ago. He said that you did some of the most amazing guiding for him. Cindy Church did the same thing.
Billy: It’s, it’s, it’s just what I know. I just know it. I have absolute conviction when it comes to working with the human voice. I’m not afraid of it. I’m convinces anybody can do it. I believe it’s a learned task. I believe some are born with more of a predisposition to do so, like myself perhaps maybe. Humbly I say. But there’s a lot of people who could be singing now that aren’t. That don’t think that they have good voices, but they do because somebody said “Shut up” to them when they were really young. Everybody can sing and I have a few students that I work with. And I’m convinced that they can do anything that they want to do with their voice, if they’ll just do it.
Tom: Man we need educators like you more and more and more to help guide people. To give people the confidence. Give people that guidance that you have in your voice. Even now today, do you practice every day?
Billy: Uh, I just started picking it up again. I’ve been a bit blue and I’ve been a bit in pain. Uh, but yes up until about 2 weeks ago I was doing it every day because I had to do a show. So if a show comes up or I have to sing, I’ll take a couple weeks and exercise every single day. I have a bit of a regime that I follow for myself and uh, teach to my students that allows them to at least have a good time with themselves.
Tom: At least be comfortable with them.
Billy: Be comfortable with themselves and know that they can do things that they didn’t think they could do again because somebody told them to stand in the back of the room and keep their mouth shut. To really learn a song you got to study it.
Tom: You are still to me one of the people that have always believed in rock ‘n roll. I mean believed in the true heart of rock ‘n roll. When I first saw you, I couldn’t believe, not only that the voice came out, anybody can sing a note, but nobody can get into the song like you. Nobody can become the lyric of the song. Nobody could that song.
Billy: Because, there’s a reason for that. It’s because I get outside of the song. I don’t get into it MAN, I get outside of it and view it and love it and realize that I am delivering this the way it should be delivered. It’s from out there man. It’s not from in here. It comes through here, but it’s not anyway related to me in any way, shape or form. It’s not personal. Personable, but not personal.
As life progressed, Billy knew he was loved and was comforted by that fact. He said, “Well my family is in awe of me. They look at me like that too. ‘Oh the diva,’ they say." (And in reference to John calling him “Our Brian Wilson”) "That’s adorable. I’m adored by them and I’m adored by my fans and I’m just so thankful for that. That’s a hard job to do. There’s one thing, probably above all others, that keeps me going, are the fans. And the respect and reverence that they show me, I’m am bowled away by it. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. I’m just a singer, man. I’m just a singer." "The moral of the story is just to keep on rockin’. Do not stop rockin’ ever. You stop rockin’, you die. That’s the moral of my story.”
Billy passed away at home on Saturday, February 18, 2006. Thank you Billy for all you've given. We won't forget.
While not a complete list, this is a listing of some people Billy has played music with over the years. The Cowsills, The Co-Dependents, Dutchie and the Doughnuts, Ron Hayward Trio, Stewart Macdougall, Mike Stack, Dr. J. “Black Cloud”, Steve Pineo, Hootenanny Holler, Optimal Impact, Blue Shadows, Carolyn Mark, The Shackshakers, Beautiful Joe & Jake Mathews, Jan Arden, Cindy Church, The Continental Drifters, The Belair Bandits, Charles Lloyd, Blue Northern, Bodine, The Billy Cowsill Band, Nathan Tinkham, Gary Comeau, Lee Dinwoodie, Colin James, Ralph Boyd Johnson, Rattled Roosters, Richard Stepp, Linda Rhyne, Jeff Branshaw, The Mad (20 Years Ago Today), Medicine, Country Medicine, The Osmonds, Patti Mayo, Patricia Convoy, Terilyn, Lightmyth, Craig, Korth, Popcorn, The Burners, Atlee Yeager, Rocky Craig and His Rockabilly Kings, Kim Stockwood, Murray McLauchlan, Leon Portelance, Tom Wilson, Gary Pig Gold, and Randell Kirsch.
Billy recorded on following labels (again I’m sure not complete): MGM, Columbia, Sony, Indelible, Polydor, Blue Baby, Capital, Bumstead, Virgin, A&M, EMI Bonavista, North Truth, Varese Vintage, Stoney Plain, Hootenanny Records, Rhythm Range, Carolyn Mark's Records, Vivendi Universal, Daddy-O-Records, Trouble Clef, GoGet'M Productions, Thunder Records, Sadiebird Records, Lone Wolf Records, To M’Lou Music
But who was this man musically? Billy said of himself, “I was born a bird. That’s what I do. I’m a singer. I whack at the guitar a bit and people think I’m a fairly great rhythm guitar player and it’s a real drag BUT I do it cuz that’s what I have to accept. And I do it with gratitude that I’m even able to do it.”
As a songwriter, Billy comments: "I've just always naturally written about sad things." I remember somebody asking Billy Cowsill about this performance where he'd smashed a guitar over a guy's head. "Were you drinking that night, Billy?" And Billy said, "Naw, just remembering the bad times."
How did others describe Billy?
“Bill (oldest and lead singer) is basically a very quiet boy. He has quite a bit of depth. Bill is very friendly. Bill loves people and children and he has a great zest for living. He's a good student and he aspires to do big things.” “Even if the rest of the family wasn't in show business, I just know Bill would have taken to it on his own. He loves it, and started writing songs when he was 14. His ambition is to someday produce records. Bill would also like to teach English and he is majoring in it at college.”
Barbara Cowsill, 1969
"He’s our Brian Wilson.”
John Cowsill, 2004
Billy is a “legendary singer”
Optimal Impact, 2000
"Other bands don't have Billy Cowsill in them. There's no one else who can sing like that, who can take the songs apart and show us how it's done."
Tim Leacock, FFWD June 2001
"He shows us things no one else knows how to do. Like a singing technique on those low gospel harmonies, singing half as hard, but close to the mike. He knows these things."
Steve Pineo, FFWD June 2001
“What Bill gave us was some confidence that we could say things that we felt as writers and recording artists. He spent many hours with us as we jammed and created a few ideas." “He was really good to work with and liked our ideas. I was on piano and he played guitar as we composed songs.”
Alan Osmond, 2004
“Recently, I relocated a set of near-master quality, studio master-tape copies of the Bodine album. As I listened I got excited again, realizing the tremendous time we had in the studio with Billy Cowsill. He was young and so very positive, willing to experiment and try new things.”
Jon Keliehor of Bodine June 2005