The Cowsills In Books

Roogues and Rebels
by Brian Brennnan
University of Regina Press - 2015


Billy Cowsill - Singer - 1948-2006

Billy Cowsill was known across North America as the lead singer of the wholesome, 1960s family band that inspired The Partridge Family television series. In western Canada – where he lived for the last twenty-seven years of his life – he was also remembered as a self-destructiv3e boozer and drug addict who eventually found redemption and a cult following as a rockabilly singer. First in Vancouver and then in Calgary, Cowsill left his mark as a performer with a “voice from heave” who conjured up the musical ghosts of the past with his pitch-perfect renditions of country and pop classics by Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and other greats from the 1950s.

He compared himself to a bird that was born to sing. The oldest child of an American naval officer who served on bases in Virginia, California, and New England, Cowsill taught himself guitar as a youngster in Rhode Island and performed with his brother Bob at family gatherings when both were in their early teens. They were later joined by two other brothers, Barry and John, singing Beatles songs at parties and church socials around Newport. Their father took charge of their musical career when he retired from the Navy in 1965. Billy, at that point, was seventeen, and had been performing semi-professionally for three years. Believing they were destined for better things than parish functions and weddings, the father added their mother and sister to the group and began promoting the Cowsills as “America’s first family of music.”

Billy resented the addition of other family members to his four-piece “guy band.” “You don’t want your mom in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” he said years later. “How can you get to s**** girls when you’re up on stage with your mom, and you have to go to your room afterwards because you’ve got a 12 o’clock curfew?”

The father, William (Bud) Cowsill Senior, borrowed $100,000 to spend on musical instruments, transport, and promotion for his talented family. It took a while, though, for the gamble to pay off. The family lived in virtual poverty, chopping up furniture for firewood when unable to buy heating oil on credit, and neglecting to shovel snow off the driveway to keep the bill collectors away. When they were on the verge of having their home repossessed, they were spotted by a writer for television’s Today show who arranged for the Cowsills to appear as musical guests on the program. That led to a recording contract and to a hit single, "The Rain, the Park and Other Things,” which was released in 1967 and sold one million copies. A second million-seller followed in 1969 when the Cowsills released. their bubblegum version of the title song from the rock musical, Hair. By that time they had become a target for critics of synthetic pop music, primarily because of their cutesy image coupled with their participation in an advertising campaign for milk.

Billy Cowsill enjoyed the pop music success while it lasted. The high point for him was the group’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968, when he got to stand in the same place where Paul McCartney had stood in 1964. .Asked how he knew it was the same spot, Cowsill replied, “I just knew.” After that appearance, there was talk of having the Cowsills star in their own weekly television series, based on their lives. However, the family refused to have anything to do with it when the producers said they were hiring an actress, Shirley ]ones, to play the mother. The show subsequently aired on ABC as The Partridge Family, with Jones as the mother and David Cassidy playing title role that would have been performed by Billy.

Cowsill’s association with his family’s band ended abruptly In 1969 when he got into a violent argument with his father, who promptly kicked him out of the group. In one version of the story, reported by People magazine, Cowsill was fired when his father caught him smoking marijuana after a gig in Las Vegas. However, Cowsill insisted this never happened. The two had been drinking heavily, he said, and got into a fistfight after his father started criticizing his friends. "My father was a real good guy, a guy who would give you the shirt off his back,” he said. "But if he’d got a gut full of liquor, he’d beat your head into the wall." Cowsill, too, had a serious drinking problem at that point - when he was twenty-one, “I didn’t know it yet, but I was an alcoholic." He was also married to a “wonderful woman who was an artist," and was soon to become a father. The booze, however, wrecked the marriage. His wife had left him by the time son Travis was born. Cowsill later joked that he considered writing a song for his son titled, "How Can I Look up to Daddy When He's Passed Out on the Floor!'

Cowsill had no regrets about leaving the group. He felt the same way the critics did about the "schmaltzy” music the record producers had forced the Cowsills to play. “I felt like a Clydesdale hooked up to a Budweiser wagon.” He wanted to try his hand at another kind of music, combining elements of rock ‘n’ roll with the traditional country songs his mother had sung to him as a child. "We lived in Virginia for a while, and she just loved that hillbilly music. I'm sure I was hearing country music in the womb because she played it all the time. It was all around me growing up, and I never lost my love for it”

After leaving the family group, Cowsill said, “I left the middle of the road and headed for the ditch.” He recorded a solo album that went nowhere because Cowsill didn’t have a clear idea yet what kind of sound he wanted to produce. He drifted back and forth across the United States, drinking heavily, popping pills, playing in roadhouses, 'getting my butt kicked left and right, spitting in the devil’s eye, and watching it sizzle.” He stopped in Los Angeles to learn studio production techniques from Harry Nilsson, best known as the singer who recorded “Everybody’s Talkin" for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. Cowsill also learned more about the roots of rock n roll by touring with such genre-crossing singers as Joe Ely and J. J. Cale.

Then Cowsill moved to the Northwest Territories. Whv? "Why not?" he told a newspaper interviewer. “I had. Never been there, right? I left Los Angeles, took a wrong turn, and just woke up there. At night, I was playing in bars. In the day, I was working for United Van Lines, taking furniture across the Great Slave Lake ice bridge from Hay River to Yellowknife.” He lived in motels and continued with the heavy drinking and drug-taking. In 1977 Cowsill took what was left of his family band savings and bought a bar in Austin, Texas. .” drank it dry. I drank aquart a day at least."

In 1979 a friend suggested Cowsill move to Vancouver. He stopped drinking for a while, joined a country-rock band named Blue Northern, and cut a few records. He liked Vancouver and had decided to stay there when the band broke up in 1982. He put together another band that included future guitar hero Colin James, and played a few concert gigs opening for k.d. lang. During the early 1990s, Cowsill disbanded that group and joined forces with a Winnipeg-born rockabilly singer name, Jeff Hatcher. It turned out that Hatcher, like Cowsill, was interested in reviving the classic rock sounds of the 1950s and 196os, not trying to be trendy with hip-hop, rap, grunge, or Europop. They formed a group called the Blue Shadows and wowed audiences with their accurately rendered recreations of Roy Orbison, quasi-operatic falsetto, the gospel-inflected sound of early Presley ("I only do skinny Elvis,” said Cowsill), and the high harmonies of the Everly Brothers and the Beatles. Their aim was to pay homage, not reinvent the form. “You have to get the arrangements right,” Cowsill said. “These guys are like Mozart. You get them right or you don't do them.” For the first time in years, Cowsill was making music he truly enjoyed. “How happy am I?" he said to a reporter. “I’m happy as a junkyard dog in hillbilly heaven, and you can quote me on that.” He described the band as "three vegetarians and a junkie.”

He performed what he called his “dead guys’ set,” with great respect and reverence. "Honour, don’t imitate,” Cowsill told younger musicians. It wasn’t about impersonating; it was about saluting. "When Billy sang that music, Roy Orbison was in the room," said a fellow musician. "Elvis was in the room. It wasn’t covering, it was channeling.” As well as paying tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll legends of the past, Cowsill and Hatcher composed and recorded an album of country-rock songs, On the Floor of Heaven, that brought them a recording contract with Sony Music in Canada, and the hope of a similar deal in Nashville. While critically acclaimed, the album did not lead to bigger things. A second album also failed to connect with the Nashville music establishment. The music proved too rock-oriented for country radio and too country for rock radio. The Blue Shadows broke up in 1995, and Cowsill hit the bottle and the pills again.

Friends in Calgary rescued him from substance abuse when he reached rock bottom. By that time Cowsill was filling his body with prescription drugs because of a bad back and other health problems. He underwent back surgery in Calgary, suffered a collapsed lung, gave up the booze again, came out of rehab, and resumed performing, with a group known as the co-Dependents. “He may not be the Cowsill of old, but he can still sing better with one lung than most can with two,” observed Calgary herald columnist Bob Remington. Then aged fifty-se, Cowsill told a radio interviewer his aim was to “keep on rockin’ “ for as long as he was able. “You stop rockin’, you die,” he said. “That’s the moral of my story.” When he was on stage, Cowsill said, “I have the ability to give and receive love. Off-stage, life is more difficult.” He recorded two CDs with the Co-Dependents and released a live recording that was captured on cassette tape when he played at Calgary’s Palliser Hotel, opening for k.d. lang in 1985.

His health continued to decline. Osteoporosis fractured his bones; he underwent two more back surgeries, and also had hip-replacement surgery. Then he fell and broke his shoulder. Broke, no longer able to play, and depressed by the drowning death of his brother, Barry, in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, Billy Cowsill died in Calgary in February 2006 at age fifty-eight. His long time friend and sometime manager, Neil MacGonigill, told reporters Cowsill had suffered from emphysema and Cushing’s syndrome – a hormone disorder – as well as osteoporosis.

The Calgary herald’s Swerve magazine devoted the better part of an entire issue to the story of the troubled troubadour who had made Calgary his home for the last decade of his life. “If Cowsill channeled Orbison, and the Everlys, and skinny Elvis, the world lost a true musical clairvoyant,” wrote columnist Remington. Cowsill’s son, Travis, thanked the father he knew mainly at a distance for giving this “sometimes very dark world something so pure and filled with light; your voice, your craftsmanship, and your contribution to the betterment of humankind through your music.” Freelance writer May-Lynn Wardle characterized him as a “true original, the real deal, the gunfighter, the Voice.”

Three years after Cowsill’s death, the old inner-city Calgary rooming house where he had lived was declared a municipal historic resource. Its heritage designation came primarily because the ninety-eight-year-old building was considered a good example of colonial-style design in the early twentieth century. However, a city heritage planner was quick to add, "The fact that he lived there definitely adds to the heritage value of the site." The grizzled country-rock legend was still in the room.


Promotional photograph of Billy Cowsill at the Crystal Ballroom, Palliser Hotel, Calgary, July 1985

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