Per reports, Cowsill's surviving siblings learned of the death on Saturday in Newport, Rhode Island, as they gathered in their hometown for a service and memorial for Barry Cowsill, another brother and band member, who apparently perished last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"We don't know what happened, but he hasn't been well for a while," Bob Cowsill said of his brother Billy in the Providence [Rhode Island] Journal.
The family's Website, Cowsill.com, concurred, noting that Billy Cowsill "had a very rough time of it in the last few years." His ailments included emphysema, osteoporosis and Cushing's syndrome, a hormonal imbalance.
In the Providence Journal, Paul Cowsill intimated that his older brother's drug and alcohol problems had "caught up with him."
"He'd be the first one to tell you he's paying the fiddler," Paul said in the newspaper.
Indeed, when the Calgary Sun asked Billy Cowsill in 2002 to explain the breakup of one of his post-Cowsills bands, the Blue Shadows, he responded frankly: "Three vegetarians and a junkie--what are the chances?"
"I [messed up], plain and simple," Billy Cowsill said in the Sun. "Blow another free lunch, Bill."
In 2004, with Billy Cowsill's health in decline, members of the Cowsills, including Barry Cowsill, played a benefit concert for him in Los Angeles. Peter Tork of the Monkees, a fellow act from the 1960s pop fraternity, and Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, the 1980s band that echoed 1960s harmonies, appeared, as did Oscar-winner Shirley Jones, star of the 1970-74 sitcom, The Partridge Family, which the Cowsills inspired.
While the Partridges bantered, the Cowsills imploded--the band, consisting of brothers Billy, Bob, Barry, John and Paul, sister Susan and mother Barbara, was over even as their TV selves tickled the laugh track. As Bob Cowsill once observed per an oft-cited quote: "It wasn't just the end of a business, it was the end of a family."
Billy Cowsill is the third member of the Cowsills to die after Barry and Barbara. Barbara Cowsill succumbed to emphysema at age 56 in 1985; the skeletal remains of Barry Cowsill, who would have turned 51 last September, were identified by morgue officials in New Orleans in January.
It was not known precisely how or when Barry Cowsill died. He had been living in New Orleans for a few months prior to Hurricane Katrina, and while he was due to come to Los Angeles to undergo treatment for alcohol abuse, the storm hit first. A voice mail message left on sister Susan's cell phone shortly after Katrina rolled through was the last his family heard from him.
On a cold Saturday in Rhode Island, Susan Cowsill scattered Barry's remains into Newport Harbor--or, tried to, anyway. The Providence Journal said a gust of wind blew the ashes back at the mourners. Paul Cowsill told the paper he got ashes in his eye--"and I'm digging it."
Another Barry Cowsill memorial was planned for this coming weekend in New Orleans. There was no immediate word on services for Billy Cowsill.
In the 2002 interview with the Calgary Sun, Billy Cowsill all but wrote his own epitaph. "It's been a ride, man," he said of his life and career. "Thirty-five years of rock 'n' rolling and pop music-ing--it's been a ride."