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Cowsill's comeback
Billy's bounced all over the music map since the days of The Cowsills, his family's schmaltzy group in the '60s. But thanks to Jeff Hatcher, he's finally found his harmonic niche
by John Mackie
January 18, 1992
The Vancouver Sun
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

It’s 10 after 10 on a frosty Tuesday night at Darby Dawes pub and the spirit of Hank Williams has just taken over Billy Cowsill’s soul. Taking a last hit on his ever-present cigarette, he steps up to the mike, closes his eyes and lets loose with this wail.

“Say, haaaaaaaay, good-lookin’,” he sings in a deep-fried hillbilly twang, “Whaaaaaat you got cookin’? “

It’s like time-traveling back to 1952. Cowsill’s vocal is perfect: he sings the song exactly like Hank, yet manages to put his own stamp on the time-worn classic. His vocal is fluid, effortless: he swoops, swings and yodels like a kid who’s on stage for the first time and is having time of his life.

It’s performances like this that have earned Billy Cowsill a loyal local following and a sterling reputation among his peers.

“Billy probably has the most underestimated set of vocal cords in the business,” says Colin James, who used to play guitar in Cowsill’s band. “The guy’s a mother, he really is.”

“There’s nobody who sounds just like him,” says Cowsill’s current guitarist, Jeff Hatcher. “It just happened – a spaceship landed and Cowsill’s voice came out.”

Cowsill has tasted success, as lead singer in ‘60s faves the Cowsills (remember Hair and The Rain, The Park and Other Things?). But for the last decade, he’s been a fallen angel, playing Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley classics on the Darby Dawes/Fairview/Hogan’s Alley circuit, recording demos of his original material and searching for the elusive record deal that will bring him back to the top of the charts.

Enter Jeff Hatcher. As singer, songwriter and guitarist for a succession of fiery bands in Winnipeg and Toronto – the Fuse the Six and the Big Beat – Hatcher has earned a cult following across Canada among connoisseurs of ‘60s pop.

When Hatcher relocated to Vancouver last spring, he signed on as Cowsill’s guitarist. Cowsill has played with some great musicians, but there was something special about the new pairing.

When Cowsill and Hatcher harmonize, their voices blend so well you can’t tell who’s singing. Cowsill sings high harmony and Hatcher low, but at certain points they intersect and switch, seemingly unconsciously. Their “harmonic camaraderie” recalls Don and Phil Everly or Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds: it’s like they’re twin sons of different mothers.

But it’s the Lennon and McCartney harmonies that have the Tuesday night crowd at Darby Dawes buzzing. Setting the Way-Back machine for Beatles ’64, Cowsill and Hatcher induce chills with, well, magical renditions of Anytime at All, You’re Gonna Lose That Girl, Bad Boy, Nowhere Man and She Loves You.

And this isn’t just an oldies act. Over the course of the night, Cowsill and Hatcher whip off a series of originals that rival the best work of new country stars like Dwight Yoakam, Foster and Lloyd, and Marty Stuart, or modern-day Mersey-beat pop-rockers like the La’s.

Cowsill adds a vocal harmony to a majestic Hatcher original, Deliver Me, that lifts it on to a heavenly plane. Hatcher inserts a big guitar twang into a swinging Cowsill honky-tonker called The Fool Is the Last One to Know. Their sweet, sad harmonies take Hatcher’s weeper Think On It to the blue side of lonesome.

They call their sound “Hank goes to the Cavern Club” – Hank being Hank Williams, the Cavern Club being the legendary Liverpool nightspot where the Beatles started to set the world on fire. It’s a sound that’s simultaneously fresh and familiar, and may finally be Cowsill’s and Hatcher’s ticket to the big time.

Together with bassist Elmar Spanier and drummer Jay Johnson, they’ve dubbed themselves the Blue Stragglers – a classic C&W name that’s actually derived from a scientific term for “vampire stars” in the farthest-flung reaches of outer space.

“They sidle up to something a little smaller and go ‘fffftttt,’ there’s lunch, explains Cowsill. “And they kind of straggle on. They’re called blue stragglers – they’re real stars that basically suck the fuel out of a tinier star and keep goin’ on until they bump into another one.”

“And what does that tell you about us?” asks Hatcher.

“I just liked the sound of the name Blue Stragglers,” continues Cowsill. “Plus I like science. How cute, how adorable – vampire stars. Not to say we’re vampire stars, that we want anybody else’s blood or money or hit records.”

Billy Cowsill can’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing music. “I was harmonizing with my mother when I was five years old.” He recently turned 44. “She was doing dishes and I remember singing You Are My Sunshine.”

He picked up the guitar when he was seven, and was in his teens when he formed a band with siblings, Bob, Dick and Paul. Based in Rhode Island the Cowsills gigged up and down the New England coast. “It was really cool being in the Cowsills when we were a four-piece guy band,” he says. But then his mom and sister joined, record companies started insisting on “schmaltzy” material, and the Cowsills found themselves marked as “America’s first family of music.”

“MGM Records created an image with my mother and my sister, who I love dearly as my mother and my sister, but no thank you, I don’t want you in my rock and roll band,” says Cowsill. “How can I get laid Las Vegas, mom, when you’re on stage with me? The waitress is winking. I’m going ‘gotta go to bed. Twelve o’clock curfew, you know?” Anyway . . . it had its drawbacks.

“What was really deflating was that . . . my heroes, the big guys I used to hang out and play with in bars, were Waddy Wachtel, Warren Zevon and Lindsay Buckingham. We would all go play Benny K’s (in Los Angeles) for $10 and all the Heineken you could drink and waitresses we could score. I only wanted to impress the big guys, so it was really mortifying to have all this schmaltzy material come out, when I knew that they knew that we had quite a good band that was never exploited.

“The band the Cowsills, the actual four-piece band, was never on any records except Hair. That was in ’69, and on that record is a 15-year-old bass player and a 13-year-old drummer. After that I said, ‘I’m out here.’ We were playing Las Vegas and I said, ‘Wayne, I don’t like your place, I’m outta here.’ And left.”

In a recent story on the Cowsills – who have reunited in Los Angeles – People magazine said that Billy was kicked out of the band after he was caught smoking pot. “Total BS,” says Billy, who insists he quit after a big blowout with this father/manager in Las Vegas.

“It was after the big show at the Flamingo. My wife and my mother and my dad and I are sitting in the lounge. ‘America’s First Family of Music’ is on the marquee. We’re sittin’ there and my dad’s corked on Cutty Sark. I’m corked on vodka gimlets and he starts slaggin’ my friends.

“He goes, ‘and your pot-smoking friend Waddy.” That was it. I came up out of the chair and gave him the bird [the finger]. It was the first time I ever did it. ‘Dad, f--- you!’ He comes up and lunges toward me, we’re both pie-eyed, and I grab his wrists and realize that I can hold him. This isn’t gonna go here [mimes a fist on the chin]. He can’t do it; I’m stronger than he is.”

The Cowsills’ days as hitmakers were over, though a TV series modelled on Billy and his kin – The Partridge Family – became a huge success. Billy spent the bulk of the ‘70s drifting, “getting my ass kicked left and right, spittin’ in the devil’s eye and watching it sizzle.”

He studied production in L.A. with Harry Nillson, played with J.J. Cale in Oklahoma and moved to Lubbock, Tex., with roots rock legend Joe Ely. Then Ely left Lubbock to join the circus.

Cowsill proceeded to move to the Northwest Territories. Why?

“Why not? Hadn’t been 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.” Where’ you live? “Hotels.” What’d you do? “Drink. In a bar.”

After a couple of years up north, Cowsill bought a bar in Austin, Tex., and moved back down south. “I drank it dry. I drank a quart a day at least.”

A friend suggested he come to Vancouver in 1979. He joined country-rockers Blue Northern for a spell, and decided to stay when they broke up. He quit drinking several years back, and in the past year finally seemed to be getting his solo career back on track, with the help from k.d. lang’s manager, Larry Wanagas.

Last fall, he showcased in Nashville for some record companies, and wound u co-writing with some of Nashville’s hottest tunesmiths, including Mark Irwin (who wrote Alan Jackson’s breakthrough hit Her in the Real World) and Bill Lloyd (the Lloyd in Foster and Lloyd).

Then along came Hatcher. Born and bred in Winnipeg, the 34-year-old guitarist grew up on the Beatles and Chuck Berry, but found himself out of touch with the popular music of the mid-70s.

“I never saw anybody playing Chuck Berry, Hank Williams or Lennon and McCartney songs anywhere, in any such pub, at any school dance,” recalls Hatcher. “It was like the sludge, half-tempo, half-speed, top heavy, lead-assed rock of the mid-;70s. It just drove me crazy.

“It’s not just that I hated that stuff so much – which I did – it’s just that I thought, as long as this stuff is popular, I’m never gonna get a job playing Run Rudolph Run.”

But the punk/new wave explosion offered him hope, and Hatcher wound up in the Fuse, a killer pub rock band in the Graham Parker/Dave Edmunds mould. After the Fuse broke up in the early ‘80s, he moved to Toronto and released an excellent album, Cross Our Hearts, with his band the Big Beat.

Hatcher has another Big Beat album recorded and in the can, but nowadays everything is full-speed ahead with Cowsill: they hope to record a Stragglers album this spring.

They seem an odd pair – Cowsill has a deep-rooted cynicism you seem to find in former teen stars, while Hatcher seems like a fresh-faced, boy next door type who appears to have discovered the fountain of youth. But they share the same obsessions in music, obsessions that make this a partnership made in heaven.

“One night we did Only the Lonely,” recalls Cowsill. “There aren’t too many people, other than my brother Bob, who are aware of the very last consonant in the song. Before Roy sings the last little ‘if your lonely heart breaks, only the lonely,’ there’s this [trills] ‘you’ve gotta ta-ay-ay-ke.’

“Now there’s a K there. When I study stuff, I want to know exactly what’s happening at the end, so I always turn everything up, even on a fade, just turn it right up. Right there, at this ‘you’ve gotta take’ he goes K, and there’s one slapback [sound], kuck kuck. It’s tape slapback, but it’s so cool. Kuck-kuck.

“So one night, it’s, ‘let’s do Only the Lonely. Know that, Jeff?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll do the low part, dum dum dum dum do doo di wah.’ Then Jeff goes, ‘want me to do the K?’ I looked over and wen [looks stunned]. My hair kind of bristled and I went [deep, conspiratorial voice]: ‘Wait a minute. You know about the K? I thought me and my brother’ . . . ‘Yeah. Do you wanna do the kuck-kuck, or should I do the kuck-kuck?’ “

“There we are onstage going, ‘do you want the repeat, or the send, you know?’ [laughs] Great! We’ve even got manual goofs, manual effects on stage. This is priceless. Nobody knows this.

“We do some Beatle tunes too, which is really cool,” he adds. “But you’ve got to do them really right or they just sound atrocious. You have to do the arrangements, they’re like Mozart. You get it right, or you don’t f--- with it. What’s this ‘my own arrangement’s --, what are you, Bob Goulet? Wayne Newton?

“The first time we went into All My Loving I got scared, ‘cause I thought I was on the Ed Sullivan show! It’s just uncanny.”

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