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William "Bill" Joseph Cowsill Jr., most commonly known professionally as Billy Cowsill, (January 9, 1948 – February 18, 2006) was an American singer, musician, songwriter, and record producer. He is notable as the lead singer and guitarist of The Cowsills, who had three top 10 singles in the late 1960s. From the mid-1970s until his death, he developed a career in Canada as an alt-country artist, as well as being the producer of a diverse number of Canadian artists.
|Birth name||William Joseph Cowsill Jr.|
|Born||January 9, 1948|
Middletown, Rhode Island, U.S.
|Died||February 18, 2006 (aged 58)|
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
|Occupation(s)||Musician, singer-songwriter, record producer|
|Labels||MGM, Polydor, Sony, Indelible|
Bill Cowsill was born in Middletown, Rhode Island, the eldest child of the seven Cowsill children—six boys and one girl—and was named after his father, William "Bud" Joseph Cowsill Sr. (1925–1992). At a young age, Bill began singing with his younger brother, Bob (born August 26, 1949), playing guitars provided for them by their father, Bud, then serving in the U.S. Navy. The brothers had originally wanted to form a rock band. At their father's insistence, Bill and Bob Cowsill formed The Cowsills in 1965 with their brothers Barry on bass and John on drums. Their father became their full-time manager, following his retirement from the Navy. He was physically and emotionally abusive towards his family, in both his spousal and parental roles. Such abuse continued during his role as the group's manager.
The group started playing around Newport before they recorded their first single "All I Really Wanna Be is Me" in 1967 on the independent label, Joda. While the first single failed to chart, an appearance on the NBC Today Show to promote it led to Mercury Records offering them a contract. However, three singles on that label failed to spark interest, and they were dropped. Artie Kornfeld, their producer at that time, remained convinced of the band's potential and persuaded the children's mother Barbara to contribute to backing vocals behind Bill's lead on "The Rain, The Park & Other Things", a song co-written by Kornfeld. It was their first single released on MGM Records, and was also included in their first eponymously titled MGM album. After the success of that single, their younger sister Susan and brother Paul joined the band. This was followed by Bill's attempt to get remaining brother Richard in the group. Bill had been impressed by Richard's drumming and set him up for an audition with father Bud, but after listening for about 30 seconds Bud flatly rejected Richard from joining the group.
"The Rain, The Park & Other Things" single sold over a million copies in late 1967 and reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their second MGM album, We Can Fly, released in 1968 and produced by Billy Cowsill, at the age of twenty, spawned a second Top 40 hit with the title track, which was co-written by Cowsill. In 1968, "Indian Lake" (from their third MGM album Captain Sad and his Ship of Fools) became another top 10 hit, while in 1969 their version of the title track from Hair, with Billy Cowsill singing lead vocals, peaked at No. 2.
The Cowsills made regular television appearances, which led to Columbia Pictures considering a sitcom based on their story and starring most of the members of the band; the deal was abandoned when the producers of the show wanted to replace Barbara in the cast. The show would later become The Partridge Family, with David Cassidy playing the lead singer and Shirley Jones as the mother.
It was commonly thought that Cowsill's involvement with the family band came to an abrupt end in 1969 when his father, Bud, caught him smoking marijuana, and he was immediately expelled by his father from the group. In fact, Cowsill's dismissal occurred one day after he and his father were in a drunken physical altercation in the lounge of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. The dispute was over Bud Cowsill's insults in relation Billy Cowsill's circle of friends, guitarist Waddy Wachtel in particular. State troopers had to be called to break up the fight between father and son. Billy Cowsill was dismissed from the group the next day. According to his brother Bob, Billy Cowsill's dismissal was the beginning of the end of the Cowsills as a group, since no other sibling could effectively assume their eldest brother's group leadership role.
Following the breakup of the group in 1970, it was discovered that most of the group's wealth had been dissipated through poor investments made or authorized by Bud Cowsill.
Early 1970s: TulsaEdit
Cowsill credited his time in Tulsa with the growth of his musical ability.
Subsequent to his dismissal from The Cowsills, Billy Cowsill was briefly considered as a replacement for Brian Wilson in The Beach Boys' live performances. Cowsill was dissuaded by Wilson, who reportedly cautioned Cowsill that "They'll drive you crazy." He was also in demand for his production talents, developed during his time as a producer of recordings by The Cowsills. In 1971, having relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma Cowsill released a solo album, Nervous Breakthrough, on MGM Records. The album, on which Cowsill had also acted as producer, failed to chart. The album had been recorded with the encouragement of MGM producer Mike Curb. As his own recording contract was ending, Cowsill recommended that Curb record The Osmonds, whom Cowsill had encountered at Disneyland, singing barbershop music, while wanting to commence a career in pop music. Curb acted on Cowsill's recommendation.
During this period, he befriended Joe Ely and also explored starting a country music band with Gary Lewis, of Gary Lewis and The Playboys Around this time, Cowsill also purchased a bar in Austin, Texas, which ended up failing because, as Cowsill admitted, he "drank it dry".
By 1972, after Susan, Paul and Barbara opted out, Bill briefly rejoined Bob, Barry and John, reforming the original Cowsills' lineup, and released one single, a cover of Danny O'Keefe's "Covered Wagon", which also failed to chart. Shortly afterwards, The Cowsills disbanded completely in a storm of bitter acrimony that left some members estranged from each other for several years.
Yellowknife, Calgary, Bryan Fustukian, c. 1975–1977Edit
Cowsill moved to Canada in the mid-1970s. He first went to Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories where he played at the Yellowknife Inn, following which he worked for a moving company as a general laborer. He then settled in Calgary, Alberta, where he started to sing locally. He later joined the band of Edmonton-based Alberta country singer Bryan Fustukian as guitarist and second lead vocalist.
Vancouver, Blue Northern, 1977–1982Edit
Cowsill moved from Calgary to Vancouver as of 1977, and became a fan of the local band Blue Northern. He began sitting in with the band on a regular basis, and not long after he became a member. In 1979, the group released Blue, a four-song, 12" EP. Two of the songs were written by Cowsill, who also produced the record. The band's self-titled album was released on Polydor Records in early 1981, and was co-produced by Cowsill. The band broke up in 1982, notwithstanding continuing public interest, as well as Juno Award and Canadian Country Music Award nominations.
Vancouver, Calgary, 1983–1991: Continuing in MusicEdit
Following the breakup of Blue Northern, Cowsill continued in music, both as a performer and a producer, alternating his residence between Vancouver and Calgary. In 1985, he opened for k.d. lang at the Crystal Ballroom in Calgary. During this period, Cowsill was managed by Larry Wanagas, who was also k.d. lang's manager and record producer at the time. A recording of Cowsill's performance was released in 2004, as Billy Cowsill Live. In 1988, Cowsill produced a cassette release for The Burners, a rock band based in Calgary, whose members would form Cowsill's last band, the Co-Dependents, a decade later.
During the 1983-1991 period, Cowsill performed as a solo artist and with the band Billy Mitchell's Trainwreck, a Vancouver-based alt-country band presumably named after Billy Cowsill and Lindsay Mitchell. Band members included Lindsay Mitchell, (formerly of Prism), Elmar Spanier, Chris Nordquist and Danny Casavant. As a solo artist, Cowsill was typically accompanied by upright bass player Elmar Spanier and other side musicians, becoming popular in western Canada through performing what Cowsill described as his "Dead Guys Set"; country and pop songs by artists no longer living.
Vancouver, The Blue Shadows, 1992–1996Edit
In 1992, Cowsill became the co-lead singer, with Jeffrey Hatcher, of The Blue Shadows. Cowsill and Hatcher became known for their Everly Brothers-like harmonies. Cowsill regarded his association with The Blue Shadows as his most positive experience as a musician, to that point in his career. In 1993, The Blue Shadows were signed to Sony and released their debut album, On The Floor of Heaven receiving positive reviews. The group found itself at the forefront of a Canadian Alt.country movement. In 2005, Cowsill stated that he considered the title track to the album to be the best song he had ever written. In 1994, the group received a Juno Award nomination for best country group or duo, while their debut album earned gold status in Canada, selling more than 50,000 copies. In 1995, the Blue Shadows released their second and last album, Lucky to Me, breaking up one year later. Both Blue Shadows albums were co-produced by Cowsill and Hatcher. In later years, there has been increased interest in the band's music, particularly following the re-release, in 2010, of On the Floor of Heaven.
Cowsill's father died of leukemia in 1992, the year the Blue Shadows first formed. Cowsill had taken care of and reconciled with his father at the time of his death, and also took to wearing his father's Navy dog tags, after his death. Cowsill's drug addictions, which had commenced in the 1970s, also became worse, following his father's death. Cowsill blamed his addictions for the breakup of the Blue Shadows.
Calgary, The Co-Dependents, 1998–2004Edit
Following the breakup of The Blue Shadows, Cowsill returned to Calgary, where he was assisted in overcoming his addictions by members of Calgary's music scene, including Jann Arden, as well as entering a formal recovery program in Calgary. It took Cowsill approximately two years to completely overcome his addictions, from which he remained free for the balance of his life.
Newly sober, Cowsill started to play engagements in Calgary with Tim Leacock, whom Cowsill had first met and taught to play bass in the 1980s. They were later joined by Steve Pineo, on guitar and vocals and Ross Watson on drums, forming the Co-Dependents, in 1998. All had been members of The Burners, whose cassette release, Low Tech/High Torque, Cowsill had produced in 1988. Cowsill also enrolled, as a full-time student, at Mount Royal College in Calgary, where he studied towards a degree in psychology, with the objective of becoming a counselor for troubled youth. Cowsill and The Co-Dependents performed as Cowsill's study schedule permitted, rather than on a full-time basis. The band became quite popular in Calgary and in parts of western Canada and the United States, playing a mix of country, bluegrass, blues, rock and rockabilly music. The band obtained a regular weekend engagement at The Mecca Café in Calgary and, in June 2001, recorded their performances over three nights. These were released by Calgary independent music label Indelible Music as Live Recording Event (2001) and Live At The Mecca Café, Volume 2 (2005). Live Recording Event was regarded, as of 2004, as one of the most successful Alberta roots recordings in memory.
Despite Cowsill's serious health challenges, the Co-Dependents continued to perform until late 2004, as Cowsill's health permitted.
During this period, Cowsill assisted other Calgary-based artists. In 2000, he produced and arranged the vocals for Sun Sittin', the debut album of Calgary hard rock band Optimal Impact. Cowsill also coined the term "Surf Metal" in relation to the album's title track. In 2002, Cowsill co-produced Dyin' to Go, the debut album from Calgary country and blues singer, Ralph Boyd Johnson. Cowsill also appeared as a guest vocalist on various recordings, such as on recordings by roots rock group The Shackshakers and on Gary Pig Gold's 2002 Gene Pitney tribute He's A Rebel (The Gene Pitney Story Retold).
Cowsill married Karen Locke in 1968, with whom he had a son, Travis (b. Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1971). He later was in a fifteen-year relationship with Vancouver-based Mitzi Gibbs, with whom he had a second son, Delaney (b. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1980).
Illness and deathEdit
In the last few years of his life, Cowsill was in declining health, suffering from emphysema, Cushing syndrome and osteoporosis. Cowsill's health went into serious decline in 2004. He required a cane to assist in walking, and underwent total hip replacement surgery and three major back surgeries, a complication from which resulted in a permanently collapsed lung. That year, a benefit concert for Cowsill was held in Los Angeles, featuring the Cowsills, Peter Tork, Susanna Hoffs and Shirley Jones, among others.
Despite his profound health challenges, Cowsill continued to write, perform and record. He retrained himself to sing, to accommodate losing the use of one lung. Six months before his death, he accepted an invitation to perform two songs onstage with Calgary honky-tonk singer-songwriter Tom Phillips. His last recording was "The Days I'm With The Horses", recorded in Calgary on July 18, 2005. The song, written and performed by Stewart MacDougall, was produced by Cowsill, who also sings background vocals. It is included on Rivers and Rails: A Tribute to Alberta, a compilation album by various artists, released in 2007. The album had originally been planned as a 2005 release, to coincide with celebrations of Alberta's centennial. Cowsill also co-wrote, with Ralph Boyd Johnson and Suzanne Leacock, the title song to the album, on which he plays guitar.
Cowsill died on February 18, 2006, aged 58, at his Calgary home, survived by his two sons. Family members learned of his death while holding a memorial service the next day, in Newport, Rhode Island, for his brother and bandmate Barry, a victim of the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina. Cowsill's body had not been found and identified until January 2006. He was cremated, and his ashes later scattered in Newport, Rhode Island.
On April 20, 2006, a tribute concert in memory of Billy Cowsill was held at The Railway Club in Vancouver. On May 18, 2006, a memorial service for and musical tribute to Cowsill was held at Knox United Church in Calgary.
At the time of Cowsill's death, his last album with the Co-Dependents, Live at the Mecca Café, Volume 2, was the top-selling independent album in Alberta.
Cowsill's last residence, located at 1723 9th Street SW, Calgary, is regarded as of heritage significance, and has been officially so designated, in part due to Cowsill's residency there and it being the place of his death.
- 2005 Live at the Mecca Café, Volume 2 (Recorded 2001), Indelible
- 2001 Live Recording Event, Indelible
The Blue ShadowsEdit
- 1995 Lucky to Me Sony
- 1993 On the Floor of Heaven, Sony
- 1980 Blue (4-song EP), Quintessence/Polydor
- 1981 Blue Northern, Polydor
- 2004 Billy Cowsill Live (Recorded 1985), Indelible
- 1970 Nervous Breakthrough, MGM 
- 1972 "Covered Wagon" (Cowsills reunion single), London
- 1968 We Can Fly, MGM
- 1968 Captain Sad and His Ship of Fools, MGM
- 1967 The Cowsills, MGM
- 2007 Beautiful Dreamers: Volume 1 Alberta Sessions
- 2007 Rivers and Rails: A Tribute to Alberta
- 2006 Sorrow Bound: Hank Williams Re-Examined
- 2002 He's A Rebel: The Gene Pitney Story Retold
- 2000 The Shackshakers, With Special Guests
As a producer of other artistsEdit
- Indelible Music Website
- Steve Dougherty, As Apple-Cheeked Stars of the '60s, the Cowsills Lost Their Family to Fame; Now They're Finding Harmony Again. People, December 17, 1990. Retrieved 2014-09-05.
- Credits for We Can Fly; AllMusic. Retrieved 2014-09-22.
- Track listing, We Can Fly; AllMusic. Retrieved 2014-09-22.
- Uncredited, Shadowy Man. Vancouver Magazine, April 1995. As reprinted in Silver Threads - Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2014-10-18.
- Derek Hannah, Billy Cowsill, The Road and Other Things. Calgary Straight, 2001. As reprinted in Silver Threads - Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2014-09-14.
- Allen Baekeland, Billy Cowsill-Americana Music List Archived 2014-09-08 at the Wayback Machine, February 19, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-08.
- Wilson also reportedly asked Cowsill, "Do you think there is enough bass in 'I Get Around'?". Derek Hannah, Billy Cowsill, The Road and Other Things. Calgary Straight, 2001. As reprinted in Silver Threads - Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- Particulars of Nervous Breakthrough; waddywatchellinfo.com. Retrieved 2014-09-05.
- Billy Cowsill Discography Archived 2014-09-07 at the Wayback Machine; Billy Cowsill Website Archived 2013-02-09 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 2014-09-05.
- Michael Bates, Billy Cowsill, Gary Lewis and Tulsa's "Mazeppa Scene"; BatesLine, January 15, 2014. Retrieved 2014-09-08.
- Originally released on O'Keefe's eponymous 1971 debut album.
- Yellowknife Inn website Archived 2014-11-13 at the Wayback Machine; yellowknifeinn.com. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
- Heath McCoy, Rock legend Cowsill dies in Calgary home Archived 2011-06-28 at the Wayback Machine, Calgary Herald, February 20, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-10.
- Profile of Bryan Fustukian; fustukian.com. Retrieved 2014-09-06.
- Gerry Wand, The Bryan Fustukian Band, With Billy Cowsill: Hair-Trigger Cowboys, On Occasion; June 12, 2012. Retrieved 2014-08-29.
- Profile of Blue Northern; canadianbands.com. Retrieved 2014-09-06.
- Profile of Blue Northern; Pacific Northwest Bands. Retrieved 2014-09-05.
- A banquet venue at the Fairmont Palliser Hotel in Calgary.
- The Burners, Low Tech/High Torque; Calgary Cassette Preservation Society, June 20, 2010. Retrieved 2014-09-09.
- Mary-Lynn McEwen, Cowsill finds music a hard habit to break Archived 2014-09-10 at the Wayback Machine, June 14, 2001, as reprinted in Billy Cowsill Website Archived 2013-05-30 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 2014-09-09.
- Steve Pineo biography Archived 2014-09-11 at the Wayback Machine; stevepineo.com. Retrieved 2014-09-09.
- Billy Mitchell's Trainwreck. Silver Threads--Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2015-01-02.
- BobCats Band News Archived 2014-09-11 at the Wayback Machine, April 11, 2006. Retrieved 2015-01-02.
- Paul Cantin, "Jeffrey Hatcher's Songs of Healing". No Depression 77: Instruments of Change. Bookazine, p.120. Retrieved 2015-01-12.
- Uncredited, Biography of The Rattled Roosters; Artistdirect. Retrieved 2014-09-07.
- Kerry Doyle, The Blue Shadows Revisit On the Floor of Heaven, Exclaim!, June 16, 2010. Retrieved 2014-09-07.
- Charlotte Dillon, Profile of The Blue Shadows; AllMusic. Retrieved 2014-09-07.
- Transcript of Billy Cowsill radio interview with Tom Coxworth, CKUA, December 12, 2005; The Cowsills Forums. Retrieved 2015-03-16.
- Profile of the Blue Shadows; canadianbands.com. Retrieved 2014-11-18.
- Ken Tucker, Seventeen Years Later, The Blue Shadows Reach U.S, NPR Music, July 19, 2010. Retrieved 2014-09-07.
- Joal Ryan, Another Cowsill Family Tragedy, Eonline, February 21, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-04.
- The Recovery Acres Society, otherwise known as "1835 House".
- Ralph Boyd Johnson, Recollections of Billy Cowsill, in relation to Johnson's involvement with Billy Cowsill and Cowsill's influence on Johnson's later album, 1723 9th Street S.W.. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Fish Grikowsky, Bands on the run. Jam! Music, November 30, 2004. Retrieved 2014-09-16.
- Profile of the Co-Dependents; canadianbands.com. Retrieved 2014-09-16.
- The restaurant was severely damaged by arson in 2002 and did not continue as a major entertainment venue: Mecca Café Update Archived 2014-10-18 at the Wayback Machine, City of Calgary News Release, July 26, 2002. Retrieved 2014-09-16.
- Indelible Music, Particulars of The Co-Dependents. Retrieved 2014-09-16.
- Uncredited, Biography of Optimal Impact; metalunderground.com. Retrieved 2014-09-09
- See Ralph Boyd Johnson website
- Particulars of He's A Rebel (The Gene Pitney Story Retold); Discogs. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Cowsill Family Tree; Silver Threads - Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- Travis Cowsill later became involved with the film industry, principally as a storyboard artist; Travis Cowsill credits; IMDb. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- Mitzi Gibbs died in November, 2006, nine months after Cowsill, and had also been in poor health prior to her death. Gregg Simpson, Mitzi Gibbs, November 27, 2006. Vancouver Jazz Forum; Retrieved 2014-09-19. Brian Nation, Mitzi memorial, January 2007. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- That Voice, That Stare Archived 2015-09-24 at the Wayback Machine, Calgary Herald, May 12, 2006, via Canada.com. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Delaney Cowsill, professionally known as Del Cowsill, is a professional musician, associated as of 2013 with Dustin Bentall and The Smokes. Bentall is the son of Canadian singer Barney Bentall; Profile of Dustin Bentall; www.dustinbentall.com. Retrieved 2014-09-19.
- Billy Cowsill Website Archived 2013-02-09 at the Wayback Machine; Notice, December, 2004. Retrieved 2014-09-10
- Billy Cowsill Obituary, Country Music News, April 15, 2006, as reprinted in Silver Threads - Cowsills Website. Retrieved 2014-09-10.
- Heath McCoy, Rock legend Cowsill dies in Calgary home Archived 2011-06-28 at the Wayback Machine. Calgary Herald via Canada.com, February 20, 2006. Retrieved 2015-03-28.
- Particulars of Tom Phillips; KerfMusic. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Stewart MacDougall bio; www.troubleclef.ca. Retrieved 2014-09-14. Stewart MacDougall is erroneously credited as "Stuart" MacDougall on the album.
- Particulars of Rivers and Rails: A Tribute to Alberta; www.moose-meadow.com. Retrieved 2014-09-14.
- Heath McCoy, CD a late present for Alberta Archived 2016-03-24 at the Wayback Machine. Calgary Herald, June 19, 2007. Retrieved 2014-09-14.
- " 'Suzanne Leacock, who is the wife of Tim Leacock of the Co-Dependents, thought she had a good hook for a song with the line "rivers and rails", so she, Billy and myself ended up getting a song out of it. Suddenly the idea for a collection of songs about the history of Alberta was born' says Johnson, who enlisted the services of 27 writers for the 15-song album." CDs dig deep into Alberta roots Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine, The Edmonton Journal, May 26, 2007. Retrieved 2014-09-14.
- In the years prior to his death, Cowsill had lived in a house with fellow musicians Ralph Boyd Johnson, Back Alley John and Duris Maxwell, among others. The Johnson album, 1723 9th Street SW, references the house address as the album title: Amy Nakaska, Ralph Boyd Johnson sings about home, The Three Hills Capital, June 15, 2011. Retrieved 2014-09-01.
- Daniel J. Wakin, William Cowsill, 58, Leader of Family Pop-Rock Band, Dies. The New York Times, February 21, 2006. Retrieved 2014-08-30.
- Jessica Robertson, Billy Cowsill dead at 58. Rolling Stone, February 21, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-01.
- Billy Cowsill Website Archived 2013-05-30 at the Wayback Machine, Notice of Event. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
- Dennis McLellan, Billy Cowsill, 58; Lead Singer for 1960s Teen Pop Band the Cowsills. Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2006. Retrieved 2014-09-03.
- Billy Cowsill home Lower Mount Royal, Calgary Heritage Initiative Forums, April 13, 2007. Retrieved 2014-09-01.
- Jason Markusoft, Pop star's old home spun into showcase Archived 2015-02-24 at the Wayback Machine, Calgary Herald, November 18, 2009. Retrieved 2014-09-01.
- https://www.discogs.com/Bill-Cowsill-Nervous-Breakthrough/master/862008 Retrieved 10 July 2020.
- Patti Mayo passes Archived 2014-10-06 at the Wayback Machine. Vancouver Province via Canada.com, April 22, 2008.