Billy Cowsill: 1948 to 2006
When he passed away February 18 at age 58, William Joseph “Billy” Cowsill’s obituary writers boiled his life down to a single story. As a teen, he fronted the Cowsills, a family act that enjoyed a brief but memorable run on the charts with bubblegum hits such as “The Rain, The Park And Other Things” and served as a model for TV’s “The Partridge Family”. But here’s something some obits neglected. Billy Cowsill had one of the finest voices you could ever hope to hear — Hank Williams fused with Roy Orbison — and he co-fronted one of the great, lost groups of the Americana movement, the Blue Shadows.
Billy liked to joke that he was kicked out of the Cowsills, both the band and the family, by the time he was in his 20s. When opportunity subsequently knocked, Cowsill often found an excuse to avoid opening the door. In 1970, he issued a solo album on MGM, Nervous Breakthrough, which failed to break through. He was once tipped to sit in as a touring member of the Beach Boys but declined, and he said he passed on a chance to sing the title song to the movie M.A.S.H. After a spell roaming between Los Angeles, Tulsa, Boston, New York, Austin (where he bought a bar and, he often joked, drank it dry) and Northern Canada, he settled in Vancouver. He fronted the band Blue Northern, then gigged in a couple of different configurations before working as a solo act under the guidance of k.d. lang’s then manager, Larry Wanagas, and his associate Dave Chesney.
In the early ’90s, the gaunt Cowsill, who back then subsisted on a diet of coffee and cigarettes and little else, joined forces with singer-songwriter Jeffrey Hatcher to form the Blue Shadows. Cowsill called it the best creative partnership of his life. Their vocal blend drew justified comparisons to the Everlys. The pair, along with drummer J.B. Johnson and bassist Barry Muir (who replaced Elmar Spanier), fused hardcore honky-tonk, British Invasion pop, R&B and soul. Acclaim came easy; commercial fortune proved elusive. The Blue Shadows’ two Sony Canada albums, the sublime On The Floor Of Heaven and the harder-rocking Lucky To Me, failed to move them beyond a cult audience. In 1995, Cowsill fell out with his bandmates, burned a few other important bridges and retreated to Calgary.
Against all odds, and with the help of his friend Neil MacGonigill, he turned his life around. He got control of his demons. He put on weight and appeared healthy and happier than he had been in years. He worked with a new band, the Co-Dependents, released two live albums, and became a guru to young musicians. Just when he had his house in order, he was stricken with Cushing’s Syndrome and osteoporosis. Back surgery left him with a permanently collapsed lung, and the brittleness of his bones resulted in two broken hips. He also developed emphysema.
Then in December, Billy received news that the body of his brother and bandmate Barry Cowsill had been recovered in the aftermath of the New Orleans flood. On the very day family and friends were scattering Barry’s ashes in their home state of Rhode Island, they received news of Billy’s death.
Despite the disappointments of his career and the challenges he faced in life, Billy’s love of music was undiminished. After a decade of silence between them, Hatcher and Cowsill reconciled days before the singer passed away. In his final weeks, Cowsill spoke of his desire to see the out-of-print Blue Shadows albums reissued. Plans are under way to do just that, along with the release of other previously unissued material.