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Obituaries

Billy Cowsill, 58; Lead Singer for 1960s Teen Pop Band the Cowsills

February 21, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Billy Cowsill, former lead singer of the Cowsills, the pop family band that scored several top-10 hits in the 1960s and inspired "The Partridge Family" television series, has died. He was 58.

Cowsill, who suffered from emphysema, osteoporosis and other ailments, died Saturday at his home in Calgary, Canada, said Steve Pineo, a member of Cowsill's most recent group, the Co-Dependents, a Calgary-based roots rock band.

The former teen star's death came less than two months after the body of his brother, Barry, was discovered on a wharf in New Orleans on Dec. 28. The 51-year-old, a New Orleans resident, had been missing since Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29.

At the time of Billy Cowsill's death, the Co-Dependents album "Live at the Mecca Cafe, Vol. 2," was the top-selling independent album in the Canadian province of Alberta.

"They were a blistering roots rock band, but any band Billy was in was a great band because Billy was a great performer," said Neil MacGonigill, owner of Indelible Music, which recorded and released two Co-Dependents albums and a solo Billy Cowsill album.

"He was such a fan of music and such a great singer that he chose to do cover tunes most of the time," MacGonigill told The Times on Monday. "He did everything from the Beatles to George Jones to Roy Orbison to Brenda Lee."

The native of Newport, R.I., once recalled that one of his earliest memories was harmonizing with his mother, Barbara, when he was 5.

"She was doing dishes, and I remember singing 'You Are My Sunshine,' " he told the Vancouver Sun in 1992.

He began playing the guitar when he was 7 and was soon harmonizing with his younger brother Bob on Everly Brothers songs.

He was a teenager in 1965 when he and Bob, who also played guitar, were joined by younger brothers Barry (on bass) and John (on drums) to form the Cowsills.

The band began by playing at school dances and church socials. Someone from the "Today Show" later booked them on the show. A recording contract with Mercury followed, but their three singles failed to generate much interest.

Still convinced that the wholesome group could be a commercial hit, Mercury producer Artie Kornfeld set up an independent recording date and talked Barbara Cowsill into contributing vocals on "The Rain, the Park and Other Things." Released by MGM in fall 1967, it rose to No. 2 nationally and sold more than 1 million copies.

The brothers' siblings Susan and Paul soon joined the group, which was known for its bouncy rhythms and sweet harmonies. Among the Cowsills' other hits are "We Can Fly," "Indian Lake" and their version of the theme from the rock musical "Hair."

The Cowsills starred in their own special on NBC and appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and other television variety shows.

They also were featured regularly on the covers of 16 and other teen magazines, were the subjects of their own comic book, appeared in a series of national TV commercials for milk and recorded the theme song for the comedyanthology series "Love, American Style."

The Cowsills even had a chance to star in their own situation comedy based on their musical lives.

But family patriarch William "Bud" Cowsill, a retired Navy officer who began managing the boys' band in 1965 and later served as its "creative director," rejected the idea after learning that Shirley Jones, not Barbara, would star as the mother. "The Partridge Family," which turned David Cassidy into a teen idol, aired from 1970 to 1974.

Despite the family's success, Billy Cowsill wasn't happy recording what he later described as "schmaltzy" material or with being marketed 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," he said in a 1992 interview with the Vancouver Sun.

Billy left the Cowsills before it split up as a group in the early 1970s.

He later told the Vancouver Sun that he and his father had a major blowout in Las Vegas.

"The next day he wrote me this really long letter," Cowsill recalled. "I was fired from my family and the band."

After leaving the Cowsills, he recorded a solo album, "Nervous Breakthrough," for MGM and was a producer for RCA.

At one point, he was living in Canada, playing in bars at night and working for United Van Lines during the day. After a couple of years up north, he bought a bar in Austin, Texas. "I drank it dry," he later told the Vancouver Sun. Cowsill, who continued his music career with the groups Blue Northern and Blue Shadows, formed the root rock-oriented Co-Dependents in the late '90s after moving from Vancouver, Canada, to Calgary.

"The stuff he always held close to his heart was stuff by those bands from the '50s and '60s," Pineo told The Times on Monday.

"I've played with a lot of musicians, but he was the best singer and best live performer I've ever witnessed," Pineo said. "There was no other way for him to perform than all out. Which is one of the reasons, after his health got worse, he didn't want to play anymore.

"He never put in a subpar, half-hearted performance."

In addition to his siblings, Cowsill is survived by two sons, Del and Travis.

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