John Cowan's Bass
"A Brother's Tale"
This is my trusty companion "Whitey". I got him in 1975 at The Doo Wop Shop on Bardstown Rd in Louisville KY.
When I joined New Grass Revival in 1974 I was playing a plexiglass Dan Armstrong bass. Once I had been in the band a couple of days I started playing a Fender Precision that belonged to our banjoist Courtney Johnson. Two things happened immediately. Up to that point I had played with my fingers - tap style, like John Entwistle and Jack Cassidy and also a plectrum. Sam Bush suggested I play with my fingers like an upright bass and actually pull/pluck the strings. Being eager to please my band mates I gave it a try and never looked back. The Precision was cool but a little unwieldy in my hands. Hence the trip to Louisville to Doo Wop Shop. I played the 1962 Olympic White Fender Jazz Bass and immediately fell in love. The bass had the thinnest neck to this day I've seen on a Fender Jazz bass. When I inquired how much they were asking for it they said - a whopping $225.00. I didn't have the cash but I did have the Dan Armstrong, and thank goodness they agreed. Our life together started then and ain't by any means over.
When NGR was Leon Russell's band '78, '79, '80 we played the Illinois State Fair on a hot ass day. After the show our "crew"-
Kathy Bush, Hazel Johnson, Liz Cowan and the four us-Curtis Burch, Courtney Johnson, Sam Bush and I were tearing around the stage unplugging stuff and loading it into our van. After one of the trips to the vans I went back on the stage and noticed Whitey was not there. At first I assumed one us had taken it and put away. After asking around we realized it had been stolen off the stage. I was completely devastated and heartbroken. Our next gig was in Los Angeles outdoors. Upon arriving in L.A. Leon called his "Wrecking Crew" partner Carol Kaye and asked her if she would lend me a bass and that we could come get it.
She said "nonsense, I'll bring it out myself". Of course I already knew her, she was already in 1978 "royalty" to any serious bassist worth their weight. So she shows up with a brand new cherry red Fender Precision. Keep in mind I'm all of 25 years talking to Carol Kaye and playing her bass.
Through luck, spirit, or my Dad watching over me (he had died when I was 21 and after that I liked to image him being responsible for the good turns my life took) the person who had stolen the bass was found and the State Fair called us. We told the police if he'd return the bass we wouldn't press charges as he was only 17 years old.
In 2008 if you remember, the U.S. economy went down the tubes. My wife got laid off from her job in December, we had four kids under our roof of various ages and financial needs. I had paired our band down to Jeff Autry, myself and Shad Cobb. It was ROUGH, we were driving all over the country playing for either low guarantees or "door deals".
At this time I decided the best thing to do to help out was to sell Whitey. So I called up my old friend George Gruhn and asked him if he'd sell it as a consignment. First thing he said was "are you sure"? I gritted my teeth and said "yeah man, family first!"
Whitey sat there for a good while at Gruhn Guitars with barely any nibbles. At some point, deflated and relieved, I went down there and took him back. Not long after that, at the I.B.M.A. convention in Nashville, I ran into Sammy Shelor, banjoist extraordinaire and founder/leader of The Lonesome River Band. Sammy told me he had a friend who wanted to buy my bass. His name was Johnny Green. Johnny was a NGR fan, we talked, he's as much guitarist as a bass player, and otherwise just an angel. He said "look, I'll buy this from you and hold on to it and when you can, I'll sell it back to you but I won't get rid of it or anything. Much relieved and grateful I went on my way. I had another bass to play but they ain't Whitey.
My oldest sibling is Richard Douglas "Doug" Cowan. When my father passed away as I said I was 21 years old and Doug was 33. He didn't sign up for the job of patriarch of our family but he sure did do a hell of a job.
When I told brother Doug what happened with Whitey he said "I'm sending you a check and I want you to get your bass back, you pay me if you can, when you can."
Richard Douglas Cowan passed away in December of 2021. I love him more than words can express. He was proud of me for I think the right reasons, he saw my struggles with addiction and my recovery. And watched and supported me as a kid with an "against all odds" dream that I fought to make reality. He reinforced my belief in family first by his own examples and the value of having lifelong friends that you have to maintain for both parties no matter what.
Yes, one of the reasons I love my 1962 'ol piece of wood is that it reminds of so much of our own history: the songs, the words, and the hearts of everyone we've encountered along the way.
Love n stuff,
oh...the signatures on this bad boy are: Elvis Costello, Chris Squire, Gregg Allman, Dusty Hill, Billy F Gibbons, Kenny Gradney, Gordon Stoker (The Jordanaires) and Garry Tallent (on the back, he wouldn't sign on the front...lol).