Bobbi Cowan, a veteran publicist who worked with some of the biggest names in music, died Thursday. She was 78.
“Her bands were like a who’s who of the era,” says Cameron Crowe, whom Cowan took under her wing when he was a teen rock journalist in San Diego. “Jethro Tull. The Rolling Stones. Jackson Five. Deep Purple. Looking Glass. Cheech and Chong. T. Rex. Humble Pie. Pink Floyd. Emerson Lake and Palmer. Yes. Diana Ross. Gram Parsons. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. Wally Amos’ Cookies were even a client — and many more. Bobbi was often there, just behind the curtain, as much a part of the show as the artists we all remember.”
Cowan began working in the music industry in the 1960s and enjoyed stints at major firms including Gibson & Stromberg and Rogers & Cowan before branching out on her own. She also served as the head or co-head of publicity for the Motown and Casablanca labels in the 1970s.
“She was the most passionate woman I ever experienced in the music business,” says her former boss, Gary Stromberg. “If she was trying to sell you on an artist, she never took no for an answer. Always came from her heart, and had a laugh that shook the room.”
Says fellow publicist Jane Ayre: “Losing Bobbi Cowan hit me hard especially as I reflected on her kindness, generosity and trail-blazing. Without Bobbi, many of my female colleagues and I would never have been able to forge through the male-dominated music industry. She will be deeply missed.”
Testimonials have begun to accumulate on Facebook as word of her passing has gotten around. “She had a smile that could light up a room, and a laugh that was like a warm embrace,” wrote Toby Mamis, Alice Cooper’s manager. “She was a fantastic publicist and a great person,” said longtime Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich. Entertainment journalist Todd Gold called Cowan “the human version of a delightful song you’re always happy to hear.”
Her name was renowned enough in music circles in the ’70s that Crowe actually included it in one of the early drafts of his script for “Almost Famous,” which can be found online. (The Dennis Hope uber-manager character, ultimately played by Jimmy Fallon, was to have said in his pitch to the Stillwater band, trying to impress them: “Do you know Bobbi Cowan, Lisa Robinson, Jim Ladd, Frank Barsalona?”)
Crowe enthuses with love for Cowan as he remembers her. “To anybody dropping into the Los Angeles music scene of the ’70s, you were mighty lucky to meet Bobbi Cowan,” he tells Variety. “She was more than just a premier publicist with an unerring sense of pop culture, and the fans on the street. She was a master at putting people
together. Many of the longest lasting relationships in the world of journalism and music started with Bobbi. When she turned her sparkling smile on you, everything was right with the world.”
Crowe continues, “I was a stringer for a small underground paper in San Diego, and Bobbi took interest in my writing,” the filmmaker continues. “She brought me to Los Angeles, introduced me to Ben Fong-Torres and photographer Neal Preston, creative partners to this day, and to writers like David DeVoss from Time and Peter Greenberg from Newsweek. Her living room sofa was often occupied by freelancers like me, looking to break into magazine work. The get-togethers at her house were joyful get-togethers where work always took second-place to personal relationships. It was the golden era of pop culture, a minute or two before it became an even bigger enterprise. Bobbi knew you, your family, and she wanted to help you with your hopes and dreams. She was just so joyful, it was catchy.”
Pete Senoff, a friend who maintains a website devoted to people who worked in the music industry in the 1970s, has put up a page dedicated to photos of Cowan with her friends from the business over the years, which can be found here.
Cowan was part of a family public relations dynasty. Her father was Stanley Cowan, who began his career in the 1930s as a songwriter and composer before founding a publicity firm, Stanley Cowan & Associates. Later, he joined the company co-founded by his brother, Warren Cowan, Rogers to get & Cowan. That was where Bobbi got her start, too, before moving over to Gibson & Stromberg.
“She started in the business at a very early age because my family was in the public relation business,” says her sister, Gail Hendricks. “That was my father and my uncle. She started in the public relations business when she was 16, and she just loved it. That’s all she wanted to do her whole life — except in her earlier years, when she used to sing quite a bit. She was on television a lot and used to sing in clubs for a while. But she decided she wanted to stick with PR.” (The photo below captures a beaming young Cowan between Frank Sinatra and her father.)
Crowe describes the heady days of the 1970s in Bobbi’s orbit: “Working first for Rogers & Cowan, Bobbi later joined the legendary Gibson & Stromberg publicity firm — their offices on Sunset across from Tower Records were like a salon for the music community. She was a star publicist who never put the spotlight on herself. On any given day at that office, you might run into one of the great artists Bobbi and her fellow publicists (Lydia Woltag, Patty Faralla and others) represented, or you’d find some out-of-work rock writers getting a free sandwich from the refrigerator. When she took a liking to your band, she’d work tirelessly to get you in front of all the right editors and writers. Young Michael Jackson was a favorite client, and she carefully helped guide him through his earliest solo ventures as he eased into a career away from his brothers. When she took an interest in your band, you felt it. When Bobbi fell in love with Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show, she didn’t mess around. She took their song ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’ to huge hit radio success… and the actual cover of the magazine.”
Cowan wrote about these days in an in-house bio she put together about her career some years back.
“One night at the Troubadour, hanging out with some other PR types at the bar, I received an offer I couldn’t refuse,” she wrote. “Gibson & Stromberg, a young firm run by some creative crazies, plucked me and my Chrysalis clients from the corporate clutches of R&C, and for the next few years, I got to work with the absolute cream of the music world. We represented the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour; we handled the breaking news of Jim Morrison’s death in that Paris bathtub; we virtually owned rock ‘n’ roll publicity in the early 1970s. We had our own table at the Whisky, with a brass plaque on the wall. We worked with the Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Albert & B.B. King. We hooked up Cheech & Chong with Lou Adler and enjoyed the first flush of success (and a few other substances) with them. We handled upstarts like the very talented Bill Withers, who was fresh from his job at Lockheed, installing toilets in 747 aircraft.
“We signed the entirely unknown and insane band Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, and insisted that CBS release ‘On the Cover of the Rolling Stone’ as their follow-up single to ‘Sylvia’s Mother.’ Dr Hook eventually got ‘on the Cover of Rolling Stone’ with their story titled ‘What’s-Their-Names Make the Cover.’ We worked with James Taylor and his brother Livingston (and his sister Kate), we handled Steely Dan, and for the exciting small label Blue Thumb Records, worked with the Pointer Sisters and the Crusaders. For Shelter Records we handled Leon Russell and J.J. Cale. My old friends Flo & Eddie (Mark & Howard from the Turtles) came on board. We represented the major-label debut of the lovely singer Minnie Riperton, and I was privileged to watch her recording her first Epic album, produced by her husband Dick Rudolph with the help of Stevie Wonder.” She also helped break Yes after that British band made its L.A. club debut at the Whisky, and was along for the firm’s handling of the Rolling Stones’ famously decadent tour in 1972.
In 1974, she left Gibson & Stromberg to become co-VP of publicity at Motown Records with Bob Jones. “I quickly became in-house champion of the young group the Commodores, who had made the promise that they would become bigger than the Beatles,” she wrote. “Another project I fell instantly in love with was Smokey Robinson’s first solo effort after he left the Miracles. ‘A Quiet Storm’ was a gorgeous album, and I personally felt that it would go down in history as one of the great make-out albums of our time. I began pitching every national magazine and every female writer I could find, and Smokey started getting the kind of press attention he had long deserved. At some point, Someone Upstairs At Motown determined that I had become too Personally Involved with this project, and I was given my release. So much for my first brush with the Corporate Mindset.”
Venturing out under her own shingle with an office in Culver City, she took on Linda Lovelace as her first client. “We had problems immediately, as she wanted me to tell the press with a straight face that she never did ‘Deep Throat,’ that it was some other person. Very short-lived, that project. I was not heartbroken,” Cowan wrote. She worked with William Shatner on the album that famously generated his cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and “I learned that ‘Star Trek’ fans can take anything, as long as their heroes are involved. Bill, however, was a gentleman, and a lot of fun to work with.” She took on two bands on A&M Records at the time, Supertramp and Styx, and with the latter, “we enjoyed grand success, except with the rock press.”
In 1978, Neil Bogart offered to buy her out to become VP of publicity at Casablanca. “It was a momentary lapse of judgment on my part, but the High Profile position, leased Mercedes, grand salary and other perks were irresistible,” she wrote, under the subheading “an offer I should have refused.” Cowan found the experience unsatisfying as Bogart moved away from day-to-day operations of the label, leaving her to work with less agreeable personalities. “The excesses which drove the world of disco were pretty bizarre to a late-bloomer like myself; also, the music gave me a headache. My second attempt at clawing my way up a corporate ladder ended up in disaster less than a year later.”
She went independent again, setting up shop in Beverly Hills with a new partner, Kip Morrison, where they worked on everything from the careers fo John Prine and Steve Goodman to the launch of the 1980 Danny Sugerman book about the Doors, “No One Here Gets Out Alive.”
The love between her and Crowe went both ways, as she explained in her self-penned bio. She recalled driving down to San Diego in 1972 to a club show where Crowe was to interview one of her clients, Looking Glass, of “Brandy” fame; Jim Croce was opening the show. “We had arranged to meet a kid with whom we were in correspondence and phone contact, a person with the unlikely name of Cameron Crowe. … He had written for the San Diego Door and for his college newspaper, reviewing our artists’ albums. He was 14, he had told me, and he would meet us at the club. We arrived, and outside the artists’ entrance was this tall, gangly kid, all chin, waiting for us, because the club’s owner wouldn’t let him in without being accompanied by an adult. I went on to ‘adopt’ this brilliant young writer, introducing him to many of the editors at the major magazines… For the past 30 years, I have watched his career explode from afar, at every step, wishing him well.”
Said Stromberg, “We were in the music ‘business,’ but Bobbi just loved music and the people who made it. She couldn’t have cared less about the business part. She was instrumental in the success of so many of our clients — Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Procol Harum, Neil Diamond, Bill Withers and countless others. If I had to say one word to describe Bobbi, it would be ‘passionate.’”
Says her sister, Gail, “Everybody loved her. She was just a fun-loving person, very generous, very kind. I talked to one of her old friends today.There would be nothing bad anything could ever say about her until this disease hit her.” Gail remembers a birthday party for Bobbi held at Genghis Cohen on Fairfax that drew 250 people, a sign of her popularity in the music community. “She had the ability to say something and make everybody laugh. I think I laughed more with her than anybody else.” Before Bobbi’s health began to decline about 10 years ago, “she lived every day to the fullest,” Gail says. “She was like the Energizer Bunny. I’m her younger sister, and I couldn’t keep up with her.”
Cowan had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for a number of years, according to family members, and had taken a turn for the worse after an accident that required hip surgery three months ago.
Memorial services have been put on hold until an in-person gathering can be held after the pandemic passes, the family reports.
Cowan is survived by her sister, Gail Hendricks, a brother, Robert Cowan, her daughter, Lori Gartin, and two grandchildren, Shawn Gartin and Carrie Gartin.