Johnny Cowell’s Musical Story
Johnny (John Marwood) Cowell was born in Tilsonburg, Ontario on January 11th 1926. He was a notable Canadian trumpeter, composer and band leader who also played with the Toronto Symphony Band for multiple decades. A bit of early Cowell family history is Johnny's father and three uncles were members of the Tillsonburg Town Band, and Cowell played with the group sporadically during 1933-1934 (then only 7-8 years old). Presumably this continued for a few years as his skills grew. However, his first live performance came in 1932, when his mother (a pianist) was invited to perform in the Tillsonburg council chamber for the councillors. Johnny accompanied his mother and at some point stood up on a little stage there and played Abide With Me. Another notable performance from his youth was on his seventh birthday, he was asked to come to London, Ontario and play on a radio show called “Sleepy Town Express.”
His pre-teen and early teen years saw him conquering the Tilsonburg and London music scenes. But his heart was in Toronto. He had spent much of his early years listening to a weekly CBC-Radio show performed by the Toronto Symphony Band. He practiced day and night trying to replicate the trumpet solos of Ellis McLintock. His dream was to be a part of this band. His father, sensing his sons passion and growing talents, managed to find sheet music for him, which greatly helped in his quest.
Johnny was largely self-taught, but did study briefly with Edward Smeale in Toronto upon joining the Toronto Symphony Band as trumpet soloist in 1941. The story of how he got here is particularly interesting.
When he found out that McLintock was leaving the Toronto Symphony Band in 1940 to serve in the RCAF Central Band in Ottawa, Johnny quickly fired off a resume. He said he was the “man” for the job (then only being 15). He lied about his age as he knew they wouldn’t take him if he were a teenager. About four days after he sent the letter, he received a response “Mr. Cowell, we’d love to hear you play.” With that, he was on his way!
A friend of Johnny’s father did him the immeasurable favour of driving him to Toronto on his transport truck. They left at 4am and arrived at 7am in Toronto. From the truck depot, Johnny, only armed with directions and never being in Toronto before, made his way east to the home of Symphony Band/Orchestra director Laidlaw Addison. Before 9am that morning, he arrived at his destination.
When the door finally opened and he introduced himself, he was greeted with “how old are you?” Put on the spot, Johnny had no choice to be honest about his age; stating that he was 15, soon to be 16. The response was less than ideal. He said “Well it’s a wasted trip, we can’t hire you; you’re too young.” Surprisingly though, he was still allowed to come in and audition.
Upon the beginning of his audition, Johnny tactfully played two of Ellis McLintock’s solos that he had played on the radio. He was then asked to play a few standards and finally a hymn. Clearly impressed by his audition, he asked Johnny to stay the night and audition for the band committee at Varsity Arena in the morning. Johnny gladly accepted.
Despite Addison’s initial remark about his age, upon finally auditioning the following morning, Johnny was in! Addison arranged a place for him to stay, the age problem was worked out with the union and Johnny found himself, playing on the very radio show he used to listen to weekly with the band he dreamt of being in. When he turned 16 he was picked up by the Toronto Symphony as an ‘extra,’ but would play a lot.
He would serve during World War II as soloist with the Royal Canadian Navy band in Victoria, BC, and played first trumpet from 1943-1945 with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. The opportunity presented itself to him in 1941 at the age of 17. This being the case, he’d need a letter from his father allowing him to join the Navy.
His years of service saw him playing more than he ever had. All of this extra playing had taken its toll on Johnny. One night in particular was the final straw. After the non-stop celebrations that took place on the day that Japan was defeated, Johnny woke up unable to play a single note! After numerous doctor and specialist visits, it was determined that he had irreparably damaged his lips; severing the tissue and destroying the muscles in his lips.
Where many musicians would think their career was over, Johnny simply changed his direction of focus upon his return to Toronto. He began writing and composing a number of pieces. Ultimately, he submitted one to the Royal Conservatory Of Music. They were so impressed, that they offered him a scholarship to study composition full time with Oskar Morawetz and John Weinzweig.
Gradually, he did regain his trumpet playing abilities, first playing in the swing and dance bands of Stanley St John and Art Hallman (among others) around 1947. He’d also play with Jack Denton's Palais Royale Orchestra, and on occasion with the Spitfire Band. Not only did playing in swing and dance bands help him get his form back, it also helped get him his wife as she was a vocalist in the Stanley St. John dance band; while he was still a member. They were married on September 26th, 1953.
In 1952 he joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra or TSO for short. He would remain with the group for nearly 40 years leaving in 1991. This job was a steady paying gig and helped him focus on composition in his spare time.
Beginning with his song “Walk Hand in Hand” in 1956 (followed shortly after by “Just My Luck To Be 15” in 1957), Cowell became a fairly successful Canadian songwriter; having 150 of his almost 200 compositions recorded by other artists over the following decades.
Hit compositions of Johnny's performed by other artists include: “Strawberry Clam,” recorded by Al Hirt (1958), “Stroll Along with the Blues,” featured in the Peter Sellers movie Two Way Stretch performed by Ted Heath (1958), “Our Winter Love,” recorded in orchestral arrangements by André Kostelanetz, Lawrence Welk, Bill Pursell, and Hugo Winterhalter, and a major hit of 1963 “These Are the Young Years,” recorded by Floyd Cramer. Most notable was having "His Girl" become a hit after The Guess Who released a cover of it. Their original cover reached #19 in Canada, A remixed version, with an overdubbed string section and other embellishments, reached #45 in the UK in 1967. The song was also released in the US as a single in February 1967, but it did not chart.
Cowell started his own group, The Johnny Cowell Quartet in 1960. The following year they would back The Billy Van Four vocal group, on their lone single The Last Sunrise/I Miss You (both sides penned by Johnny Cowell).
Beginning in 1967, he started to release albums of his own compositions and his arrangements of other people's. He’d release more than ten albums (LPs and CDs) of his songs and arrangements. Two albums with orchestra and chorus were released for the Scope and CTL labels between 1967 and 1969, and others of varying instrumentation for Cascade, Stone, Ampersand, Audat, Fanfare, and Broadland over the course of a few decades (most released in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
In the mid-1970s after his roughly decade long stint as a band leader, he resumed his orchestral work; appearing with the TSO and various Canadian orchestras. A solo appearance with the TSO on July 18th, 1991 in a tribute concert marked his retirement from that orchestra. Cowell then was a soloist with the Hannaford Street Silver Band 1992-2001. In 1992 he also joined the Toronto Philharmonic, and in 1998 the Toronto Pops Orchestra.
He's lived a long life and has had a long and storied career in the Canadian music industry. Canada was lucky to have a man of such talent in its midst, raised from its own stock. May he rest in peace and may his compositions continue to be covered by and inspire musicians for many years to come.
WRITTEN & RESEARCHED BY: AARON LUSCH