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Bee Gees : working with the best

(By JOHN DUPONT,  October 6, 2005)

PRAIRIEVILLE -- Local musician and producer Harold Cowart has thought about Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb a lot lately.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the 1980 Grammy-winning album, "Guilty." The record was the first by Streisand and Bee Gee Gibb.
Cowart spends most of his time these days operating his own local production company, Bluff Road Studio.
He worked with an array of artists, including John Fred and the Playboys, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Al Hirt, Olivia Newton-John, Frankie Valli and Brook Benton.
He fondly remembers the sessions working on "Guilty," which included three hit singles -- "What Kind of Fool", "I Am a Woman in Love" and the title cut.
"I knew we were cutting hits when we did the album," Cowart said. "It's Barbra Streisand we're talking about, so I knew it was good stuff."
Cowart worked directly with Streisand, who had taken note of his Louisiana accent upon meeting him.
"The first thing she asked was 'Where the hell are you from?' " he said. "But she was just the sweetest lady -- a real perfectionist -- but very easy to work with.
Streisand stayed at the studio an extra two weeks honing her vocals on the title song, something many artists would not do, he said.
Aside from Streisand, Cowart attributed much of the five-time platinum album's success to Gibb's songwriting talents.
"He was one of the greatest songwriters ever," he said. He and Gibb would talk idly, "and next day he'd have a great song."
Cowart met Andy Gibb during a session at Atlantic Records, and later worked with his brothers -- Barry, Robin and Maurice -- the Bee Gees.
His work with the Gibbs included a Grammy-winning album for Andy Gibb "Shadow Dancing" and two No. 1 singles.
"When Barry Gibb asked me to work with them, his brother Andy told him, 'You bloody stole my man,' " Cowart said.
Cowart performed on the soundtrack for "Grease" before Barry Gibb summoned him to work on "Guilty."
He toured with the Bee Gees in the late 1970s on the heels of the Australian trio's chart-topping "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack. He later worked with the trio on their 1979 album "Spirits Having Flown".
Cowart also spent time at the Gibbs' Miami mansion, where on one occasion the group decided they wanted a taste of Louisiana.
Cowart had several hundred pounds of hot boiled crawfish flown to Miami, but Gibb's wife did not know how to serve the crustaceans.
"Barry's wife, Linda, had the table set with china, crystal and elegant silverware, but I saw it and told her that just wouldn't work," Cowart said. "So I asked if they had any newspaper, and she just poured the crawfish all over that elegant table."
His experiences with Gibb and Streisand marked a high point in Cowart's music career, which began when he took an interest in music legend Ray Charles.
Cowart, 61, grew up in Baton Rouge during the pioneering days of rock-'n'-roll, but he considered rhythm and blues his real love.
He was a fan of artists such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Platters, The Flamingos, The Coasters and Ivory Joe Hunter.
"I didn't really like rock-'n'-roll that much -- I was more into the funky music," Cowart said. "But then I love all good music. I even enjoy Beethoven."
As a teenager, he performed with Lenny Capello and The Dots, who recorded "Get Lost You Shiny Bag of Bones" at Cosmo Matassa's studio in New Orleans.
He graduated in 1969 from LSU with a degree in band, orchestra and vocal supervision. He never considered dropping out of college, despite the urge to get more time on stage.
Cowart's mother was a guidance counselor and his sister is principal at Sherwood Middle School.
"I came from a family of educators, and I promised my mother I'd get a college degree," he said. "I'm glad I did, because when they put some Barbra Streisand music in front of you, it's best to remember you have at least 50 others who want your job."
Cowart graduated during a transitional period in pop music. Groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones remained hot acts on the charts, but American groups regained traction at the dawn of the British invasion.
Just before he received his degree, he performed bass on "Judy in Disguise with Glasses" by John Fred and the Playboys, which vaulted to No. 1 in 1968.
"Deejays weren't crazy about that song," Cowart said. "But a week later they called us and said we have a No. 1 hit."
Cowart, toting his Fender precision bass, landed work at Atlantic Records, where he played with Benton on "Rainy Night in Georgia," a No. 1 hit in 1969.
As with "Judy in Disguise", Cowart never envisioned "Rainy Night" topping the charts.
"We were just kids, and we didn't understand everything we were doing," he said. "We weren't paid much, but it was a big thrill to be in a New York city cab and hear a song and knowing we played in it."
Atlantic moved Cowart and his rhythm section, "Cold Grits," to Criteria Recording Studio in Miami, Fla.
He recorded and toured with the Bee Gees several years, and worked with Jay Ferguson on the 1978 hit single "Thunder Island" and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on the 1983 smash "Islands in the Streams."
As his performing career wound down, Cowart set up his recording studio behind his home in Prairieville.
He had Deep South Recording Studios in Baton Rouge earlier in his career, and had once promised he'd never own another studio.
"I then figured 'Why not?," Cowart said. "I've got everything I want."
He has recorded artists such as Joe Stampley, Van Broussard and George Freeman, a country artist who last week recorded his first album in 24 years.
Cowart began sharing his knowledge with younger artists. He took Geismar resident Larry Lang under his wing to teach him the fine points of music engineering.
Lang, a hip-hop artist who performs under the name "Lieutenant," said Cowart's versatility with genres as diverse as country and hip-hop make the learning experience invaluable.
"It's a melting pot," Lang said. "There's so much talent here and such a large variety that you never see the same type of performer back to back."
The variety of artists in Louisiana has helped contribute to the success of Bluff Road Studios, Cowart said.
"You've got a ton of talent here, and nobody here knows it," he said. "The Rolling Stones knew it, Paul McCartney knew it, and the Bee Gees knew it.
"When I was around them, they'd ask if we had any of that Louisiana music," Cowart said. "You've got the some of the best music in the world right here in Louisiana."


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