by Michael Buffalo Smith
Pete Kowalke is one of the founding members of Cowboy, the country rock flavored band who were among the earliest and best of the Southern Rockers to come out of Macon, Georgia's Carpricorn Records label. With close ties to The Allman Brothers Band, Cowboy enjoyed several years of national tours and excellent recordings.
In our exclusive interview, Kowalke talks about his youth, his influences and bands prior to Cowboy, as well as sharingmany great Cowboy, Duane Allman and Allman Brothers memories.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Fort Sheridon, Illinois, up on Lake Michigan just above Chicago, on May 21, 1947. I was an air force brat. My dad was in the Air Force at the time, so I moved a lot. We moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, then to Japan for 2 to 3 years. Then to three places in Ohio around 4th grade, and on to Baltimore for the last of the fourth grade, landing in Winter Park, Florida from 5th grade on through high school.
So I was raised up north in those places, but spent a longer time in the Central Florida area. That is where I had a lot of fun. A lot of water skiing and crazy high school stuff,you know. I had lots of friends and good times.
What happened next?
Then I went to Florida State college in Tallahassee. I met Scott Boyer, Butch Trucks, Bill Pillmore, David Brown, the bass player for Boz Scaggs and others -and a few others there. I started playing some with Scott and Butch and Bill, sometimes going to Jacksonville with Scott in his famous purple Jag XKE. I eventually dropped out of FSU and started juking around Florida, playing a bit of music and starting to find out that that was what I wanted to do more than anything.
You were once asked to join The Allman Brothers Band?
At one point was in Daytona Beach and we - Scott, David Brown,and me - were at the Allman Brothers house, and they wanted to start a group and invited me also to join. Silly me, my response was "you got Duane, what do you need another guitar player for?" (Laughs) Oh well, live and learn (Laughs). Later on at another time I was playing the Daytona Beach Pier and Duane came by and gave me his Fuzz Face - you know, the round effects pedal - Jimi Hendrix used one sometimes. I tried it a few times and determined that I didn't like the sound of it and proceeded to go to Duane's house and give it back to him. Can you believe it? He looked at me kind of funny like "why would you give it back?" (Laughs) I hear that Fuzz Face is in Duane's biography book,,,but no one got this part of it's history in there.
Anyway, one time way back then, I took Gregg Allman home to my Winter Park family home and took him water skiing on my local lake. I barefoot skied for him and he was way impressed. (Laughing) Then sometime later, don't remember how much later, I went to an Allman's concert. I think it was after a few years, after the original Cowboy had broken up. Anyway, here comes Gregg out of his dressing room with a great looking girl on his arm, looking rather high (laughing), and I go up to him and say "Hey Gregg, how you doing man?” He still has a glazed look. “Hey man, it's Pete from Cowboy, remember me? He turns and looks at me, and in a voice similar to W.C. Fields, says, "Sure do, best damn water skier in the world." (Laughing) And then I must have had a funny look on my face too, as he didn’t remember me in Cowboy, just the water skiing! (Laughs) Funny Stuff...
What was your first exposure to music, and who influenced you the most?
I took piano from 6 to 12 years old as a kid cause I expressed an interest. I also remember a Benny Goodman record when I was 4th grade, and it had an opening clarinet lead on it. It was so cool, I played that part over and over until the beginning fuzzed out. (Laughs)
Of course I listened some to the radio when I was young, and then albums, commercial radio not that much, but some of course as we all did. My brother Vern actually got me started on guitar when I was 16. I first heard of folk music as he was into that also - Peter Paul & Mary, Kingston Trio, Eric Darling. From there I started learning rock and roll, listening to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin,,,and of course Bob Dylan, a real favorite. And the Band as well. Then I got into the country side of rock, Gram Parsons, Flying Burrito Bros, The Byrds, and of course I followed Eric Clapton then and now. Jimi Hendrix, I’m a fan. I have a huge, huge love for his music and influence.
Lots of other listening to a smaller extent = Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell - then more blues of course, a smattering of Muddy Waters, BB King, Freddie King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and others - oh yes - soul music too - Junior Walker, Temptations, Smokey Robinson, James Brown and more. Then later I kind of quit listening to others as much - for a while. Now, of course, I love everything Derek Trucks does. It goes without saying my love for the Allman Brothers. I enjoyed and learned so much from being around them. That reminds me of a story.
Once I found myself over at the Allmans house jamming. Just me on guitar and Berry Oakley on bass. I wasn't quite getting free, I felt a little stuck. We are jamming and he is just shaking his bass at me and pushing, pushing, pushing me until I finally broke Through! What a guy! Then he ended the song with a huge shake of his bass, almost to shake off the final junk, set his bass down and we finished the jam.
Got another story?
Okay, a Duane story. Once, when we were out on the road and playing lots of dates with the Allmans, they were up on stage in a theatre type place just lettin’ it eat! Everyone is sitting in their theatre chairs, and I am standing about halfway down in the aisle watching. They take a break, Duane comes walking pretty briskly down the aisle. I am still standing there, just him and me in the aisle. He stops right in front of me, turns my way and says, "Pete, this band only knows how to play one way, full tilt!" Then he turns and continues his brisk walk on down the aisle, without another word. (Laughs) I was still standing there kind of smiling to myself.
Oh, here's a good one. We are at the recording studio in Macon, I come out of one of the doors further on down, I look back about 100 feet and there is Duane sitting on his motorcycle chatting to a few few friends. So, smart ass me has a little quick blurb of a thought something like "oh whatever, big motorcycle” - just a quick kind of smart ass thought - and Duane flipped his head around just as I thought the thought. He picked up on the thought instantaneously! He proceeded to kick start his bike and punch it in my direction, of course not to hit me, just to show me a bit about the bike indeed! So I stood motionless in the same spot I was in while he roared right past me, oh about a foot or a foot and half away it seemed. Man, he was roaring and going fast big time. Once again, slightly taken aback and kind of smiling to myself and going to myself,”Yep, that IS one fast hunk of bike he's a riding!”
What were some of your pre-Cowboy bands?
After taking piano lessons, I started learning guitar from my older brother Vern. I played mostly at home, practicing and learning. I did do an acoustic bit on the stage in high school for something or other. I actually saw Tommy Talton on that same stage with We The People, I believe.
Then on to college where I played in a group called the Matchbox, playing rock and roll - actually Bill Pillmore was in it too. We played frat parties and some local beer joints. I was in Plant Life for a while, a Winter Park group, George played bass in that one. Plus my friend, drummer Tom Pool, and Randy Williford jumping and screaming and singing up front. (Laughs) Really, the next real band was Cowboy. Can you believe it?
Tell me how you got together with Cowboy.
Back to high school. Actually, Tommy Talton and I went to the same high school. I just knew of him and occasionally maybe would say hello. He was a year or so younger and ran in a different crowd than I. But we were there at the same time. I knew Tom Wynn and George Clark in kind of the same ways, as they had the same situation as Tommy as far as me knowing them went.
After college, when I was in Daytona and other towns in Florida kicking around, I ran into Tommy a bit again, and of course I already knew about Scott. And I am gonna have to say here that the idea of Tommy and Scott being great musical players together kind of first spawned in my head, cause I knew Tommy from Winter Park and Scott from FSU and Jacksonville - no one else did - and I put the idea out somewhere to someone, maybe one of Tommy's friends,,that he and Scott should get together. I don't know who I told this to, maybe even possibly someone on Scott's end. Maybe even Scott. It is all a haze, but I do know I originally had the idea of those two, and then someone got a party together and they finally met and there you go. Yep, I did have that original "flash" in my head. And then when Tommy brought George and Tom along and Scott brought Bill and sort of me, and Tommy sort of me also, I was asked to also be in the group, but I was hung up on a girl and went to New York chasing her and playing with this other fella. It was a low time of my life, sleeping on the floor of a friend in NYC and pining away over this girl, while the others were in Macon making their first album.
At some point I realized I was fading up there in New York and I called Tommy up and wondered if there was still a place for me in the group. He was so cool, and said, "Come on down." When I got there it was like warmth and love to the max, friends, southern charm and hospitality, music, recording in the studio - man, I was so much better off immediately! The guys were all great and so was everything. I got in on the first album, not every tune, but definitely a good portion. And I wrote a song with Billy that got to
be the first tune on the album, ‘Opening.’ I wrote the first part, he did the second.
So then there we were. I always felt I was the crazier one who wanted to hard rock it, and here we were doing this great new country rock, which I loved and enjoyed. Still, I was a little nuts, and I think that they consciously or unconsciously wrote some of their songs about me. My guess, of course, but the influence in there definitely. In songs like “Everything Here” and “Right On Friend.”
Anyway you know the rest of that story, a bit more than two years later the original band broke up, and Scott and Tommy continued on with other players. We were young and had a lot to learn ,but I still feel that for the most part the original band had the greatest feel of any players they played with after us. Although they did do some really cool stuff of course ‘cause them boys is talented and brought some great players in. Also, they did they Gregg Allman tour and album. They probably did more than that but I can't recall at this point - it’s the Reagan syndrome. (Laughs)
Tell me about your band mates.
All the guys were great. Each with their own personality, of course. But everybody was very cool.
We were all saddened by the loss of George Clark last year. Please share with us your connection and any stories of your friend.
George was from the same town I lived in, Winter Park, Florida. Although we didn’t hang out regularly, we really liked each other and had great mutual respect. George was very wise and always laughed a lot. I was really glad he was one of the ones in Cowboy. I’m also very glad we had some time with our friend George before he made his exit to the next realm. Sail on, George. We miss you! I actually felt him the other day when I was working on some bass parts. I think he came around to help me get it right.
What are your memories of recording that first Cowboy album?
Ah yes, memories of recording the first album. Nice ones indeed.
Once I got to Macon with the guys it was like night and day, so comfortable and so cool. Great weather, great friends, great music, food, The H&H - yeah it was cool. Very friendly and you know, really southern. I was definitely soaking in it.Going down into the basement into the reverb chambers. We would crawl in and smoke a joint together. They were concrete boxes with tile on the inside for natural reverberation, microphones and such down there hooking up upstairs. So that was a good time. Then we toured and had lots of other good times, oftentimes with the Brothers, and then the New Jersey Chicks, a group of women who were our good, good friends who always met up with us when we were there and hung out and took us places and all.
We spoke earlier about The Brothers. Could you elaborate more on your feelings and relationship with the Allmans?
The Allman Brothers were just full tilt awesome. The band flat out cooked. I really didn’t know what to think. Just powerfully great music. And there was a damn wildly interesting hotel and after hours scene in Macon. Duane was a gentleman, always. He was a really nice guy. Got right down to business too, no fooling around. He really helped push me along and gave me a few Duane stories to tell in the coming years. I am totally blessed for the time and interactions I had with him.
On the whole, The Brothers were extremely kind to us, kind of like we were their little brothers. But they also respected the music we made and the vibe and wisdom we had within us. Of course we completely loved and respected them and their music.
I remember Berry, and probably some of the others, coming up to me backstage and saying, “Pete, get into black music.” They made that point very strongly. And of course, they were right. I was already into it to a point, but their urging took me in a new direction. I probably had a black life or two in the past. (Laughs)
Gregg was more cool and reserved, but also still so good to us. Of course, Butchie was already our friend from way back. Dickey was always really cool and nice to us too. I didn’t have too many interactions with Berry, he was like Duane, really cool, down to business, call it like it is, live fast, full and hard, and play your ass off.
One more Duane story. When we were in Muscle Shoals Studios ready yo do “Please Be With Me,” Duane was going to play the Dobro slide. Well, the Dobro has those little metal baffles, resonating things, whatever they are called. Duane was getting ready to play and one of the baffles is rattling as he plays. So I took at him and pick up this thin little magazine, a real estate mag, you know, shiny paper, a little stronger. I roll it into a tight roll and shove it down one of the f-holes until it comes up against the rattling baffle. The rattling stopped, and Duane took off. That first take was so damned awesome! I really don’t know if he knew how good it was. He just played it and then shot out the door and onto his bike and the next place. We all loved Duane. Still do, wherever he is. Feels like he is still around. I will let y’all figure that one out. Yep.
What are your memories of playing the Fillmore?
The whole thing was just a dream. A really fun one. I remember Jethro Tull, how Ian Anderson would run backstage in the middle of his show and just walk around and chat, run back out, wiggle his foot at the spotlight - really fun.
What are your memories of recording the second album?
On the second album, 5’ll Getcha Ten, I had a bit more influence. The songs were a bit more advanced. Still, just great fun.At times I was probably a pain in the butt, because sometimes I would think I wanted to do harder rock. But in the end, I really enjoyed and benefitted from the country rock sound we had.
I thought the album was just great, still do. Certainly magical things happened. Like Tommy’s lead guitar on my song “What I Want is You.” Like the ending of “Looking for You,” where very subtly me, Duane and Chuck Leavell did some stuff that just blended into one thing - really, really special stuff. And Pete Carr gave me the idea to use a volume pedal and fade notes in and out during the end of “Looking for You.” And there were a host of other great spots.
What were some of the highlights of your time with Cowboy?
Oh, all of it. Living together, playing together, going on the road and having a ball. Creating beautiful albums full of great music. Hanging out with The Allman Brothers and all the other incredible musicians who came through. Living out in the country was great. We had lots of friends- maybe too many (Laughs) - hanging out with us. Walks in the pine forest behind the house in Macon. Fantastic! Going out in the corn field and smashin’ down a spot and then getting nekkid and laying in the sun. The Brothers actually came out one time and jammed in our front yard!
When I met you guys at Johnny Sandlin’s studio last year it was just a thrill for me, and the reunion album you all recorded was sounding excellent. Now, due to whatever problems, I hear it may not be released. What are your thoughts?
I have never really had the pleasure of meeting Carl, the record company guy. But there are two ways he could go from here. He can hold back and conclude that it is not a good business venture, or he can forge forward and put some backing behind it, knowing that we are talented musicians and will definitely turn out something good, given more time. We only had about ten days. We exchanged songs and did some listening and back and forth talking before we actually came together, but still, ten days just ain’t enough. And it’s true, us Cowboys don’t live in the same area, which would make it easier to spend time and fashion songs and reconnect. Maybe the way to go would be to not bring is out for a week or so, but instead for a couple of months. You know, rent a place and be a band again for a while. I would be willing to do that. I’m sure we would accomplish some good stuff, and it would be exciting to see. I’d like to hear what we have so far if that dadgum Scottie would send me a copy! (Laughs)
But it seems a shame to waste all the work we have put in so far. It either dies for now, or expands, enlarges and deepens, and we do more writing and recording together. I know everyone has their own projects, so that would have to all be worked out.
Actually, I am putting my project first right now, The Pete Kowalke Band. I have songs selected for the next CD, and great musicians to help me do it. But still, Cowboy, yeah, I’d be willing to do it a bit down the line.
Tell me about your non-Cowboy projects, past and present.
I have one CD on Amazon called Pete Kowalke, Glad to Be Here. I did most of it in Florida at home and in a studio. Added a couple of songs to it out here. That was a few years ago, and I am really ready to enter into a more intense recording phase.
What's the most important thing you have learned in this lifetime?
Wow, there are a few. Have confidence in yourself first. Take your mistakes and learn from them. But don’t wear them for the rest of your life. Whatever dreams you have, do them now, don’t wait. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Try to smile a lot. Be helpful and kind, but stay true to yourself.
Like The Brothers would say. “say it like it is.” definitely “let it eat, heartily!” Play what you love. Do what you love. Live it. And try to be a better man everyday. As Duane said, “pass on the knowledge you have gained, and try to always learn from the knowledge that others share with you.
Live in harmony with the earth, people, and all things as much as you possibly can. Take care of yourself and help others too.