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A Guy in Raleigh Owns The World's Most Influential Cowbell
Before Will Ferrell made it famous, Blue Öyster Cult haphazardly added an instrument to one of it's biggest songs. A PR executive in North Carolina paid a lot of money to own it.
Here you go. More cowbell.
Last week, I re-ran a story I originally wrote back in 2021. Back then, Roanoke Rapids High School was auctioning off a cowbell autographed by Will Ferrell. Long story short, it wasn’t the actual cowbell that Ferrell played during a legendary sketch on Saturday Night Live. The prop from the sketch never left 30 Rock. The one sent to Roanoke Rapids was a replica, even though it did what it was supposed to: Get people talking and raise money for the alma mater of Ferrell’s parents.
However! I got an email from a reader last week, who said he had a lead for me. The real cowbell, from the very real Blue Öyster Cult, played in the real version of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” is now owned by a guy in Raleigh.
I emailed that guy. Is it true?, I asked. “The short answer,” he replied, “is yes.”
The Context Behind the Cowbell
If you listen to “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” you can hear the cowbell. Just barely.
Apparently, it really depends on how you listen to it. If you stream it on, say, Apple Music or Spotify, it’s there, but you don’t notice it unless you’re really listening for it. But back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when classic rock stations had the song in heavy rotation, the stations’ methods of audio compression brought out the sound of the cowbell. That’s what Ferrell heard, and that’s what provided the spark that led to the sketch, which originally aired on SNL back in April 2000.
It was an afterthought. The song was recorded without it, and was added as an overdub at the last minute. According to former BOC bassist Joe Bouchard, an unnamed producer asked his brother, drummer Albert Bouchard, to play the cowbell after the fact. "Albert thought he was crazy," Bouchard told the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press in 2000. "But he put all this tape around a cowbell and played it. It really pulled the track together."
Most cowbell lore focuses on the SNL skit, but the actual cowbell itself, the one that was played in the real song, has been mostly ignored. Or, at least it was until 15 years ago.
A Retirement Home For The Cowbell
I should say, Rick French is not Just Some Guy. He’s the chairman and CEO of French/West/Vaughan, a very large public relations firm in Raleigh. He’s also been a national trustee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum for the last 17 years. In an interview with the News & Observer in 2018, French said he loves live music, has a lot of friends in the industry, and owns a ton of autographed guitars. He’s just not a great musician himself. “I play the cowbell and kazoo really well,” he said, “but it stops there.”
Anyhow, my tipster told me that French had the cowbell. “I do own the BOC cowbell made famous on ‘(Don’t Fear)’ The Reaper, or at least one of them,” French told me via email. He’s shown it off to friends and colleagues for years, but this is the first time he’s publicly told the story of how he got it.
French is friends with Robin Zander of Cheap Trick. In November 2008, the band was in Florida to try to do this impossible: A live rendition of the The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which was created specifically to be unplayable live. Cheap Trick was going to give it a go.
A friend told French about the show, and he flew down to Clearwater to watch. He also got invited to a private jam session afterward. Dave Mason of Traffic, Joe Lynn Turner of Deep Purple, Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, and members of the John Entwistle Band were all playing.
So was Buck Dharma of Blue Öyster Cult. “He and I became friendly a couple months earlier when he performed at a benefit concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that I produced here in the Triangle,” French said.
In Clearwater, at the end of his set, Dharma played “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” and mentioned that the cowbell he was playing was the very same one that Blue Öyster Cult had used in studio on the original recording. “By Buck’s account, several cowbells were tried and/or used in studio to get the correct sound,” French said. “He wasn’t in studio himself that day, but as the only continuous member of BOC, it came into his possession.” It was small, gray, and did not look anything like the “Black Beauty” model of cowbell that Ferrell played on SNL.
At the end of the concert, Dharma announced that he was auctioning off the cowbell right then and there. This wasn’t out of character for him; Dharha has made big charitable donations before, and once held an entire concert to raise money for a young boy with an inoperable brain tumor. So, to get the most money for the cowbell, Dharma’s wife Sandy nudged French into a bidding war. “I won’t say what I paid,” French said, “but it was a lot.”
Now, look. I’m taking Rick French at his word, who was taking Buck Dharma at his word. I can’t establish chain of custody here. After all, how can you really know that it’s the real thing, a half-century after “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was recorded? Even so, cowbell lore seems to have eternal staying power. “More cowbell” is now in the dictionary. So just imagine what it’s like to be the guy who has the cowbell that inspired More Cowbell. “It’s quite the conversation piece,” French said. “People ask if they can be photographed with it quite often.”
The day after French bought it, he discovered that the cowbell also had the power to bend laws to his will. “I needed to be back in Raleigh, so I packed the cowbell in my overnight bag and went to the Tampa airport,” French said. He didn’t want to risk putting it in his checked luggage. “I was cutting my flight departure time close, as I tend to do, and when I tried to get through TSA I was stopped because of the cowbell. I was told I couldn’t take it on the flight as it could be construed as a ‘dangerous weapon.’”
French said he told the TSA agents three things:
He was gonna miss his flight.
The cowbell was “a priceless piece of music history.”
He had the certificate of authenticity to prove it.
French said the TSA supervisor said he could take it through on one condition: His team had to get a picture with it. “So I took the photo of them on some guy’s phone, put the cowbell back in my bag, and sprinted to my gate.” The only prescription for making his flight, in this case, was more cowbell.