Saturday, September 7, 2013

John Thomas "COSMO" Cosdon 22 September 1942--06 September 2013 from Jim Harbolt

John Thomas "COSMO" Cosdon
22 September 1942--06 September 2013

        It is a summer night somewhere in Louisville, sometime in the 1960s or ‘70s, and a party is in progress. A rock n’ roll band – the Sultans? Epics? Monarchs? – is working through its set of dance music, and young couples are working up a sweat doing whatever the current dance craze happens to be. Love is in the air, thick as the cigarette smoke and sweet as the cold beer, and then comes the moment everyone has been awaiting:

“And now put your hands together and let’s welcome…Cosmo!”

And there he is, our very own king of rock n’ roll, already wiping the sweat off his forehead with a white towel as he turns loose that incredible whiskey voice on “High-Heeled Sneaker” or “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” or maybe even one of his hits, something like “You Got Me Goin,’” or “I’m A Little Mixed Up” or one of the others that topped the local charts but never went national.

Say what you will about J.T. “Cosmo” Cosdon – and everybody who ever met him has a story or two or three – the boy could flat sing. He was a white guy who sounded black, which is why he was the only white entertainer allowed to perform in The Cherry Club of Lebanon, Ky., the black nightclub where Little Richard, Tina Turner and others made stops on their way to international fame.

Of course, he was equally welcome at the Golden Horseshoe and the Club 68, the low-budget nightclubs down the road that competed for the hearts – and the spending money – of college kids from Louisville and Central Kentucky. But he was a hit everywhere he performed, from Gypsy Village at Fontaine Ferry Park in Louisville to Joyland Casino in Lexington to the dim little joints in small towns in Saturday Night America.

Cosmo was a consummate showman, a natural entertainer who could work a room with the best. He sang sweet love songs for the ladies and hard rockers for the guys. In his early days, when he was fronting The Sultans, he wore a gold lame Nehru jacket. But in his later years, he would usually just show up in a black shirt. No costumes or tricks for him. Just good ol’ rock n’ roll, soul, and rhythm n’ blues.

As rock singers go, Cosmo was not what you would call a pretty boy. He wasn’t tall and his body expanded, through the years, where he couldn’t really get mad when somebody would call him “the round mound of sound.” He also grew a beard that turned from gray to white as the years went on. But looks never mattered when it came to Cosmo. It was all about the music and the show. Nobody ever left a Cosmo performance unhappy.

Truth be told, a lot of guys wanted to be like Cosmo. He saddled a horse in the 1969 Kentucky Derby, for heaven’s sake. The noble steed’s name was Rae Jet, and he finished last, far up the track from the victorious Majestic Prince, but he was there. That’s what mattered. And woe be the the journalist who ever spoke ill of Rae Jet, as my friend Jim Bolus once did in a story about the worst horses ever to run in the Derby. You want hot? Cosmo was hot.

After he gave up training, he still hung around the horse business. He was a fixture on the backstretch at Churchill Downs the week before the Derby. He worked a while as a jockey’s agent, then spent some time as a bloodstock agent. For a guy like Cosmo, the gypsy-like lifestyle of the racing game was perfect. He loved the action and the hustle. He identified with people looking for a way to get a little edge on this tough proposition known as life.

But, mostly, the reason a lot of guys secretly envied Cosmo was that he always was his own man. Unlike the majority of us, he rejected the 9-to-5 life so he could be his own boss, beholden to nothing except the sometimes erratic beat of his own drummer. He never got rich, or even close to it, and he didn’t care. All it took to make him happy was a pretty woman on his arm, a wad of cash in his pocket, and some good whiskey to wash down the laughs.

The closest he came to the business world was when he owned and operated The Head Rest on Frankfort Avenue. It was a refuge for musicians, hippies, street people, jaded journalists, and lonely hearts. You could always count on finding some great jukebox music there, and, if you were lucky, maybe somebody who could share your broken dreams, at least for a night.

Nobody had more fun than Cosmo. On the golf course, he acted like Titantic Thompson, the legendary hustler who would bet anybody on anything. This wasn’t necessarily the smart thing to do, considering that his game never reminded anybody of Jack Nicklaus. But Tommy didn’t care. Win some, lose some – so what? All that mattered was the fun of it.

Being a local rock icon and saddling a horse in the Kentucky Derby is a pretty good exacta for one lifetime. But there was more to Tommy. He had a serious side that he was loathe to reveal to even his closest friends. Behind the façade he presented to the outside world – a little rough around the edges, irascible, jaded – Cosmo was a softy. He was a sucker for underdogs and for people who were down on their luck. He also loved cats, horses, and little kids.

No telling how many wedding receptions and private parties he did for little more than beer money. He was kind and generous, but just didn’t want anybody to know it. His whims had to drive Tommy Jolly crazy. For years, Tommy was Cosmo’s business manager and a horn player in his band. He shared Cosmo’s love for music and for performing. They never thought about getting rich. The fun and the love was reward enough.

When Cosmo began his career in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, every town in the nation had a kid or a band that wanted to be the next big thing. To become a national celebrity, to get an invitation to appear with Dick Clark on his “American Bandstand” TV show, all you needed was one song, one sound. The “one-hit wonders,” as they were known, were the meteors of the music world, blazing brightly for a short time before vanishing back into the nothingness from whence they came. Does the name Phil Phillips (‘Sea of Love”) mean anything to you?

Cosmo deserved at least that much national fame simply because he was a legitimate talent. He had the pipes and the presence to hit it big. But he never got that one song, that one break, that’s essential in the cruel and whimsical world of pop music. He got close, ever so close, but something always happened to keep him in Louisville, where he was the darling of WAKY and WKLO back when those stations were playing the local artists over and over. 

But nobody should feel sorry for Tommy because his story is not a sad one. There is something to be said for being a local star. When you think about all the senior proms, sock hops, reunions, and weddings that he played over 50-something years, it’s possible to make the argument that he brought happiness to more people than any single Louisvillian of his generation.

Even when he was fronting for the Sultans, the Counts or another group, there was no question that Cosmo was the star. All he had to do to kick a party into high gear was hit the first note. He was equally at home strutting under the bright lights of a big stage or getting down in a dark and sweaty club where the beer flowed in a golden river and the parking lot was as good a place as any for a fight.

Louisville will not see his like again. Society has changed too much. Much of what passes today for music is an affront to Cosmo’s version of “Summertime” or “Unchained Melody.” Kids and young adults don’t go dancing anymore, so there’s no Gypsy Village or Colonial Gardens. Nevertheless, good ol’ rock n’ roll is hardly dead. It’s just on Medicare, that’s all.

As Tommy became progressively ill, his body shrank and his voice was reduced to a barely audible croak. It was difficult for his friends to imagine that the good times were over because Cosmo, throughout hundreds of concerts, had promised us they would last forever.

But, in a sense, he was right. They’ll last at least as long as there’s anybody still around who can remember what it was like when Cosmo was in the house and it was showtime and here came that voice, sending us off on another night of fun and love and good ol’ rock n’ roll.

Jim Harbolt

Please pass this along to friends and fans of our friend, Cosmo!


  1. Wayne McDonald and the Bitter Seeds were also well received at the Club Cherry with much of the soul sound . They also backed up Cosmo at other venues.
    Thanks again Cosmo for the memories

  2. Hello , I stumbled on your blog in search of Bill Baker from the band Milk Sea 1970s. I used ti work for the band and have located several members to share phiotos I took of bands in Louisville 1970s. If you can help
    Tony Seelbach

  3. What a find to read this great piece of work after all these years. He was truly one of a kind. Miss you JT❤️

  4. Tommy "loved cats, horses and little kids"...
    He also must have loved chimpanzees, because he had one for a while in the early '60s. Wayne Young, (Counts guitarist) could tell you stories. :)