Plastic soul…on a plastic record.
Shifting gears was nothing new for David Bowie who seemingly shedded skin during the 1970s like others took out the trash. So when Bowie booked time in Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios during a two-week break during the Diamond Dogs tour, it should not have come as a surprise to anyone that he would emerge in the guise of a suave and sophisticated soul man, sans costumes, make-up and theatrics.
The signs were already there. Bowie had begun to work on an album called People From Bad Homes for his protégé, Ava Cherry And The Astronettes who consisted of his friend Geoffrey MacCormack (aka Warren Peace), Jason Guess, Aynsley Dunbar, Herbie Flowers and Mike Garson. Recording for the Cherry album was abandoned before completion as Bowie decided to focus on the recording of his Diamond Dogs album instead. The tapes for Cherry’s album then became tied up in litigation as Bowie tried to separate himself from Tony DeFries and his Mainman management company. As a result, the record remained unreleased for over 20 years, and is still hard to find today.
Several songs from the Cherry album would end up making the cut on future Bowie records, including “I Am Divine” which became “Somebody Up There Likes Me” from Young Americans, “I Am A Laser” which emerged as “Scream Like A Baby” on Scary Monsters and a cover of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” that Bowie would get around to recording for his Tonight album. Cherry and company also covered Frank Zappa & The Mothers’ song “How Could I Be Such A Fool” for the album as well.
While on the American leg of the Diamond Dogs tour Bowie began to perform the Eddie Floyd soul classic “Knock On Wood,” and midway through the tour he dropped much of the elaborate costuming and staging in favor of a more stripped down and soulful approach. After the tour, Bowie released the double live album David Live At The Tower Philadelphia as a stop-gap while he feverishly tried to work through the Mainman management issues. The first official inkling of Bowie’s new direction was the release of the live version of “Knock On Wood” as a single.
During the Philadelphia tour stop, Bowie decided to check in to Sigma Sound with Tony Visconti as producer to record some of the new soulful music he heard in his head. He had intended to record with the MFSB rhythm section, but conflicts left only conga player Larry Washington available for the sessions. So Bowie recruited Carlos Alomar on guitar, Willie Weeks on bass, Andy Newmark (of Sly & The Famiily Stone) on drums, David Sanborn on saxophone, Mike Garson on piano, and for background vocals Ava Cherry, an unknown Luther Vandross and Alomar’s wife, Robin Alomar.
The session was the first time Carlos Alomar and Bowie worked with each other leading to a working relationship that has lasted for over 30 years. It was also one of David Sanborn and Luther Vandross’ first sessions. The album was essentially recorded live with the full band playing at the same time that Bowie sang.
When fans got wind that Bowie had checked into Sigma Sound, they began to hang outside the studio every evening to catch a glimpse of their hero and to get autographs. As the sessions went on, Bowie and his entourage came to know the regulars as the “Sigma Kids.” On the final day of tracking for the album, Bowie invited them in to the studio to listen to the rough versions of the songs.
The first single from Young Americans was the title track which was co-written by Luther Vandross. Bowie said the song was about “the predicament of two newlyweds,” although the meaning of the lyrics remains vague. Nevertheless, the single climbed to the #28 position on the charts, which was Bowie’s biggest single up to that point. A very coked up Bowie also performed the song on television on The Dinah Shore Show in 1975.
When Young Americans was released in March of 1975, Bowie described it as both “plastic soul” and “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.” It was met with mixed reviews by critics and fans alike.
However, several of the songs on the album were absolute stunners including “Win” which is today’s deep soul Song Of The Day, “Fascination” which originated from a Luther Vandross song called “Funky Music” that the Mike Garson Band would play to warm up before Bowie concerts on the ’74 tour, “Somebody Up There Likes Me” which came from the Ava Cherry sessions and, of course, “Fame.”
The recording of “Fame” and “Across The Universe” happened after the album wrapped up at Sigma Sound. Back in New York City, Bowie met John Lennon who was celebrating the release of his Walls And Bridges album and the pair hit it off. They booked a one-day session at Electric Lady Studios in January 1975 and assembled most of Bowie’s touring band. The group worked up an atrocious version of “Across The Universe” for kicks, which for some reason Bowie liked.
Meanwhile, Carlos Alomar started jamming on a riff and soon the rest of the band joined in and before they knew it Bowie, Lennon and Alomar worked up a new song called “Fame.” The lyrics came from a discussion between Bowie and Lennon about the perils of celebrity; however Bowie has said that a fair amount of malice in the lyrics was also directed at Mainman management.
The song became David Bowie’s first number one single with a riff so funky that James Brown, “The Godfather Of Soul” lifted it for his track “Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved).” Lennon can be heard singing background vocals on the track, particularly at the end when his voice is modified from very high to very low. As a result of the New York sessions, the songs “Who Can It Be Now” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” were pulled from the finished Young Americans album at the last minute in favor of “Across The Universe” and “Fame.” They would emerge years later as bonus tracks on the CD reissue of the album.
Several other tracks were recorded during the Young Americans sessions including a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City.” Bowie had been knocked out by Springsteen’s performance at Max’s Kansas City and was jazzed to record the song and meet the artist behind it. Springsteen was summoned to Sigma Sound for an audience with Bowie and a playback of the song. Springsteen took a bus from Asbury Park to Philadelphia and arrived at the studio sometime after midnight. While the two artists mutually admired each other, the meeting was said to be awkward, and after all was said and done, Bowie decided not to play his version of the song for Springsteen because it was not finished yet.
Bowie also remade the 1972 B-side “John, I’m Only Dancing” as an extended dance track during the Young Americans sessions. When RCA began to pressure Bowie for more new music, the plan was to release the discofied “John, I’m Only Dancing Again,” however Bowie was already on to his next phase and released “Golden Years” well in advance of his next album StationToStation . Out went the soul man; in came “The Thin White Duke.” Another year, another new persona…