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The James Brown songs that inspired a David Bowie classic

It’s quite an interesting train of thought that leads to you question who influenced David Bowie when so often the real question at hand is: “Who hasn’t David Bowie influenced?” Bowie’s initial musical loves were brought to life when his father brought home a selection of American 45s, including Elvis Presley (with whom Bowie shares a birthday) and Little Richard. After hearing Little Richard’s 1955 track ‘Tutti Frutti’, the young Bowie believed that he had “heard God”.

Looking back at Bowie’s six-decade-spanning career, it is hard not to think of a genre or style to which he hasn’t put his hand or ear. Naturally, we know him as a pop, rock, soul and funk champion, not to mention his experimental and avant-garde efforts. Bowie is a genre-chameleon, constantly and effortlessly shifting from one thing to another, often found on the same album and occasionally even during a track. So it is interesting to learn just where other musicians and artists inspired his own work.

One particularly beneficial source for discovering such insight is a 2003 article Bowie wrote for Vanity Fair, titled ‘Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie’. “There is really no way to do a list of my favourite albums with any rationality,” he writes, “I do only have about 2,500 vinyls.” With no rules, Bowie proceeds to tell us a few of his favourites, “made up as I go along,” with the promise that “if you can possibly get your hands on any of these, I guarantee you evenings of listening pleasure, and you will encourage a new high-minded circle of friends.”

As we go through the list, we find many suspected works given Bowie’s aforementioned genre-chameleonism. There are Little Richard’s 1959 The Fabulous Little Richard and John Lee Hooker’s 1962 Tupelo Blues for the blues influence no doubt evident on tracks such as ‘The Jean Genie’ on 1973’s Aladdin Sane. We find experimental classical in Steve Reich’s 1978 album Music for 18 Musicians and fellow Brixtonite Linton Kwesi Johnson’s 1979 album Forces of Victory, which contains according to Bowie, “some of the most moving poetry to be found in popular music.”

However, one particular record that sticks out on the list is The Apollo Theatre Presents: In Person! The James Brown Show, released in 1963. This record sticks out in particular because Bowie gives us a direct correlation between the record and the influence on one of his own tracks. He writes: “My old schoolmate Geoff MacCormack brought this around to my house one afternoon, breathless and overexcited. ‘You have never, in your life, heard anything like this,’ he said. I made a trip to see Jane Greene that very afternoon. Two of the songs on this album, ‘Try Me’ and ‘Lost Someone,’ became loose inspirations for Ziggy’s ‘Rock & Roll Suicide.’ Brown’s Apollo performance still stands for me as one of the most exciting live albums ever. Soul music now had an undisputed king.”

And indeed, upon listening to the two tracks of the album Bowie draws note to, it is easy to hear the similarities. Instantly we are drawn to the swaying rhythm of Brown’s band. Such subtle and unobtrusive instrumentation allows Brown’s voice and lyrics to take centre stage. In this way, ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ is similar, at least in the track’s first half. The simple chords ringing out on an acoustic guitar allow Bowie to focus on telling the song’s story, detailing Ziggy’s last gasp as a musician before falling into obscurity and old age.

The second half of ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ is also particularly influenced by ‘Try Me’ and soul and funk music in general. As Bowie’s story gains momentum, so too does the song’s composition. In come the horns, the sax, the brass to take us to the crescendo (and Ziggy’s end). Meanwhile, in 1963 at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Brown’s band also bring in the sax flavour to raise up the soul leaving Brown’s body as he sings. It not only matches the composition of Bowie’s track but also perhaps Ziggy’s plight too.

As Bowie claims, the Apollo performance is an extraordinary live album by one of soul music’s “undisputed kings”. Thanks to this performance, we have been graced with arguably one of the most fascinating ‘rock operas’ of our age. Bowie’s influence is everywhere, it’s in all of us, but so too then are Bowie’s influences, and Brown is undoubtedly one of those.

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