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Music

How Luther Vandross helped shape David Bowie

@TylerGolsen

By the mid-1970s, David Bowie had already transformed a number of times. There was the fey English folk singer whose only hit single was a cosmic ode to the unknown in ‘Space Oddity’; there was the experimental rocker who kept searching for his voice on The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory; and finally, there was the world-conquering glam rocker who ascended as Ziggy Stardust, killed himself off, and was reborn as Aladdin Sane.

Starting with 1974’s Diamond Dogs tour, a new persona began to take shape: a rail-thin redheaded disco king who wore the most outrageous of plaid suits without ever blinking twice. This character doesn’t really have a name, and considering how it lands directly in between Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke, it doesn’t have the same mythology as some of Bowie’s other great guises. Instead, Bowie opted to take on a musical costume rather than a physical one, and he found his inspiration in the smooth sounds of Philadelphia soul.

Ironically, Bowie’s major connection to funk and Philly soul music wasn’t from Philadelphia: Carlos Alomar was a Puerto Rican-born New York session guitarist who had logged time with James Brown, Chuck Berry, and Ben E. King. During the same period when Bowie first met Alomar, the singer also visited Sigma Sound Studios for the first time. Founded by songwriters Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, Sigma Sound was where Philadelphia International Records recorded some of the greatest artists of all time, including The O’Jays, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, and the house band MFSB.

While a new obsession was taking over his musical mind, Bowie had already made the decision to leave glam rock behind. In its place would be soul music, and Bowie wanted it to be as authentic as possible. While Bowie knew that he could only imitate the foreign sound, he figured that if he surrounded himself with some of the best musicians of the genre, then his “plastic soul” would be all the more genuine. Alomar managed to get bassist Willie Weeks, who had already played with Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, and drummer Andy Newmark, who had logged time with Sly and the Family Stone.

Alomar also knew that a strong group of backing vocalists would help illuminate the sound that Bowie was going for. Ava Cherry was already around, thanks to her alleged affair with Bowie at the time. Alomar also recruited his wife Robin Clark, with whom he had previously performed in the band Listen My Brother. That group had another singer in the form of a silky-voiced tenor named Luther Vandross.

Vandross was only 24 during the Young Americans sessions, but he had already become the go-to backup singer for Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. Through his connection with Alomar, Vandross was invited down to Philadelphia to help add strident vocals that would define the sound of Young Americans. Bowie had very little pre-written material, and as a result, the atmosphere in the sessions was open for collaboration and cooperation.

So when Bowie heard Vandross playing one of his own songs entitled ‘Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)’, Bowie was drawn to the track. Without a record deal or solo career of his own, Vandross had no immediate plans to release the song. Instead, he allowed Bowie to rewrite the song’s lyrics and rearrange the track to fit Young Americans.

The result became ‘Fascination’, Vandross’ first songwriting credit on the record. Bowie initially felt guilty about reworking the song, but Vandross was eager to see any kind of tangible success in the music industry, including the windfall of royalties that would come from having a songwriting credit on a David Bowie album. More than anything else, though, Vandross felt that he and Bowie were working together without competition or selfishness. If the music worked, then that was all that mattered.

“David Bowie started [my career]. Flat out. Absolutely,” Vandross would later reflect. “I had never been out of New York city before Bowie took me on the road with him. I was still living with my mother before Bowie took me out on the road with him.” On the flip side, without Vandross’ understanding of soul music and song structures, Bowie’s work in the genre would have drifted too far into pastiche. The two artists elevated each other.

Vandross joined Bowie on the second leg of the 1974 tour in support of Diamond Dogs, dubbed the “Philly Dogs” leg of the tour thanks to the greater presence of the Young Americans songs in the setlist. Vandross appeared on television with Bowie as well, appearing among his backup singers on The Dick Cavett Show. But Bowie was changing rapidly, being heavily addicted to cocaine and aiming for a darker sound that contrasted with his embrace of Philly Soul. The Thin White Duke was coming out, and Vandross continued to work as an in-demand session singer.

A decade after their first collaboration, Bowie and Vandross would later reunite to record the song ‘Underground’ for Bowie’s film Labirynth. Even though he was happy to once again join the crowded backing vocal choir for Bowie’s session, Vandross no longer had to give his songs away to Bowie in order to find success. He had his own hit singles, he was a live draw, and he had produced albums by Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin. Vandross was now his own major force within the music industry, but it all started with David Bowie’s “plastic soul” era.