Released 7 March 1975
UK (RCA RS 1006) Chart peak #2
USA (APL1-0998) Chart peak #9
Somebody Up There Likes Me**
Across the Universe***
Can You Hear Me***
**Tony Visconti and Harry Maslin
***David Bowie and Harry Maslin
Vocal arrangements by David Bowie, Luther Vandross
String arrangements by Tony Visconti
Recorded at Sigma Sound, Philadelphia and Electric Lady, New York
Mixed at Sound House and Record Plant, New York
John I'm Only Dancing (Again)
Who Can I Be Now**
It's Gonna Be Me**
(1991 Ryko and 2007 EMI reissue)
It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City
(Sound + Vision 1989)
Shilling the Rubes
I Am A Laser
David Bowie (vocals, guitar, keyboards)
Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick (guitars)
Mike Garson (piano)
David Sanborn (alto sax)
Willie Weeks, Emir Ksasan (bass)
Andy Newmark, Dennis Davis (drums)
Larry Washington, Pablo Rosario, Ralph McDonald (percussion)
Backing vocals: Ava Cherry, Robin Clark, Jean Fineberg (Fame), Anthony Hinton, John Lennon (Fame), Jean Millington (Fame), Warren Peace, Diane Sumler, Luther Vandross
John Lennon (guitar)
John I'm Only Dancing Again
Somebody Up There Likes Me
Who Can I Be Now
It's Gonna Be Me
Can You Hear Me
It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City (backing track)
I arrive in Philadelphia from London around 8pm. I've just finished a Thin Lizzy album and I am tired! I am rushed to Sigma Sound by limo. I am shown the control room, and can see a large band playing full tilt with Bowie walking around pensively among them. I am immediately intimidated because the band contains three musicians I am in complete awe of – Andy Newmark on drums, Willie Weeks on bass and David Sanborn on sax. These are super session men, and I'm just a Brooklyn kid who did good in England!
I ask the engineer, Carl Paruolo, "Who is engineering?" I've never seen a console as funky as this – it looks like it was handmade in someone's garage on weekends.
He says, "You are!" He was originally selected to engineer by Bowie, having recorded many Philly hits, but he told me that Bowie wasn't pleased with the sound. Bowie told Carl, "Tony will be handling the recording once he arrives."
David and the band had been recording their rehearsals for three days, and I could hear the problem he had with the sound. In those days, in America, engineers recorded "dry" and "flat", waiting for the mix to add the equalization, reverbs and special effects. But the British often recorded with the special effects right on the session! I was British-trained and David was used to this sound! So I rolled up my sleeves and got right into it. By 2 am we'd recorded our first official backing track – "Young Americans."
The session guys were great to record with. My fears were quickly dispelled. To contrast the "slickness" of Newmark, Weeks and Sanborn, David was trying out a gang of NYC kids from the Bronx, whose manager had sent in a demo tape weeks earlier. They were Carlos Alomar on guitar, his wife Robin Clark on vocals and their vocalist friend Luther Vandross! What a lineup! Mike Garson on piano was the only link left over from the Spiders From Mars days.
It was agreed we had to record live, no overdubs! But David also wanted to record his vocals live in the same room! This presented a big problem because the instruments were much louder than his voice, so I had to rig up a special microphone technique which canceled the band but recorded his voice. This required two identical microphones placed electronically out of phase. In other words, the diaphragm of one mike is pushing when the other is pulling. The band's sound is picked up by the two mikes, but is out of phase and consequently cancelled! David was told to sing only into the top mike so that his voice was not canceled! For the non-technically-minded this probably doesn't make any sense, but it saved the day, and what you hear on the recordings is about 85% "live" David Bowie.
The sessions went swift as a breeze, and we often worked until after sunrise the next morning (which sometimes hurt). A small group of fans stood vigil outside the studio listening as hard as they could. On the last day David took pity on them and invited them in for an hour of listening.
PHILADELPHIA La Bowie and his entourage
made elegant camp here for two weeks before the start of the West
Coast swing of his current tour. Pitching tents amid the staid and
somewhat geriatric prestige of Rittenhouse Square's Hotel Barclay,
the Bowie mob had come from its New York headquarters after booking
some 120 hours of recording time at Sigma Sound Studios, home of
the Gamble-Huff-Bell R&B empire and one of the busiest hitmaking
studios in the country.
Bowie's intention had been to record with the rhythm
section from MFSB, Sigma's resident body whose TSOP (The Sound of
Philadelphia) had recently pinned Philly Funk to the top of the
charts for an extended reign. However, some confusion over commitments
left Bowie with only MFSB conga player Larry Washington.
recruited a New York crew: guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist Willie
Weeks, drummer Andy Newmark and saxophonist David Sanborn, in addition
to his pianist, Mike Garson, and some rafter-raising gospel in the
voices of Ava Cherry, Luther Vandross and Alomar's wife, Robin.
Tony Visconti engineered the sessions and was assisted by Sigma's
Accompanied by his secretary, Corinne Schwab, and
his bodyguard, Stuart George and frequently visited in the studio
by wife Angela and son Zowie, both of whom had checked into the
Barclay with him, Bowie made nightly journeys to Sigma.
Carlos Alomar, Corinne Schwab, Stuey George
For a corps of ten "Bowiemaniacs" who maintained
a sleep-out vigil in front of Sigma and who greeted, begged autographs
and won kind words from their main man upon his entrances and exits
(Bowie worked from the early evening into the late morning), the
Sigma sessions were apparently as traumatic as they were God-sent.
Bowie had decided that the faithful would be brought into the studio
after completion of the album for a party.
But that didn't happen until early in the morning
of the final session, after Bowie had put in a long night of finishing
touches some vocal fragments, a few overdubbed keyboard parts and
some additional harmonies from Ava, Robin and Luther.
Unknown, Bowie, Robin Clark, Luther Vandross, Ava Cherry
The album, thanks to Bowie's organized approach he
would prepare reams of precise arrangements during the day for efficient,
methodical run-throughs at night had come together quickly and,
it appeared, to the considerable satisfaction of all concerned.
So much so that, by the final night, the atmosphere in Sigma's second-floor
studio had depressurised to a state of genial calm.
The album, which Mike Garson has suggested Bowie
call Somebody Up There Likes Me, arguably the strongest and most
immediately engaging of the seven songs, seems far from the conceptual
mosaicism of past efforts such as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and
Diamond Dogs, and is perhaps the first Bowie album you'll be able
to dance to all the way through.
Bowie's version of Philly Sound
a slickly stylised, "discophonic" brand of urban soul pioneered
at Sigma by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell is largely propelled
by the soaring vocal backup of Ava, Luther and Robin, while behind
them the instrumentalists produce a blistering rhythm.
Mike Garson and Willie Weeks
Robin Clark, Luther Vandross and Ava Cherry; David Sanborn, Carlos Alomar
Ava Cherry, Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar; Mike Garson
Robin Clark, Ava Cherry, Luther Vandross and Bowie; Carlos Alomar
The songs range from a new, remarkably revamped version
of John, I'm Only Dancing once a straight-ahead rocker and
now rhythmically expanded, ultraprogressive excursion – to new material
in a superbly soulful vein. Apart from the obvious single, Somebody
Up There Likes Me, there is an extended, magnificently punctuated
torch song, It's Gonna Be Me, featuring an aching vocal from Bowie
that should keep Al Green and Marvin Gaye on their toes; bouncy,
high-humoured number, The Young American, written recently enough
to treat Richard Nixon in the past tense, and the album's closer,
Right an exhortation of the funk God.
Bowie with the Sigma Kids
Bowie played the album for the ten blissed-out, formerly
camped-out, devotees, who'd been ushered into the studio, finally,
at 5am by Stuart George. With wine, tears and adulation flowing
around and from the blessed, Bowie was an affable host as he signed
more autographs, apologised for the unfinished mix of the album
and agreed to play it a second time, at which point the party erupted
into dance. Bowie took centre floor with a foxy stomp.
Carlos Alomar, Bowie; David Sanborn, Ava Cherry, Willie Weeks
Fayette Pinkney with Bowie
We arrived at Sigma Sound a little after eight. Producer
Tony Visconti was arched over a mammoth soundboard, pressing buttons,
being generally pleasant to the half-dozen engineers and musicians
in the control room, and peering into the large windowed studio
directly in front.
The album was practically finished. The first rough
mix had been accomplished since Bowie recorded the basic tracks
some weeks ago, and this week had been devoted to clean-ups and
overdubs. This was the final night in the studio for the album -
the final touches would now be made.
I'm Only Dancing (She Turns Me On) was being played
back. Pablo was in the studio, overdubbing a cowbell and some chimes
onto an already lushly produced cut. Visconti easily shows his pleasure
with the final product as Pablo finishes up. The cut is full and
rich, almost a Phil Spector R&B wall of sound - Bowie's voice
mixed way into the background.
10:30: and the jokes disintegrate into bad puns and
poor taste; Tony explains palmistry to a member of the band - says
that the late Bruce Lee's lifeline (gleaned from a gigantic close-up
of his open fist) showed that he should've lived till 90.
11:30: Out of the corner of the studio comes an old,
small brown guitar amp. Tony proudly announced that it belonged
to Chubby Checker and was used to record the original version of
The Twist. He sings, "Got a new dance and it goes like this… "
The amps specialty is a fine dirty sound that you can't get from
an amp unless it was made well about twenty years ago. After hearing
a few licks played through, every guitar player in the room plots
Seven minutes to midnight: The door opens and in
saunter Ed and Judy Sciaky, escorting the night's special guest
star, a roadweary Bruce Springsteen, fresh off the bus from Asbury
Park, New Jersey. Bruce is stylishly attired in a stained brown
leather jacket with about seventeen zippers and a pair of hoodlum
jeans. He looked like he just fell out of a bus station, which he
It seems that one of the tracks Bowie laid down was
Bruce's It's Hard to be a Saint in the City. Tony Visconti called
Ed at WMMR and asked him if he could get Bruce into the studio.
Contacted finally on noon Sunday, Bruce hitched into Asbury Park,
then via the nine o'clock Trailways to Philly, where Ed met him
"hanging with the bums in the station."
Said Bruce of his Odyssey: "That ride had a real
cast of characters… every bus has a serviceman, an old lady in
a brown coat with one of these little black things on her head,
and the drunk who falls out next to you."
An hour later, the time passing with some more overdubs
and a few improvised vocals by Luther of the Garson band (who sings
a fine lead and whose vocal power adds a lot of strength to an already
powerful album), enter David Bowie and Ava Cherry, white-haired
soul singer for the band.
David breezes in, takes account of the night's progress,
lets his piercing eyes cast across the room a few times, listens
to a tape and then leaves Tony to his work so as to chat with Bruce.
Five people hunched up in a far corner of the lobby,
looking more like the fans (half a dozen of whom were still standing
outside, savoring the vibrations) than the stars themselves.
David reminisces on the first time he saw Bruce -
two years ago at Max's Kansas City - and that he was knocked out
by the show and wanted to do one of his songs ever since. When pressed
for another American artist whose songs he would like to record
(as he did for British artists on the Pin-Ups album), David thinks
a while and replies that there are none. A tired but interested
Bruce lets a grin escape.
Bowie is a tall skeletal leprechaun. Red beret tipped
extremely to one side, the other revealing a loose patch of orange
hair, leaning away from ears that uncannily resemble a Vulcan's
up close. Intense hawk eyes; if they fix on you friendly it warms
the room; unfriendly or even questioningly you're forced to turn
away from them. Red velvet suspenders over high waisted black pants
and a white pullover sweater complete the bizarre outfit, which,
like any other, grows on you as the hours pass.
In fact, Bowie grows and fleshes out as the hours
pass. From the secluded, mysterious figure portrayed by the press
into a man of odd habits, but more personable as some time passes
Mike Garson, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Visconti and Bowie
After an hour, I couldn't understand how Mike Garson
could say he was easy and friendly to work with; very short and
direct in his instructions to the band as he stands with Visconti
at the board, overseeing some back-up vocals. After a few hours,
a break, and some chatter about flying saucers, the person seeps
through. A real person.
The studio is a warm, fur covered cavern at 3am.
Heads and bodies sway in time to a slow one. Yellows, blues, reds,
and greens dimmed as low as possible light the control room and
studio. The control room is a starship with endless banks of futuristic
controls; punch panel, mixing decks, tape decks, blinking lights.
A starship manned by a motley bunch of pirates. Obviously hijacked.
The talk turns toward the sound last Monday at the
Spectrum. (Bowie: "It's the pits. The absolute pits.") Visconti
is assigned to work on its improvement. A five o'clock sound check
will be of little use since it's brought up that the acoustics change
tremendously when the place fills with fourteen thousand sound-absorbing
If anyone can look tired and energetic at the same
time, it's David. Part the curtains in the studio and the silent
sentinels below come to life and wave frantically; their big moment
- contact with the event.
Bowie tried to record a vocal solo. It sounds terrible,
the voice is hoarse and tired. "It's much too early yet - I'm not
quite awake… I won't be able to record anything till about half
He re-enters the studio and wraps a set of incredibly
long, slender fingers around a cold steak sandwich (never having
encountered one before, he was taught the correct hold and given
seven different explanations as to what a hoagie was).
More on the Spectrum: "I was dreading it really.
Everybody whoever played there warned me how terrible it was. I
don't think you can get good sound there, but we'll try."
After a promise to meet again and talk further in
New York, Bruce heads off with Ed and Judy for a 5am visit to the
Broad Street diner. Max's Kansas City had been his first professional
gig. Bowie was in from the start. Bruce leaves without having heard
his version of Saint. The feeling is that it's not ready yet.
Outside, a dozen sentinels are huddled in cars, standing
on the sidewalk, sitting on the steps, waiting for a little of the
magic to pour out. This is Bowie's final night in the studio. When
he leaves, they'll get into their cars and beat him to the Barclay.
One last look at the man who makes his albums in Philadelphia.
Tony Visconti and Harry Maslin
We didn't have enough songs recorded, so David wrote "Win", and turned one of Luther Vandross' songs, "Funky Music" into "Fascination" by changing the title and some of the lyrics. David Sanborn added some more sax to these and some of the Philly tracks. The day arrived that I was ready to take the tapes back to London to mix the album, tentatively called "The Gouster."
On my last night in New York, David phones my hotel room and says that John Lennon is coming that evening and he's a little nervous to be left alone with him, could I come? I was over there in a flash! After ringing the doorbell many times I was finally let in. It seems that Lennon was a little nervous because he didn't have his alien's green card yet, and thought that I might be the police. Out of the bathroom walks John and his Chinese-American girlfriend, May Pang (who became my wife 13 years later).
David sits on the floor and avoids eye contact with John, sketching on a notepad instead. I take this as a cue to begin to ask John Lennon at least 100 questions I always wanted to ask a Beatle, like, "What is that guitar chord at the beginning of "A Hard Day's Night?" He told me and we chatted away for hours. May and Beatles exec Neil Aspinall sat quietly for that time, as did singer Ava Cherry. David continued to sketch. Finally John said, "Let's see what you're drawing." They were portraits of John. John sat on the floor, picked up another pad and began sketching David. They finally broke the ice.
In mid January Bowie went into Electric Lady with John Lennon to record Across the Universe and Fame. Bowie decided to include the two new tracks on the new album, replacing Who Can I Be Now and It's Gonna Be Me on the final tracklisting, to the later dismay of producer Tony Visconti.
: How did the Fame session with John Lennon for the 1975 Young Americans LP come about?
: After meeting in some New York club, we'd spent quite a few nights talking and getting to know each other before we'd even gotten into the studio. That period in my life is none too clear, a lot of it is really blurry, but we spent endless hours talking about fame, and what it's like not having a life of your own any more. How much you want to be known before you are, and then when you are, how much you want the reverse: "I don't want to do these interviews! I don't want to have these photographs taken!" We wondered how that slow change takes place, and why it isn't everything it should have been.
I guess it was inevitable that the subject matter of the song would be about the subject matter of those conversations. God, that session was fast. That was an evening's work! While John and Carlos Alomar were sketching out the guitar stuff in the studio, I was starting to work out the lyric in the control room. I was so excited about John, and he loved working with my band because they were playing old soul tracks and Stax things. John was so up, had so much energy; it must have been so exciting to always be around him.
A week or so later I was in London mixing the album and I got a call from David. "Er, Tony. I don't know how to tell you this but John and I wrote a song together and we recorded and mixed it. It's called "Fame." He explained that he went back to the studio and recorded Lennon's "Across the Universe" for a lark and it turned out good enough to include on Young Americans.
He later played the track to Lennon, who thought it was cool, then David asked him it he would like to write and record a new song together. This led to the making of "Fame." David apologized for not including me. There wasn't time left to send for me, because of the release date constraints. For me, it would've been the most wonderful experience of my recording career. Oh well. This is, nevertheless, definitely one of my favorite Bowie albums. As I walk through gallerias the world over, I hear the title track wafting out of boutiques to this day.