Philly stopover: fans and funk
Matt Damsker • Rolling Stone • 10 October 1974
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. Bowie then
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-razing 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.
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.
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.
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 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.