Philly Stopover: Fans and Funk

by Matt Damsker / Rolling Stone

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 Carl Paruolo.

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 Bellis 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.

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