by Colin McDonald / Goldmine Magazine
24th April 1997
Question: Who’s the only Puerto Rican playing the cream of rock ‘n roll after three decades? For the fledging session guitarist, the correct answer would be Carlos Alomar. Since 1968, his career in music is a virtual who’s who wish-list. To date, he’s still the youngest person to play in the legendary Apollo Theatre’s house band. His session work ranges from Ben E. King and Lulu to Iggy Pop and Peter, Paul, and Mary. But it’s his tenure as David Bowie’s longtime sideman that he is perhaps best known. In short, he is to Bowie what Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington. The alternator to the car engine, the pickup to the guitar.
“David Bowie has been an icon in the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s. Do you know how many bands, singers, or whoever have died or fallen by the waste-side? David could have been one of them … but it will never happen,” says the 46-year old from his recording studio in New York.
IT’S SHOWTIME AT THE APOLLO
Born on May 7, 1951, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Alomar’s father, Luis G. Alomar, was a Pentecostal minister who moved to Manhattan to establish a ministry. With older brother, Luis Jr., the two stayed in their home country with their grandmother for several years. By the late 1950’s they had relocated to the Bronx.
The dream of owning a Fender Jaguar seemed impossible to the young Alomar. The closest he could get was a Sears & Roebuck Silvertone complete with the matching, distorted gray speaker amp.
“My father bought my brother a guitar, but he never played it,” Alomar reminisces. I kept going in his room and finally my father said to me ‘If you don’t go in your brother’s room, I’ll give you his guitar.’ I said ‘fine,’ and still went in his room. I started playing when I was 10 and learned it religiously until my father died.”
During his summers, Alomar attended a program for impoverished children, Upward Bound, at Fordham University in New York. There he met a young Luther Vandross and choreographer Bruce Wallace. The three formed the R ‘n B group Shades of Jade, who performed and won several of the program’s annual talent shows. But during the summer of 1967, the program’s director informed the lads that they could not enter the show as a group.
Recalls Alomar, “On the day of the talent show, Luther performed an original song on piano. Do you know what my band did? They turned yellow and refused to go on. I was livid with anger, I told them all to drop dead. I went out there by myself and played all the parts to the Bar Kays ‘Soul Finger.’ As predicted, Luther came in first, but surprisingly I came in second.”
That summer, Vandross joined Listen My Brother, a vocal group formed by Apollo Theatre booking agent and director Peter Long. That group consisted of: Nat Adderly Jr. (Vandross’ musical director and piano player to this day); Woody Denard (drums); Frank Prescott (bass). Listen My Brother had rotating vocalists, but the ones who stood the test of time according to Alomar were his wife, Robin Clark (Young Americans, Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time), Fonzi Thornton (Chic) and Luther Vandross.
Alomar often came down to the Apollo to Listen My Brother’s rehearsals. One day, he had a run-in with director Long.
“Peter Long came right up to my face and said, ‘Boy! What the hell do you do … other than sitting down here all the time?’ Recognizing his Sergeant-style approach I answered, ‘I play guitar sir.’ Long replied, ‘You play guitar do you … well, I’ll tell you what Mr. I-play-guitar. You bring your guitar with you the next time you come down here or don’t bring yourself down here anymore.”
The following week, he made his way to the Apollo. Walking in the theater, a wave of laughter washed over him like a Hawaiian hurricane. Unable to contain himself, Long exclaimed to the members of Listen My Brother, “How does this kid expect to be taken seriously with a Silvertone?!!” Frustrated, but unflinching, Alomar plugged his guitar in and played the opening chords to “Soul Finger.” Three minutes passed. The laughter fades. Except for the R ‘n B that swims out from the Silvertone’s six strings, there was dead silence in the theater.
“I had to sit in with the 4-piece band which included Nat Adderly Jr. and a guitarist name Steve something-or-other … since I had sat through the rehearsals for at least a week, I already knew the material. This came from my training at my father’s church, where I learned to play by ear,” says Alomar. “Needless to say, I got the gig. From there, I toured with them around Harlem doing all the I’m Black & I’m Proud and Earth Day rallies. It was glorious.”
Although Listen My Brother never had success outside of New York, Alomar views it as a crucial stepping stone for himself and Vandross among others. Through their only known recording is a cover of Van McCoy’s “Only Love Can Make A Better World,” they were quite prominent on the New York’s late ’60’s R n’ B scene according to Alomar. They performed “Children Are Beautiful” and three other songs on an early Sesame Street episode as well as being the opening act for Sly & the Family Stone at the Apollo Theatre.
Says Alomar: “It’s really strange to have grown up with all these people, who’ve became famous in the music industry….. but never playing with them. My alternate guitar player and teen friend was Nile Rodgers, and yet I’ve never played with him. I looked forward to playing with him on Let’s Dance, but that didn’t happen either.”
Listen My Brother was also significant in that he was able to secure a spot in the Apollo Theatre’s house band. Young and cocky, he claims it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I started doing after-hour gigs with an older piano player named Mr. George Stubs. This association got me first crack at the guitar player’s gig for the Apollo. When that time came, I stepped right up into the slot. If somebody arrived at the theater from Nina Simone to Flip Wilson … if they needed music accompaniment, there I was,” he says.
From there, doors opened for the young Alomar. One of his first professional jobs was with The Haaaardest-Working Man in Show Business, James Brown. With 1968’s “Licking Stick-Licking Stick” (K6166) peaking at number 14 on the pop singles chart, it was a partnership that was short but sweet.
“It was great except for one thing. During my one rehersal, James was doing his ‘take it to the bridge, take it to the bridge, take it to the bridge’ thing. He was saying it for so long that I kind of drifted. All of a sudden, he said, ‘HIT ME’ and I didn’t hit it. I missed the cue.”
“Payday came Friday and my check was $50 short. I said to the staff: ‘Excuse me, but there’s $50 missing from my check.’ They told me: ‘Well, Mr. Brown said that on that date you didn’t hit on the hit-me cue and therefore have been fined $50.’ I was pretty pissed off … I don’t mine being docked if you tell me. But to hit me with a dock after the fact didn’t sit right with me so I found another gig.”
However, Alomar had the last laugh. Months after Bowie’s “Fame” topped the 1975 singles charts throughout the world, Brown released “Hot (I Need to be Loved)” (PD14301) in December, 1975. For anyone not familiar with “Hot,” the resemblance to “Fame” is so similar it’s absurd at best. However, the immediate reaction on first listen is to question how Alomar, Bowie and John Lennon could write such a groove-oriented song? After all, it hardly sounds like the work of two working class Englishmen. Did it indeed originate from the Godfather of Soul?
“Look, that was my riff … That was all me getting all funky and stuff. David wasn’t into that just yet. Because I’m a New York musician, I knew all the musicians that played on the session … They said Brown actually played the damn record in front of them. What was surprising though was to see David’s reaction. He had great respect for James Brown as did I. So Bowie said, ‘Let’s see what kind of activity it gets. If it charts and does real good, then we’ll sue him.’ Come to find out, that record didn’t do anything. Still, it was real flattering for David to have had the Sex Machine James Brown steal from him.”
Another memorable highlight early in his career was a 1970 gig with Chuck Berry.
“I got there and there were these three other young kids who didn’t know each other … Mr. Berry walked in and said, ‘You boys know how to play rock ‘n roll?’ And we all shook our heads nervously saying, ‘Yes sir, Mr. Berry.’ He then said, ‘when I take my guitar and do this (moves guitar up and down),’ you start playing. When I do this (moves guitar sideways), you stop!’ That was it! No rehearsal, nothing.”
BACKSTABBERS & BOWIE
In 1971, Alomar began working in RCA Recording Studios’ house band. His wicked playing is quite prominent on Ben E. King’s “Supernatural Thing”. and joe simons “Drowning in the sea of love.” He also became a semi-permanent member in Philadelphia’s The Main Ingredient. He got on so well with them that he joined their touring band. In the interim, he also toured with The O-Jays during the Backstabbers period.
However, it was his work with The Main Ingredient that lead him to his next employer, a musical partnership that lasted for over 20 years.
“Tony Sylvester, one of the singers in The Main Ingredient, told me about this guy named David Bowie who was producing Lulu (The Man Who Sold the World/Watch That Man 7,” Polydor 2001490) at one of the RCA studios. Tony said, “They need a guitar player and I recommend you.” I knew who Lulu was because I saw To Sir, With Love, but I didn’t know who David Bowie was. I didn’t have a clue.”
Bowie had recently arrived from England after the end of the Spiders from Mars period and was interested in checking out various American music scenes. Alomar’s solution?
“I took him to the Apollo,” he says with a laugh. “Here we are in 1973, in the center of Harlem, particularly at the front entrance of the theatre. There is a line. A long line! And a stretch limousine pulls up. Out comes the whitest, white man imaginable with stark red flaming hair, who proceeds to walk right up to the front entrance and pass right through, ignoring the obvious gawks, stares, gapping mouths and probable profanities. This act in itself marks the nature of the man … his ability to follow through for the sake of his art was evident right from the start.”
Despite this session, Alomar and the anorexic pale duke didn’t work together again until of 1974. During the fall of that year, he joined the Soul Tour in which Bowie mixed material from the Diamond Dogs tour with R n’ B standards like Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.” One of best documented performances was a summer 1975 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. According to producer Tony Visconti, Bowie was so bent on capturing the Philly Soul sound that he had everyone relocate to Philadelphia to cut his next album, 1975’s Young Americans.
“The ironic thing is that no one was from Philadelphia,” remembers Visconti. “Carlos and I are New Yorkers … Andy Newmark was from California. It was really a fun album but is definitely a hybrid of the sound made popular by The Stylistics, T.S.O.P. and Harold Melvin.”
Alomar adds that the Young Americans album was also significant in that it changed the way Bowie viewed the recording process.
“David was used to doing albums in that old rock ‘n roll tradition where it took four to six months. I’m used to recording two or three weeks,” he says. “Once he met up with my troupe of Luther (Vandross), Robin (Clark), Emir (Kassan) Dennis (Davis), we did it spot on … When he recorded an album in a month he said, ‘I like this.’ From that point on, David and I would get together and then I would translate that to the rhythm section. After that, David would bring in the keyboards and lead guitar and deal with that in overdubs. And we stuck to that format for our whole career together.”
Arguably the most powerful element of Bowie’s mid and late 70’s work was the deadlocked rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray. While the Eagles, Humble Pie and Yes were selling out arenas with self-important pub rock, the trio of Alomar-Davis-Murray kept it simple and direct. Indeed, Bowie said in a 1996 German TV interview that “the way Tony recorded Davis’ drums on (1977’s) Low changed the entire way drums sounded, used and were viewed in the studio.”
Remembers Alomar, “I met Dennis when we were playing with Roy Ayers. When you’re a working musician in a big city like New York, you always should try to find the people you sound best with. So I found Dennis, Emir, and the three of us were a massive rhythm section … The first opportunity I got, I told David ‘You’ve got to get these guys. These guys will wipe out anyone else.’ When he heard Dennis, he was like “that’s it, it’s over, the door’s closed.” Emir did the same thing, but he has a different personality so he only lasted a certain amount of time. That’s when George Murray came in … his style and approach is more laid back. And that rhythm section lasted up until (1980’s) Scary Monsters.”
After Scary Monsters, Sir Bowie cleaned house disassociating himself from Messieurs Visconti, Davis and Murray for the sleek sounds ex-Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers. Alomar sat out on the Let’s Dance sessions, but was brought back into the fold to be the musical director of 1983’s Serious Moonlight comeback tour. Alomar (Bowie) came up with a look for the tour that resembled a band playing in Hong Kong during the 1950’s. The two continued for two more albums, 1984’s insipid Tonight and 1987’s misguided Never Let Me Down. While Alomar tried his best to bring some funk back into the duke, the albums come off as if Bowie was a victim of his own stardom. Says Iggy Pop of this period, “I think it boiled down to having too many people saying ‘That’s great, Dave” and not enough of ‘This is going nowhere.'”
Says Alomar: “After the Glass Spider tour, he was in the process of getting control of his music again. For anyone working in music, it’s very difficult to come up with stuff all the time, especially when the record company presses you to do an album. If you’re not the right mindset to do an album, you’re at a loss. I try to suggest as much as I can, but if it doesn’t come, if it’s not what he wants, he settles for certain things. And after a while, you get tired of settling. There’s no way I or anyone else could have influenced him.”
“Once he started doing the Tin Machine thing, that wasn’t my thing,” he continues. “I understand Iggy Pop doing that, but David going back into that type of music was just too noisy for me. So when Reeves Gabrels came into the picture, it was a breath of fresh air. By that time, I didn’t inspire him. I was just a standard guy who tried to do what I could, but I can’t give anything back because my background is more funky … I accent what he already gives me. David has never owed me anything. I’m always flattered whenever he calls me back. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve lasted so long. I’m a working musician. I work with everybody.”
After finishing up the Glass Spider tour (dubbed the Glass Spandex Tour by the NME), Alomar cut his only solo album to date, 1988’s Dream Generator.
“I wanted to go back to the Bowie-trilogy kind of feeling,” he says. “I would’ve done another record, but I had artistic differences with the record company. They’d make suggestions like ‘bring in David Bowie or Mick Jagger for a couple songs.’ That’s not why I joined that company. I signed with them because I wanted to do instrumental music. I had a wonderful presentation of things like talking guitars for the next album, but they went from being an instrumental company to being a pop company.”
For 1: Outside, Bowie enlisted old glam-rock compatriot Brian Eno for production duties. A much criticized/debated album amongst Bowites, 1: Outside is not the continuation of the Berlin trilogy many had hoped. While not as immediate as this year’s Earthling, repeated listens to 1: Outside revel a majestic immediacy missing from Earthling. One surprise on 1: Outside was Alomar’s reappearance. One could only hope that the duke would reenlist Murray and Davis’ services to complete the circle. Alomar counters however that may not happen anytime soon.
“On I: Outside, he did something different,” he says. “Even at that, I was surprised he called me back … It was great sliding back into my role as the electric heartbeat. Working with people like Reevese was no problem whatsoever. To me, he’s another Stacey (Heydon), another Adrian (Belew), another (Robert) Fripp … it’s all the same to me. The minute we got together for Outside, we locked in immediately … I looked at Reeves, Reeves looked at David, and David looked at me and we knew it was perfect.”
Though he dropped out of the second leg of 1996’s Outside tour to what he attributes to “loneliness and road fatigue,” Alomar has been active in the Latin community on many different levels. Though busy producing such Latin acts as Soda Stereo, Wilkens w/ Charlie Garcia and Fabiana Cantillo, he and Melba Miranda formed the National Rock Movement in Puerto Rico, a milestone.
Says Alomar, “As far as rock ‘n roll coming from America, the rest of the Latin community won’t take with a band coming from Florida or California, but coming from Puerto Rico, they accept it. I’m really trying to get the record companies to look at Puerto Rico and the rock acts that sing in Spanish as a viable artistic force.”
But for his good fortune to work with the best of the best in late 20th century music, Alomar will never forget the impact his father had on his life.
“The minute my father gave me that guitar, it was my responsibility to learn how to play because it was a God-given talent,” he says. “That’s the way it was done in those days. Who had the money for a teacher? Self-taught playing is learning all the licks, but when you learn how to play, you develop a style so that no one can see your fingers … you develop rhythm and lead at the same time. Being self-taught for me was playing after hours joints as a teenager and the manager tells you to buy the top ten singles of the moment and learn them by tomorrow. It’s not about sitting in a garage all day mastering a chord book.”