More than 40 years ago, David Bowie came to Philadelphia to record his album “Young Americans.” As the music world mourns the death of the superstar from cancer just after his 69th birthday, a few are recalling the time the superstar spent in the city.
In 1974, American R&B music was more popular in England than in the U.S., and Bowie wanted to tap into the famous Philadelphia Sound. For about six weeks, he worked at Sigma Sound Studio on 12th Street.
“His intention, I believe, was to record with the Philadelphia musicians, to capture that ‘Philadelphia magic,'” said Joseph Tarsia, founder and owner of Sigma. “But, as it turned out, for whatever reason, the rhythm section refused to play with him, except for one or two guys. Essentially, he brought his own musicians.”
Tarsia said some of the musicians didn’t want to give their sound away to a foreigner. (Bowie himself later called it “the definitive plastic soul record.”) Nevertheless, Bowie did get Luther Vandross and Andy Newmark, the drummer with Sly and the Family Stone, to help him with the record. Vandross, who has a writing credit on “Fascination,” was also a backup singer on “John, I’m Only Dancing.”
“Philadelphia was so busy making music that, to some degree, it was another client,” said Tarsia. “It wasn’t until later that, whenever you brought up the name Sigma, they didn’t say Lou Rawls or Johnny Mathis or the Spinners, they said Bowie. It bewildered me all that time.”
Bowie booked the studio “7 p.m. until,” working all night until daybreak.
“There was at least a dozen kids outside the studio at 7 p.m., and they would be there at dawn when he left. He was just sort of nod at them and go into the studio, which you might say was sort of cold,” recalled Tarsia. “When he finished the project, he made us go out and get sandwiches and sodas. He invited all the kids into the studio, and played for them the entire album.”
The summer he recorded “Young Americans,” Bowie also performed a week of gigs at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, which became his first live album, “David Live.”
After the release of “Young Americans,” some of the original session tapes were lost. They were recently discovered in the sound archive of Drexel University, which took stewardship of all Sigma’s unclaimed tapes when it closed in 2003.
You can hear a except from those tapes via the player, above.