David Bowie box retells his Philadelphia story

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David Bowie, from "Who Can I Be Now? 1974-1976." One album in the set was recorded at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios.

It's one of the most cherished episodes in David Bowie's career and in Philadelphia music history.

That time in 1974 when the changeling British rocker, after recording his double album David Live during a week of shows at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby in July, returned a month later, aiming to absorb the magic of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Sound of Philadelphia.

Bowie settled in at Sigma Sound Studios with a mostly African American band that included vocalist Luther Vandross and guitarist Carlos Alomar - who judged Bowie to be "the whitest man I've ever seen, translucent white." The musicians left Philadelphia having captured a "plastic soul" sound on an album poised to mark a turning point in Bowie's career.

And the name of that album was . . . The Gouster. The what? Yes, The Gouster.

Of course, the collection that was ultimately released in March 1975, drawn from the Sigma Sound recordings as well as sessions at the Record Plant in New York, did not bear that name.

It was called Young Americans, named after the swooning soul-rock masterpiece, a song Bowie said was "about a newlywed couple who don't know if they really like each other." Sample lyric: "It took him minutes, took her nowhere, heaven knows she would have taken anything."

But while teenage fans waited patiently outside, the album Bowie and producer Tony Visconti were completing inside Sigma Sound - which has just been released for the first time as part of an 11-CD box called Who Can I Be Now? 1974-1976 (Parlophone ***1/2) - was a substantially different collection from what came to be known as Young Americans.

More on that in a minute, but first: What in heaven's name is a gouster? According to the Five Du-Tones, a Chicago R&B quintet who released the freewheeling single "The Gouster" in 1964, it rhymes with "foster." And, according to online word-nerd site languagehat.com, it's Chicago slang for a '60s African American youth subculture that involved dressing with exaggerated flair akin to the zoot-suit-wearing jazzers and Chitown gangsters of a previous era.

Bowie's girlfriend at the time was backup singer Ava Cherry, a Chicagoan whose father's gouster suits Bowie sometimes wore on stage. It makes sense that Bowie - who in the '60s identified with the Mods, the sharp-dressed Brits who took cues from R&B and soul - would name his soul homage after a black American subculture that valued sartorial style.

So when Bowie, Visconti, and crew packed up and left Sigma Sound - after inviting the "Bowie kids" in on the last night to hear the recordings - it was with the seven-song Gouster in their bags.

Four of Gouster's songs are also on Young Americans. The other cuts include "John I'm Only Dancing (Again)," a funked-up version of a song originally released in 1972, and "It's Gonna Be Me" a soul ballad accompanied by a pleasing David Sanborn sax solo.

The most compelling Gouster-only song is "Who Can I Be Now?," an intriguing exploration of Bowie's elastic identity. "Hmm, if it's all just a vast creation, putting on a face that's new," Bowie sings. "Someone has to see a role for him and me, someone might as well be you."

After Bowie got back to New York, he ditched the finished version of Gouster. Maybe he (or his record company) realized The Gouster wasn't such a great title.

Or maybe it was because he started hanging with John Lennon. They went to the Record Plant in New York to record more songs - an awful cover of the Beatles' "Across the Universe" but also "Fame," a James Brown rip so good Brown later covered it - that ended up on Young Americans.

His musical musings on "Fame" - which "puts you there where things are hollow" - made Bowie more famous than ever, naturally. It topped the pop charts and landed him on Soul Train as one of that show's first Caucasian lip-synchers.

Both Gouster and Young Americans are included on Who Can I Be Now?, in a package intended for hard-core fans. There are also Diamond Dogs, the 1974 album influenced by George Orwell's 1984, and 1976's Station to Station, on which he introduced his Thin White Duke persona.

Bowie was touring in support of the former when he played the Tower in '74, and the double disc David Live is included in both its original mix and a freshened-up, 2005 version. Either way, it's a flaccid live album. I guess you had to be there.

Lucky Philly rock journalists were.

Included in the box booklet are reprints of articles by the Inquirer's Jack Lloyd and Matt Damsker of the Evening Bulletin, who covered Bowie for Rolling Stone. Lloyd's subtly snarky Inky preview is headlined "Upper Darby May Never Be the Same After David Bowie's Rock Theatrics." Damsker's "Philly Stopover: Fans & Funk" sits in on the "Sigma Kids'" Gouster playback.

Who Can I Be Now? has not been rushed to capitalize on the rock star's death in January, days after the release of his haunting Blackstar album. Bowie planned it himself. Its predecessor box, Five Years, 1969-1973, came out in 2015.

It is but one element in a Bowie barrage. The original-cast recording of Lazarus, the Bowie-penned Off-Broadway musical, comes out Oct. 21. The sound track to Nicolas Roeg's Bowie-starring 1976 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth is being reissued as a deluxe box Nov. 18. And for those who like reading as much as listening, Rob Sheffield's On Bowie, a series of perspicacious essays that came out this year, is highly recommended.

The Gouster isn't revelatory. If anything, the decision to junk it demonstrates Bowie's savvy. He knew the album needed a boost, and he recruited a Beatle to cowrite "Fame" to help accomplish that.

But its inclusion in the Who Can I Be Now? box does add a fascinating footnote to Bowie's Philadelphia story.

When Bowie died, former Sigma Sound owner Joe Tarsia said that although Sigma saw more than its share of formidable artists - from the O'Jays to the Stylistics to the Jacksons - it's Bowie's visit that gets talked about the most. (He tells a story about introducing Bowie to his wife: "He shook her hand, and she was taken back by how delicate he was. Like a frail little bird.")

"You know, Sigma made its mark and recorded a lot of famous people: Teddy Pendergrass, Johnny Mathis, Lou Rawls," Tarsia says. "But when I travel around the world and I say, 'Sigma Sound,' the first thing people say to me is: 'David Bowie!' What was unique about it was that he came to Sigma for something that Philadelphia had. He wanted that sound."

ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628 @delucadan

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