David Bowie's Philadelphia

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David Bowie performing at The Spectrum in July, 1974.

David Bowie had a place in his heart for Philadelphia.

Not only did he perform here many times over the years, two of his albums from the 1970s are rooted in Philadelphia.

His first live album David Live was recorded at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby in July, 1974, during his Diamond Dogs tour.

Tom Sheehy, the longtime Philadelphia publicist and music historian, had Bowie in Philadelphia stories to tell:

"After seeing what could have been called The Exile On Main Street tour in 1972 [tours were not yet branded in those days] I knew I had seen the greatest rock & roll tour in history, and that I would never see anything like that again in my lifetime; I had yet to see Bruce Springsteen, but in February of 1973 I had tickets to the Tower Theater to see one of my fave Brits, David Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust tour.

I had front row and I had not been that mesmerized by a live performance since seeing The Rolling Stones. I ended up going to all his Tower shows for Ziggy, and then when he came back to perform what ended up as David Live which of course was recorded at the Tower and released in 1974. I was at all of those show as well."

He returned the next month to record his Young Americans album at the Sigma Sound Studios at 212 N. 12th St., where Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created what is known as the "Philadelphia Sound" and what Bowie called "Plastic Soul."

The album, released in 1975, marked a soulful departure from Bowie's early glam rock phase and after recording it the Diamond Dogs tour was renamed the Philly Dogs tour.

Producer Tony Visconti (who will be performing The Man Who Sold the World in Phoenixville on Friday) shared this recollection of the Young Americans sessions in Philadelphia in 1974:

"I arrive in Philadelphia from London around 8pm. I've just finished a Thin Lizzy album and I am tired! I am rushed to Sigma Sound by limo. I am shown the control room, and can see a large band playing full tilt with Bowie walking around pensively among them. I am immediately intimidated because the band contains three musicians I am in complete awe of – Andy Newmark on drums, Willie Weeks on bass and David Sanborn on sax. These are super session men, and I'm just a Brooklyn kid who did good in England!

I ask the engineer, Carl Paruolo, ‘Who is engineering?’ I've never seen a console as funky as this – it looks like it was handmade in someone's garage on weekends.

He says, ‘You are!’ He was originally selected to engineer by Bowie, having recorded many Philly hits, but he told me that Bowie wasn't pleased with the sound. Bowie told Carl, ‘Tony will be handling the recording once he arrives.’

David and the band had been recording their rehearsals for three days, and I could hear the problem he had with the sound. In those days, in America, engineers recorded ‘dry’ and ‘flat’, waiting for the mix to add the equalization, reverbs and special effects. But the British often recorded with the special effects right on the session! I was British-trained and David was used to this sound! So I rolled up my sleeves and got right into it. By 2 am we'd recorded our first official backing track – Young Americans.

The session guys were great to record with. My fears were quickly dispelled. To contrast the ‘slickness’ of Newmark, Weeks and Sanborn, David was trying out a gang of NYC kids from the Bronx, whose manager had sent in a demo tape weeks earlier. They were Carlos Alomar on guitar, his wife Robin Clark on vocals and their vocalist friend Luther Vandross! What a lineup! Mike Garson on piano was the only link left over from the Spiders From Mars days.

It was agreed we had to record live, no overdubs! But David also wanted to record his vocals live in the same room! This presented a big problem because the instruments were much louder than his voice, so I had to rig up a special microphone technique which canceled the band but recorded his voice. This required two identical microphones placed electronically out of phase. In other words, the diaphragm of one mike is pushing when the other is pulling. The band's sound is picked up by the two mikes, but is out of phase and consequently cancelled! David was told to sing only into the top mike so that his voice was not canceled! For the non-technically-minded this probably doesn't make any sense, but it saved the day, and what you hear on the recordings is about 85% "live" David Bowie.

The sessions went swift as a breeze, and we often worked until after sunrise the next morning (which sometimes hurt). A small group of fans stood vigil outside the studio listening as hard as they could. On the last day David took pity on them and invited them in for an hour of listening."

Tom Sheehy also has another tale from 1974, relating to Bowie recording Young Americans at Sigma Sound Studio:

"In November of that year I was managing a record store at 11th & Market Streets here in Philly called Jerry’s Records. We closed at 6 o’clock, and one evening just after I closed the store, I got a call from a women with an English accent telling me she worked for David Bowie.

My store was just around the corner from Sigma Sound Studios which was located on 12th Street. Many of the musicians who worked there frequented Jerry’s to buy records on their way to work, so I knew Bowie was working at Sigma at that time.

The woman caller who worked for Bowie asked me if I had any Bruce Springsteen’s albums, and could she stop by and get them because David needed copies because he was thinking of recording some of Bruce’s work. I told her I was about to leave, but I would wait for her.

I pulled copies of both Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle and waited for her. Not too long after the phone call there was a knock on the door, and this petite woman with blond hair appeared. I opened the door showed her the two albums and told her to give the records to David with our compliments.

Now from what I recall, Bowie ended up recording 'It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City' and 'Growin’ Up' at Sigma, though neither of those tracks appeared on Young Americans."

"Growin' Up" came out on 1975 covers album Pin-Ups and "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City" was released on Bowie’s 1990 box set Sound + Vision.

In 1983 Bowie’s “Modern Love” music video was assembled using clips from his Serious Moonlight World Tour show at The Spectrum.

Jim Sutcliffe, the executive for concert promoters Live Nation remembers that tour date in South Philadelphia as one of the best shows of the thousands he's seen. Those shows were "always in my top 10," Sutcliffe said. 

"Total wow. Way ahead of its time production mixed with an incredible crowd pleaser set-list, and a totally commited performance. Just a total wow."

A news clip from 6ABC Action News shows fans gathering at Veterans Stadium on July 30, 1987 kicking off the first U.S. show for his Glass Spider tour.

Gail Ann Dorsey, the West Philadelphia-raised bassist who began playing in Bowie's band in 1995, on Friday, which was Bowie's 69th birthday, posted on her Facebook page:

"David, you will always shine like the brightest star, no matter what colour the sky...

Wishing a most spectacular 69th birthday to the man who fell into my life and changed it forever... With Love, Respect, and Eternal Gratitude..."

In honor of the late singer, local radio station WXPN will be playing his music all day.