David Bowie Sings “Fame” & “Golden Years” on Soul Train (1975)

Just before his death this year, David Bowie revealed that what turned out to be his final album, Black­star, was large­ly inspired by the exper­i­men­tal sounds of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a But­ter­fly. And just this past August, Bowie’s name appeared in the cred­its of the much-antic­i­pat­ed Blonde from Frank Ocean (as an “influ­ence”). This meld­ing of style and influ­ence between rock, pop, hip-hop, and R&B giants is a hall­mark of 2016, but in 1975 such crossovers were rare. When David Bowie began work­ing with Luther Van­dross and Car­los Alo­mar on his Philly soul-inspired Young Amer­i­cans album, “no oth­er estab­lished rock musi­cian had yet tried to do any­thing sim­i­lar,” writes Dou­glas Wolk at Pitch­fork, “and Bowie pulled it off in a way that not only didn’t seem crass but gave Luther Van­dross his big break.”

The album’s first big sin­gle, “Fame,” (above) “land­ed Bowie on Soul Train,” Wolk notes, and though “he wasn’t the first white solo per­former to play the show [that would be Den­nis Cof­fey] he was damn close.” Bowie and Alomar’s hip con­fec­tion lat­er inspired George Clinton’s “Give Up the Funk,” and James Brown released an instru­men­tal track in 1976 that was a “note-for-note dupli­cate of ‘Fame.’”

That kind of gen­uine admi­ra­tion for Bowie’s deft take on funk and soul extend­ed to ordi­nary fans as well. In a Q&A before his Soul Train per­for­mances, one audi­ence mem­ber asked him “when did you actu­al­ly start get­ting into soul music? You know, when did you start want­i­ng to do soul music? I mean you’re doin’ it now!” Bowie gives a some­what gar­bled answer, then launch­es into mim­ing “Gold­en Years” (below).

Fan­site Bowie Gold­en Years claims he “had been drink­ing to calm his nerves before his per­for­mance” and “spoke thick­ly with dis­con­nect­ed sen­tences.” We can see him flub a few lines as he lip-synchs. This was also the year Bowie pre­sent­ed the best female R&B vocal Gram­my to Aretha Franklin appar­ent­ly so high on coke that he didn’t remem­ber being there after­ward. A lot of Young Amer­i­cans, espe­cial­ly “Fame,” address­es exact­ly the state he was in, “at a moment,” writes Wolk, “when [pop star­dom] seemed like­ly to destroy him.” Bowie’s appear­ance on Soul Train coin­cid­ed with the release of the “Gold­en Years” sin­gle from 1976’s Sta­tion to Sta­tion, the album on which he bridged his obses­sions with soul music and krautrock, and adopt­ed the per­sona of the Thin White Duke, “a nasty char­ac­ter indeed,” as he once said.

Vast num­bers of Bowie fans con­sid­er his sub­se­quent three albums, known as The Berlin Tril­o­gy, to be the best work of the artist’s career, but for a brief moment in the mid-sev­en­ties, he was ful­ly immersed in black Amer­i­can music, and those influ­ences con­tin­ued to inform his work through the decade and through­out the rest of his life. Bowie also gave back as much as he bor­rowed: “black radio sta­tions that nev­er thought twice about ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ or ‘Changes’ ate up ‘Fame’ and ‘Gold­en Years,’” writes Renée Gra­ham at the Boston Globe, and artists like Clin­ton, Brown, and a few dozen future hip-hop DJs took note.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie and Cher Sing Duet of “Young Amer­i­cans” and Oth­er Songs on 1975 Vari­ety Show

David Bowie Sings Impres­sions of Bruce Spring­steen, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits & More In Stu­dio Out­takes (1985)

David Bowie Becomes a DJ on BBC Radio in 1979; Intro­duces Lis­ten­ers to The Vel­vet Under­ground, Talk­ing Heads, Blondie & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Tonya Garcia says:

    Wow, I remem­ber when I was a child my father always watch­ing the show with his friends on our TV. They’re laugh­ing so loud that some­times our neigh­bors call the police. It was night show and our neigh­bors were the elder­ly pair. Thank you for such nos­tal­gy moment and for shar­ing them with us!

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