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.