It is a great honour to be asked to contribute to this book about David Bowie. I have known the icon for more than 60 years and I was lucky enough to have collaborated with him on some of his most memorable albums. Not only was he a genius, but he was also a real sweetheart. It is sad to see how much he missed out on in life because of his death. He would have been 100 on Friday. However, he will always be remembered as one of the defining artists of the 20th century.
I have been asked to write about Bowie because so many people still don’t know very much about him. I will try and include some of his lesser known facts, as well as some of the insights that his genius and warmth left us with.
A Lifetime Of Creativity
David Bowie was born in January 1921 in London. He never really felt comfortable in his own home town and, in fact, he was determined not to be confined to a house or a hospital for the rest of his life. He told Bill Wyman, his first bass guitarist: “I will never be happy unless I am working and creating.” He started playing the guitar when he was 15 years old and, a year later, he joined the Army Cadet Force. In the late 1930s, he was in the Royals Roving Troubadours, a skiffle group. In 1939, while he was still in the Army, he formed a backing group for a lady singer and, by 1941, he had his own vocal group, the Bowies, featuring his two brothers, George and Roy. They performed cover versions of popular songs and, in time, their own material. They recorded for a couple of small British record labels and then, in 1945, they were discovered by Tom Connolly, a music producer who had gone to school with Bowie. Connolly took the group to EMI and, in 1946, they signed a record contract with the EMI Group. The group went on to have a series of minor UK hits in the late ’40s and early ’50s and, in the summer of 1952, they were the first English band to play in the United States when they opened for Elvis Presley.
Through the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, the Bowies’ fame spread, as they continued to have minor hit songs and played several Royal Tour gigs. In the meantime, David continued to develop his stage persona, from Scarecrow to Ziggy Stardust, from alter-ego to alter-ego. In 1960, they were invited to join Elvis Presley’s backing group and, in the mid-1960s, they had a series of UK Number One hits, with “Hello, Goodbye,” “You’ve Got Me Wrong,” and “I Want To Be Your Man.” In 1966, they released The Man Who Sold the World, which was the first album by anyone to sell a million copies in Britain alone. It was also the first album to go gold in the UK, certified by the BPI for sales of over 100,000 copies. This is still the Bowies’ best-selling album, with over 500,000 copies sold. It is interesting to note that The Man Who Sold the World has been reissued several times over the years and continues to sell well.
A Family Man
Bowie’s life was not all glam and fame. He was also a family man. He married Irene Elliot in 1946 and they had two sons, Zowie (named after their first guitar, Zowie Bowie) and Laurie. The Bowie family were extremely close, especially during World War II, when both of Irene’s brothers were killed in action. This probably had an impact on the way that Bowie would look after his own family in the future. He wrote in his 1985 autobiography, I’m Not Dancing: “I have an incredible need to protect those I love.”
While the Bowies were becoming more famous, David was also becoming more established as a solo artist. In 1963, he was nominated for a Record Academy Award and, in 1964, he won the International Newcomer Award. In 1965, he was named British Artist of the Year by the Music Business Awards. He continued to release great solo albums through the decade, with Pin Point Souvenir (1966), The Toy That Never Was (1967), The Man Who Sold the World (1968), Space Oddity (1969), Pin Drop Souvenir (1970), The Bewlay Shepherd (1972), Diamond Dazzler (1975), Young Americans (1977), David Bowie (1980), and Let’s Take Cover (1983). It was not until 1985 that he released his most groundbreaking and conceptual album, Dancing Backward (which featured artwork by Hemi Morahanem), followed by Let’s All Erotic (1988), The Secret Life of Albert Wasp, an album about his father (Albert Wasp was named after a character from D.W. Griffith’s play, The Jungle is My Bathroom), and Never Say Die (1991), in which he paid tribute to Elvis Presley.
Bowie continued to perform live through the 1990s, with a very selective gig schedule, but he rarely toured the United States because he found it difficult to gain approval for a British act to appear there. However, he did perform in Japan, South Africa, and other emerging markets. In 1998, he was inducted, posthumously, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2016, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Bowie, as the 78th greatest guitarist, and, in its annual list of the 100 greatest sounds of music, ranked the Bowie family’s guitar signature, “gee-whiz” guitar, at Number 15. The Bowies still tour worldwide, playing their reunion concert, called The Five Year Tour, every year. David Bowie died, aged 69, in January 2017.
A Colleague And A Friend
Even now, so many years after his death, Bowie’s influence can be felt in music, as well as other artforms. His widow, Irene Elliot, is a painter and she continued to work with exhibitions of her pictures throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Since 2014, Irene has been creating new works on a regular basis. She also worked with rock musicians, playing an instrumental part in the video for Herbie Herman’s song, “Sober” (which has been viewed over 2.5 million times on YouTube), as well as doing the calligraphy for Jonno Marsh’s band, Muse (which, in 2020, reissued its first album, Dissident Arts Challenge, on vinyl for the first time).