When David Bowie tragically died of cancer on January 10, 2016, tributes poured in from fellow rock musicians all over the world, as well as from heads of state and major religions. The most touching tribute came from Yoko Ono who praised Bowie as being a “second father” to her son Sean. Rolling Stone ran an article the day after the flamboyant musician’s death entitled, “Yoko Ono on Bowie: ‘David Was as Close as Family’”, while Billboard published their article “Yoko Ono: David Bowie Was a ‘Father Figure’ to My Son.”
While the strong friendship between John Lennon and David Bowie cannot be adequately examined in a single blog post, this post will cover the song “Fame”, the hit song that was Bowie’s first number one hit in the U.S., and the important role that John Lennon played in the song’s creation and success.
David Bowie met John Lennon in 1974 at a party given in New York by Elizabeth Taylor. Since the ex-Beatle was an early idol of a young Bowie, the two became friendly. At the time, Bowie was experiencing a down phase in his career due to a poor management contract. Bowie’s manager at the time, the famous Tony Defries, and his management company left Bowie financially responsible for tens and tens of thousands of dollars for unsuccessful concert bookings, putting the future superstar on the brink of financial ruin. It was John Lennon who convinced Bowie to break ties with Defries and seek new management.
Bowie and Lennon had many of the same interests artistically, and they identified with their shared Irish Catholic heritage, despite neither one being a Catholic. Both stars had multiple great-grandparents who immigrated to England from Ireland. Bowie regularly spoke of the influence in his early life of his maternal grandfather, James Burns, a retired British military officer who was heavily into Irish culture and heritage.
The song “Fame” was credited to Bowie, Carlos Alomar and John Lennon. Alomar wrote a great riff and Lennon came up with the word “aim” to go along with it. Bowie changed that to “Fame” and the rest was history on the way to Bowie’s first chart-topper on The Billboard Hot 100. In the song John Lennon repeats “FAME, FAME, FAME” through a fast track and then through a slow track. It is reported that the ex-Beatle repeated the word “Fame” 23 times, and each time on a different note.
In his 2008 biography John Lennon: The Life, author Philip Norman described the magnitude of Lennon’s contribution to “Fame”, “The word and the riff gave Bowie his first number one single in America and helped launch the strutting, narcissistic disco style that would dominate record charts and pack dance clubs around the world for years to come. From rock-‘n’-roll nostalgic, John found himself suddenly catapulted to the cutting edge.”
“Fame” entered the Top 40 section of The Billboard Hot 100 on August 2, 1975, spending a total of fourteen weeks in the Top 40. It would top the Billboard charts on September 20, 1975 and stay in the top position for two weeks.
The previous two Bowie entries into the Top 40 did not fare too well. In early 1973, his famous “Space Oddity”, then four years old, was released as a single in the U.S. and climbed to # 15. A few months before “Fame” hit # 1, his “Young Americans”, which featured Luther Vandross on backing vocals and David Sanborn on saxophone, reached # 25 on the Billboard charts in May 1975. “Young Americans” mentioned both the show Soul Train and the hair product Afro-Sheen, which was a major sponsor of the weekly show Soul Train. Small wonder than that a few months later Bowie was invited to perform “Fame” on Soul Train, making him only the second Caucasian to perform on the show; Elton John had broken the race barrier on Soul Train a few months beforehand. Bowie’s famous appearance on Soul Train was covered in a January 16, 2016 Boston Globe article entitled “When David Bowie Played ‘Soul Train’”.
It should also be noted that Bowie’s first entry onto The Billboard Hot 100 was “Changes”, from the 1971 Hunky Dory LP, which was released as a single in the U.S. in January 1972. Despite peaking at # 66 and missing the coveted Top 40 by a long shot, “Changes” over time would be Bowie’s most widely played single in the U.S. The song peaked at # 15 on the UK Singles Chart.
It should be noted that “Fame” had its debut on U.S. national television on November 7, 1975 on The Cher Show. The former number one song at that point was down at number 41 on The Billboard Hot 100, but after its endorsement on national television by Cher, it shot back up to number 20 the following week.
A third single off of the Young Americans album, “Golden Years”, reached number ten on the charts in early 1976.
Bowie’s only other number one hit in the U.S. would come eight years later when “Let’s Dance” topped the charts for the week of May 21, 1983. The Let’s Dance album, produced by producer extraordinaire Nile Rodgers, also yielded the hits “China Girl” and “Modern Love”.
In the 2011 biography David Bowie: Starman, author Paul Trynka addressed Bowie’s strong friendship and working relationship with the ex-Beatle in the aftermath of “Fame”:
“For David, the album marked a happy change of setting; he never officially left Berlin, but he was fired up by his return to New York, where he could hang with a younger generation of arty New Wavers and also resume his friendship with John and Yoko under happier, more relaxed circumstances for both of them. John’s respect for David had only increased with the success of “Fame”, which put the ex-Beatle back on the charts; David still considered John, along with Mick Jagger, a role model, but his admiration for John was not intermixed with rivalry, as it was with Mick. Lennon brought out a better side of David, and he knew it. Happily, John started writing again; David admired the unique lifestyle he’d carved out, with his and Yoko’s elegant, white-carpeted, minimally furnished apartment in the Dakota, by Central Park, where John and Yoko could wander undisturbed.”
John Lennon’s influence on “Fame” is so obvious. He helped write the song, played guitar on the track, provided backing vocals, in addition to receiving a credit as a co-producer.
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