Bowie’s Philadelphia Sound

Thursday, June 25th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

Much of 1980s New Wave (ABC, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, etc.) has an orchestral soulful sound. These “New Romantics” reclaimed the grandeur of Swing from the syncopation of Disco. The city of Philadelphia played a minor role in New Wave with figures like Hall and Oates (who met at Temple) and the Hooters (who met at Penn). A local music scene thrived in the late 80s and 90s, although many bands, like the Johnsons, Scram and the Dead Milkmen, received limited national attention.

Philadelphia is responsible for the origins of New Wave’s grand sound by means of an earlier and lesser known avenue, David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans. On August 11, 1974, Bowie spent a week in Philadelphia, recording Young Americans at the Sigma Sound Studios on 212 N. 12th Street. It is here that Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff created what is known as Philadelphia soul or the Philadelphia sound (Bowie called it “plastic soul”). Gamble and Huff had started the Philadelphia International Records label only three years before Bowie’s visit. Y0ung Americans was an important point of departure from Bowie’s earlier rock persona in Ziggy Stardust (1972), or Diamond Dogs (1974). In Philadelphia, therefore, David Bowie pursued one of his many incarnations as a spiritually black artist. And it is here that he met Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar, who became an integral member of Bowie’s band. Young Americans also features back up vocals by Luther Vandross and includes the song Fame, co-written with John Lennon, which became Bowie’s first American hit.

I doubt that 1980s New Wave (or New Pop) was directly inspired by Philadelphia International Records. Its point of departure is David Bowie’s 1975 album, which had already reconfigured the elements of the Philadelphia sound. A year after the release of Young Americans, David Bowie turned a new chapter in his musical career by moving to Berlin with Iggy Pop. The short relationship with Philadelphia was hence quickly overshadowed by a three-year residence in Berlin. The Berlin trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger) incorporated Brian Eno’s electronic experimentation into the Philadelphia foundations.

Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and an excellent 4-CD box set was released on the occasion, Love Train: the Sound of Philadelphia (Sony Legacy). Terry Gross interviewed Gamble and Huff in “Riding Philly’s ‘Love Train’ with Gamble and Huff” (NPR, Nov. 26, 2008, replayed May 22, 2009). On May 19, 2009, Gamble and Huff received BMI’s Icon Award.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: A new book explores Bowie’s creative three-years in Berlin, see Thomas Jerome Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town (London, 2008). For the Philadelphia episode, see also Christopher Sandford, Bowie: Loving the Alien (New York, 1996), p. 128. The story of the Philadelphia sound is chronicled in, John A. Jackson, A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul (New York, 2004).


One comment on “Bowie’s Philadelphia Sound

  1. […] in a weeklong session at Sigma Sound, channeling local heroes Gamble and Huff to find his “plastic soul,” and in 1977 the teamed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, providing narration for Prokofiev’s […]

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