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Guitarist Carlos Alomar Reveals the Secrets Behind the Funky Sound of David Bowie’s Young Americans

This year’s David Bowie World Fan Convention took place in New York City. Over several nights in several locations, musicians and other players who worked with David Bowie spoke with fans about the golden years. One creative concept which was reinforced over the weekend is how Bowie chose to work with artists who were as curious, experimental, and funny as himself. No one fits that bill as much as guitarist, composer, arranger, and natural raconteur Carlos Alomar.

Born in Puerto Rico, and raised in the Bronx, Alomar is a New York institution. He made cultural history when he was 17 as the youngest guitarist in the history of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, going on to join the house band. The guitarist met Bowie in 1974 and stepped right into the recording of Young Americans. Alomar brought in singers like his wife, Robin Clark, who brought in Luther Vandross, who brought songwriting chops to the sessions. “Luther swore ‘Fascination’ was going to be the single, until ‘Fame’ came out,” Alomar told the audience from the convention stage at Racket NYC. The song began as a cover of “Footstompin” by the Flairs, which yielded the signature guitar lick.

“David Bowie walks in with John Lennon and May Pang,” Alomar remembered. “I didn’t know who David Bowie was, but I definitely knew who John Lennon was. They invited me to go out to dinner. I come from the James Brown school, so I heard these three or four guitars playing at the same time, and when they said you want to go to dinner, I was like, ‘You know what, David? Respectfully, I hear these parts. Let me just put down my thoughts.’ I could have had dinner with John Lennon.”

When Bowie was looking to fuse rock, funk, and electronics for Station to Station, Alomar, who was also the musical director for several of Bowie’s largest world tours, put together the D.A.M., which should be as well-known a name as the Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s most famous backing band. Alomar, bass player George Murray, and the late drummer Dennis Davis “could play jazz, rock, funk or whatever we’ve got, everything.” From the stage Alomar reverently recounted Davis’ lightning-fast one-handed single-stick rolls. The band consistently flipped beats mid-song, and when Bowie asked Davis to play rhythm in “Ashes to Ashes” backwards, he did without missing a beat.

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