Bowie, driven by boredom, frustration and financial mismanagement, used his final run of concerts in 1974 to repudiate everything he’d done that year. He scrapped the elaborate Hunger City sets of his Diamond Dogs tour (they were given away to a Philadelphia school) and recast much of his stage band. As the tour began in early October, Bowie purged his set lists of the grandiose and melancholic: gone were “Sweet Thing,” “Aladdin Sane,” “Time,” and “Big Brother.” The only survivors from Diamond Dogs, the album Bowie allegedly was promoting, were “Rebel Rebel,” “1984,” the title track and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.” Bowie instead sang covers, reclaimed a few of his older songs, and sifted in a fair amount of new material from the ongoing Young Americans sessions.
Looking for another uptempo R&B song, one that would showcase his backing singers, Bowie hit upon doing a medley of The Flares’ 1961 “Foot Stompin'” and a ’20s jazz standard, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” (The inspiration for the medley might have come from the line about “sister May” in “Foot Stompin’.”*) “Kate” wasn’t that left-field of a choice: it had been popular in the early ’60s London club circuit—the Beatles often had played it during their Hamburg residencies. Bowie used as his prime reference The Olympics’ version, “Shimmy Like Kate,” from 1960 (the tell is Bowie playing off the Olympics’ line “north-west-south-east/gonna go west,” which appears on no other version of “Kate” I’ve heard).
The original Flares track hails from a time when dance novelty songs came with the frequency and the cut-throat drive of city tabloids. Each single tried to kill off its competitors, each pushing to be more immediate, more compelling, than its rivals. The records as a whole helped create the foundation of Pop, centering the dance floor, and eventually teenage life itself, on the ever-changing Now, on the pure pleasures of a community built on that promise. The records offered nothing but an enormous beat and usually a single, inescapable hook (meant to be sung or chanted by a whole dance floor of people), and were as revolutionary as they were disposable.
The Flares’ record erupts with a saxophone conga line by session ace Plas Johnson followed by two bars’ worth of tromping (the Flares and everyone else in the studio contributing their feet). The vocals are a compact between the lead vocalists and the bassman, the latter providing comic relief and necessary ballast; the chorus is simple and undeniable, and there’s a demented ecstasy to the singing. A guitar solo and sax break offer tiny distractions, and the whole thing is over in little over two minutes.
To update “Foot Stompin'” for 1974, Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar picked up the tempo and anchored the song on a new guitar riff: a needling, repeating line that ran like Morse code underneath the vocals. (Spoiler: if you haven’t heard Bowie’s “Foot Stompin'” before, listen to it now, as Alomar’s riff went on to greater things.) Bowie usually sang the medley with two of his male backing singers (typically Geoff MacCormack and Anthony Hinton), with Bowie as the center, the singers bounding over him.
“Sister Kate” provided backstory and pedigree. Louis Armstrong once claimed that its alleged composer, New Orleans musician Armand Piron, had stolen it from him (Sidney Bechet, in his autobiography, backed Armstrong). Piron, asked about Armstrong’s accusation, said “that tune is older than all of us,” suggesting Armstrong was trying to take credit for a traditional folk song (though of course Piron got paid for his copyright). Piron was ultimately proved right: “Sister Kate” went from novelty to tradition without changing, it was a speakeasy number that could be played, with only a few additions, at Studio 54.
So Bowie’s dance medley, a mayfly of a piece that only a handful of audiences heard, and which has survived only as bootleg footage from the Dick Cavett Show, was one of the more communal things he’d ever perform, and it tied him directly to American popular music, in a way all of his Young Americans efforts never quite did. In a few minutes, Bowie linked the black dance music of the ’20s to that of the late ’50s, and, via his guitarist, brought it into the ’70s: he was more an ambassador than he was an interpreter.
The “Foot Stompin'” medley was played in most of Bowie’s late ’74 concerts, possibly debuted during his residency at Radio City Music Hall (the first surviving bootleg performance is from a 28 October show there.) The Cavett performance was recorded on 2 November 1974, broadcast on 4 December 1974.
Bowie cut at least two attempts at “Foot Stompin'” in the studio in November-December ’74, while another go at “Foot Stompin'” in January 1975 led, circuitously, to Bowie’s first US #1, as we’ll see soon enough. The Cavett Show recording was included on the “official” bootleg RarestOneBowie, while the Cavett “Foot Stompin'” was left off the recent Young Americans CD/DVD reissue, which included all of the other Cavett performances.
* Though imagine if Bowie had used “Sister Ray” in the medley instead of “Kate.”