November 10, 2010

Funky Music (Is a Part of Me), Mike Garson Band with Luther Vandross (live, 1974).
Funky Music, Luther Vandross, 1976.

The Sigma Sound sessions of August 1974 didn’t produce enough for an album. While there were some obvious winners, like “Young Americans,” other songs hadn’t evolved out of the jam stage, and the sessions, over time, had tended toward the slow and brooding. An album consisting mainly of seven-minute-long soul torch ballads would have been a hard sell, especially for someone still considered a glam rock star by most of the public. So in early December ’74, Bowie and Tony Visconti reconvened most of the original cast (with a new rhythm section) at the Record Plant in New York.

The goal appears to have been to cut some uptempo tracks to leaven the record, especially as “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” a track once slated to start off the LP, wasn’t panning out. Bowie struggled to cut a studio version of crowd-pleaser “Footstompin’,” while another inspiration, rewriting a song performed on tour by his backing singer Luther Vandross, proved easier to execute.

Vandross had sung his “Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)” during the opening set of Bowie’s Philly Dogs tour, as part of “the Mike Garson Band” (basically, Bowie’s touring band minus Bowie). Bowie had first heard Vandross’ song during the Sigma sessions, as Vandross sometimes ran his fellow backing singers through it during studio downtime. When Bowie asked Vandross his permission to record “Funky Music,” the latter was incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘let’ you record it. I’m living in the Bronx in a building with an elevator that barely works and you’re asking me to ‘let’ you record one of my songs.” (From Craig Seymour’s Luther: the Life and Longing of Luther Vandross.)

Bowie had picked up on an incongruity between Vandross’ music, with its snaky bass hook, its volleying choruses and the way it teeters on the ominous, and its simple, goofy lyric. “Funky Music” was one of Vandross’ first compositions, and it reflects that: the writer (and singer’s) love of music lets him escape his everyday life; he indulges in a daydream that ultimately would get him out of the Bronx. “Funky Music” is a sales pitch for himself, a classic New York hustle. The line I do the singing, just give me a beat! is pure George M. Cohan.

Bowie’s thoughts on performing music were, by contrast, a bit jaundiced. He also worried he would seem ridiculous singing something called “Funky Music” (“He said he didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to say “funky music” since he was a rock artist,” Vandross said in an early ’80s interview.) So he rewrote “Funky Music” as “Fascination,” turning Vandross’ infatuation into an obsession: the singer consumed by a passion, as much about cocaine (“I’ve got to use her”) as it is sex.

Bowie’s lyrical edits were a light touch, as Bowie kept much of Vandross’ framework (many of the verse lines are Vandross’ originals). He turned the image of the singer walking down the street, dancing and drawing attention to himself whenever he hears a good song, into a darker scenario in which the singer seems to be prowling around looking for a fix. In the chorus, Bowie replaced Vandross’ sales pitch with the telling “How can a heartbeat/live in a fever?”

The arrangement seems roughly the same as how “Funky Music” was performed on stage, with Carlos Alomar (presumably) coming up with another sharp rhythm guitar riff to spar against the opening descending bass hook. An inspired move was to replace David Sanborn’s saxophone with a clavinet, giving the track a harsher, more synthetic sound. It’s in keeping with the song’s overall transformation: dreams coarsened into ambition, then desperation.

Recorded early-mid December 1974. On Young Americans. Vandross recorded “Funky Music” for his first record, 1976’s Luther.

Top: Harry Caul on sax (Coppola’s The Conversation, 1974).