As a burgeoning rock star in the United Kingdom during the early 70s, David Bowie often dreamed of travelling to America and experiencing the delights that so many of its cities had to offer. New York was easily the urban location that topped Bowie’s list, as it does for so many foreigners. Beyond existing as the center of culture in America, it was also home to one of his artistic idol, Andy Warhol. Bowie recollects his initial venture to the states on “Lazarus”, a track from his final album Blackstar. He nostalgically croons, “By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king”.
But he wouldn’t stay in New York long, as he had touring obligations in support of his massively successful album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. During the American cross-country tour of this project, he would write and record his next album Aladdin Sane, which he would aptly describe as “Ziggy Stardust goes to America”. This was 1973 and Bowie was on top of the rock world as a result of his androngynous glam-rock musical creations.
By July of 1974 David Bowie was living just outside of Philadelphia and searching for a new sound. Towards the conclusion of the first leg of his Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie chose to live at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. This theater would serve as the backdrop where his live album, simply titled David Live, would be recorded. While he was living in such close proximity to the city, he often frequented Sigma Sounds Studio. This famous Philadelphia studio was owned by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, co-founders of Philadelphia International Records. It was also notable as the home to many well-known black American musicians.
Bowie, especially during the early years of his fame, brought sexy excitement with him no matter his destination. One such intent of his visits to Sigma Sounds Studio was to work on the recordings for musician Ava Cherry, who later would tour as a background singer for Bowie. It was no secret that the two were having an affair during Bowie’s time in Philadelphia.
Bowie was not permanently in Philadelphia at this time, as he still was travelling for the second half of his Diamond Dogs tour. However, Bowie’s visits to Sigma Sound Studios soon began for different reasons. He and longtime collaborator Tony Visconti were diligently working on Bowie’s latest album Young Americans. The sound of this album is deeply indebted to the musical traditions of Philadelphia music itself. The sound of the album is a revolutionary combination of R&B and Philadelphia soul. When asked about the sound he was going for, Bowie labeled the album as “plastic soul”, depicting it as “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey”.
The citizens of Philadelphia certainly took notice of the star residing in their city at the time. The recording of Young Americans attracted an immense amount of local fans, who soon could be found waiting outside Sigma Sound Studio over the entire span of the recording, dubbing, and mixing sessions. Bowie would affectionately refer to these near-acolytes as “Sigma Kids”. Their persistent dedication was rewarded when Bowie allowed them into the studio on the final day of tracking for an opportunity to listen to rough versions of his new songs.
Although David Bowie didn’t reside in Philadelphia long, moving onto Los Angeles for the recording of his next album Station to Station, his imprint on the city of Philadelphia was long-lasting. Plastic soul remains a sound with deep connections with the City of Brotherly Love. Additionally, the original building for Sigma Sound Studios was officially dedicated as a historic site by the city of Philadelphia in 2015.