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Ava Cherry, Former David Bowie Back-Up Singer & Girlfriend, Reflects on Her 'First Love': Exclusive

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

David Bowie and Ava Cherry during his last show as Ziggy Stardust filmed mostly at The Marquee Club in London, England on Oct. 18, 1973.

Singer/model Ava Cherry spent four years as a back-up singer for David Bowie between 1974 and 1978, part of a trio along with Robin Clark and Luther Vandross. She was also a lover of Bowie's during this period, and remained friends with the artist for years. Billboard spoke with Cherry about her favorite memories of the late singer and the origins of their relationship, and the sessions that would become Bowie's ninth album Young Americans. -- Nick Williams

All I could think when I heard the news of David's passing was "the world has lost it's starman!" And suddenly I understood that he was giving us his eulogy, going out his way. 

I first met David when I was just a youngster with fire and optimism in my heart. Living in New York and working as a model, my manager gave me the present of Ziggy Stardust. He said "Listen to this British artist David Bowie, I think he's going to be huge, he's different from all the rest!" So I listened, and I immediately fell in love; I was memorized. He was in America for the first time, playing Radio City. Stevie Wonder, who was a friend and wonderful inspiration to me, was performing at Carnegie Hall. I was also working at a disco called Genesis at the time, and Stevie needed a place to give his after party, so he asked me if I knew a place. I recommended my club and my manager found a way to invite David. 

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While I was standing there that night, he brought David over to me and introduced us. The party was full of the best of the best in the business: Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and many more. We were all singing along, and David turned to me and asked if I was a singer. I said yes even though I wasn't really a professional one yet. His hair was red and mine was blonde, and he said "I love your blonde hair, you're different. Would you like to go on a tour in Japan with me?" I was already booked and said yes! And that's how we met. 

He changed the whole direction of my life. He taught me things, encouraged me to try to learn all I could. But my favorite moment with him was at Electric Lady Studios in New York with John Lennon. He wrote in his diary, "I introduced Ava to a Beatle, John Lennon, and we are going to record a song called 'Fame'!" David and I waited for him to arrive at the studio, and he was like a kid, so excited about John, who was one of the only guys I ever saw him impressed by. When John walked in, he was wearing his granny glasses, and David turned to me and said, "Look me a fan, He really does wear those granny glasses!" David asked John to play "Across The Universe," which he did with such passion, and David sang it! John looked up from his 12 string and said, "I am having the best time with you guys that I have had in a long time!" Then David told me to go in the vocal booth and sing the end of "Fame" where we all took turns singing the harmonized part in the end of the song. It was brilliant!

David, John and Carlos [Alomar] wrote this really cool song ["Fame"], and I got to be a part of it. Yoko bought us sushi and left us alone. Feeling honored to have been a part of his world, and his desire to be a soul singer, we talked many nights in England about how he would form this soul band, and where he would begin. I suggested the Apollo Theater in New York and he said "Okay, let's go and find my new band and sound!" The rest is history: Carlos and Robin Alomar brought Luther [Vandross] to Sigma Sound and that is where we met! He got along with everyone in the studio, dove in to the work as he always did and we created a brilliant piece of work. There will never be another like him, and since he was my first love, he will always remain in my heart!"

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Cherry just signed to Groove City Records/Groove City Entertainment and is working with legendary "Philly Soulman" producer Bobby Eli on a new album beginning this February. The duo plans to include a tribute song for David in the set.