David Bowie called R&B and soul “the bedrock of all popular music,” and he returned to their incarnations again and again, from his second single, a 1965 cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland‘s No. 1 R&B hit “I Pity the Fool” to the Kendrick Lamar records he listened to while recording Blackstar half a century later. His early-1972 performances with The Spiders From Mars included a medley of James Brown‘s “Hot Pants” — then less than a year old — and “You Got to Have a Job.” He called out MTV in 1983 for “the fact that there are so few black artists featured on it.” And he was ahead of the rock’n’roll curve in flirting with disco: “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” released in 1979, actually had been recorded five years earlier.
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Bowie’s collaboration with one of disco’s masterminds, Chic‘s Nile Rodgers, on 1983’s “Let’s Dance” gave him the first of his half-dozen top 10 dance hits and resuscitated Rodgers’ flagging career: “He rescued me,” Rodgers tells Billboard. ” ‘Disco sucks’ happened. I’m persona non grata. And this guy David Bowie, who is a rock god, says, ‘Not only do I want to take a chance with him, I believe in him.’ “Bowie and Rodgers reunited in 1993 for Black Tie White Noise, whose title track was a duet with new jack swing star Al B. Sure. By 1997, Bowie was incorporating drum’n’bass rhythms into his Earthling album and playing the dance tent at England’s Phoenix Festival. He even appeared on the Hot Rap Songs chart with “Fame ’90,” a remix featuring Queen Latifah.
The original version of that song emerged from his most sustained engagement with R&B, which began in 1974 during the tour for his Diamond Dogs album. Fascinated with the new sounds coming out of Philadelphia, Bowie booked a mid-tour recording stint at the city’s dance-music capitol, Sigma Sound, to begin his next album, Young Americans. By the time the band returned to the road, his music had been transformed. The Philly Dogs Tour was effectively a soul revue, prominently featuring the then-unknown singer Luther Vandross (whose song “Funky Music” Bowie rewrote as “Fascination”). The set list included a funked-up cover of The Flares’ 1961 single “Foot Stomping,” powered by a riff from his new guitarist Carlos Alomar; it soon evolved into his first No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit, “Fame.” Later on, Bowie dismissed Young Americans as “plastic soul.” But George Clinton has credited “Fame” with directly inspiring Parliament‘s “Give Up the Funk”: “It’s the same feel. Of course David Bowie had funk! You don’t know David Bowie if you ask whether he had funk.”
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.