With the title track of his 1983 album, David Bowie invited the world to dance. Given the song’s infectiousness, it would have been impossible not to.
36 years ago today (May 21), “Let’s Dance” was the No. 1 song on Billboard‘s Dance Club Songs chart. It was the song’s fourth week in this position, where it would stay for another two. “Let’s Dance” was also simultaneously No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed on top for nine weeks.
Laden with funk, brass and searing guitar, “Let’s Dance” was an all-star effort co-written by Bowie and Chic’s Nile Rodgers, a longtime expert in getting dancefloors moving. Lead guitar was handled by a then relatively unknown Texan named Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“It was just a trip to hear my kid brother on a No. 1 record,” Stevie’s brother Jimmie Vaughan, told Billboard in 2018. “That song just took over everything; a total smash. And there was Stevie playing lead guitar on it. Stevie called me to tell me he had met up with David Bowie and Nile Rodgers in New York, and I think they recorded him pretty quickly. It was only one day or something for the guitar; he just overdubbed himself onto the tracks. But he only needed one or two takes; he just went in there all fired up and did his thing.”
Recorded in New York City’s Power Station studio in 1982, “Let’s Dance” was the first single of an LP that marked a turning point in Bowie’s career, with many critics dismissing the album — which also contained the hits “China Girl” and “Modern Love” — as overtly commercial. It did indeed gain Bowie a newer, younger audience that, as he stated in myriad interviews, he subsequently felt pressure to cater to on his following two LPs, 1984’s Tonight and 1987’s Never Let Me Down. He later famously referred to this era as his “Phil Collins years.”
But what fun it was. As “Let’s Dance” invaded nightclubs around the world, its corresponding video found Bowie playing guitar at a roadside saloon while a group of Indigenous people discover the lyrical red shoes and are transported to various locations around the world before having a dance party on the edge of a cliff. (Bowie mimes Vaughan’s guitar work in the clip.)
On May 18, 1983, Bowie launched the Serious Moonlight tour, which took its name after “Let’s Dance” and included 96 performances in 15 countries. The song would be featured in subsequent Bowie tours throughout the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. It would also go on to be sampled prodigiously, most notably in Craig David’s “Hot Stuff (Let’s Dance)” and Puff Daddy “Been Around the World” Feat. The Notorious B.I.G. and Mase.
36 years later and the original still gets people out of their chairs every time it comes through the speakers.