On Nov. 4, 1975, David Bowie appeared on “Soul Train.”
He wasn’t the first white solo artist to perform on the landmark music show — Elton John claimed that auspicious slice of history months earlier. But make no mistake: This was an equally seminal event. Forty years later, it remains a striking pop culture memory.
To be clear, “Soul Train” didn’t need Bowie. From the show’s 1971 debut, it was instantly must-see TV for many young African-Americans, and anyone else who wanted to be down with the best music around. “Soul Train” wanted Bowie on its stage. Already a star in rock circles, Bowie, by the mid-1970s, had begun to indulge his love of the American soul music that first caught his discerning ear as a teenager in his native England. And black radio stations that never thought twice about “The Man Who Sold the World” or “Changes” ate up “Fame” and “Golden Years,” the two songs Bowie would perform on “Soul Train.”
“Soul Train” creator and host Don Cornelius, the coolest uncle you never had, gave Bowie (whose name he pronounced as “BOO-ie”) an effusive introduction: “We’re very proud to have with us one who is easily one of the world’s most popular and important music personalities. A great welcome, gang, for the gifted singer, composer, producer — Mr. David Bowie.”
From the beginnings of popular music, African-American artists were accustomed to performing for all-white audiences, but a white performer appearing before a black crowd was practically unprecedented. In a periwinkle blue suit and a yellow shirt, here was Bowie, his hair a brassy two-toned strawberry blond, a pale, thin Brit amid a sea of Afros rising like the morning sun. When Bowie shakes Cornelius’s hand, he seems shy and nervous. Bowie hadn’t done much American television, and now he was on a stage once graced by his musical idols, like James Brown. This was hallowed ground, and Bowie, then 28, reportedly downed a few drinks backstage to steady his nerves. He needn’t have worried. The audience’s cheers and applause seemed especially enthusiastic, as if they wanted to assure him that he was a welcome guest in their house.
Yes, alone on the stage, Bowie lip-synched, and sometimes quite indifferently at that. Still, when he performed “Fame,” cowritten with John Lennon and his first chart-topping US hit, the audience yelped at his sinewy, spastic dance steps, and Bowie clearly reveled in it, grinning like a kid. He was no stranger in a strange land — there was deeper connection here. Perhaps the crowd saw in Bowie a bit of themselves. They certainly understood what it meant to be treated as outsiders, and to forge that status into a culture much envied and imitated. Bowie built his career as the champion of outcasts and misfits, those who become triumphs of self-invention, their humanity pulled from the ashes of conformity. Along the way, he deeply influenced Grace Jones, gave Luther Vandross an early break as a backup singer on “Young Americans,” and featured Al B. Sure on “Black Tie, White Noise,” Bowie’s response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Nile Rodgers produced 1983’s “Let’s Dance,” the best-selling album of Bowie’s career.
In retrospect, it’s not odd at all that the man who burst onto the music scene as rock’s Space Oddity found a place on “Soul Train.” It didn’t matter that Bowie was white; the music was funky and original. He was influenced by black music, but what he made was unmistakably Bowie music. On the wretched occasion of his death from cancer at 69, I remember and celebrate his remarkable performance, on a Saturday morning, all those decades ago. As with everything he did, Bowie’s lanky, angular soul was a sound and a moment all his own.