As lead backup singer for The Rolling Stones for the past 30 years, Bernard Fowler has been providing soulful depth to the best blues-based rock music in the world. But his talent and versatility surpass expectation. The singer, who takes the stage as a featured vocalist in A Bowie Celebration, will prove it on Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Orpheum downtown, and in the next few months, his new record of Stones covers will show even more of his gift for remarkable renditions of classic material.
For the third year in a row, Fowler joins David Bowie’s former bandmates to sing songs from throughout the Starman’s career.
“I got a call from Earl Slick about three years ago and he said, ‘Hey, the anniversary for Station to Station is coming up and I want to do a short tour and play it.' He asked me if I would sing and I told him, yeah, great, because I love the record,” Fowler recalls by phone late last week. “But some time went by and I thought about it. I called him and I said, ‘Hey man, did you speak to David about this? What does he think?' And he said yes, he'd been in touch with David.”
“I said, well, what did he say?” continues Fowler. “Earl said, ‘The first thing David asked was who are you going to have sing?’ and Earl said, ‘Well, you know, I'm gonna have Bernard Fowler in the lead.' And then David said to Earl, ‘That's a good idea ... you know, for a second I thought you were going to have some skinny white kid doing ‘Bowie-oke.’ … So, you know, we got a green light from David. He even put it on his social media that we would be doing these dates [in Europe].”
Sadly, the week that Slick and the band started rehearsing for the Station to Station anniversary tour, David Bowie died. The shows became memorials but the beautiful thing was that Bowie not only knew about them before, he blessed them and Fowler singing.
The shows went over well, and a year or so later Fowler got a call from a guy saying that he was putting together a wider-reaching homage to Bowie's music called Celebrating David Bowie, featuring Slick and Bowie’s other bandmates. "It was everybody I'd been dying to share the stage with,” Fowler says. “You know, his last band ... Sterling Campbell, Mike [Garson], Gail [Ann Dorsey].”
They gathered at an L.A. rehearsal space, and though Fowler says it didn't feel quite right, he played the show — at the Wiltern — anyway. It was a great concert featuring a diverse array of singers doing their best to pay tribute to Ziggy, the Thin White Duke, et al., in song. But Fowler says there was a “whole lot of drama” afterward so he stepped off.
The conflict between a few of the key members of the show led to a splintering and two separate groups now doing Bowie tributes — one retaining the Celebrating David Bowie name and the other, featuring more core Bowie band members, opting for a new moniker, A Bowie Celebration. The latter, which takes place this week, is led by Garson, Bowie’s longtime pianist. Best known for his work on Aladdin Sane, Garson recently made a high-profile appearance playing with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails during their sold-out Palladium shows.
“This show has less of a variety-show feel,” Fowler says. “Not as many different guests because it’s a self-contained band. Most of the singing will be me, Corey Glover of Living Colour and Joe Sumner [Sting’s son]. There’ll be some surprises, too, but we're doing the meat and potatoes of the work. “
Obviously singing Bowie presents different challenges to what Fowler does with the Stones. “There's a reason why a lot of people don't try do David Bowie songs,” he says. “Because he's so damn hard to sing. He had a style of singing and writing that was all his own. I had to sit for a month and just listen to, you know, all the Bowie I could possibly digest. I was listening for phrasing, his style, his way of singing. Because it was important to me that if I'm singing David Bowie, for David Bowie fans, I can't just sing David the way I would. I have to incorporate some of David's texture in my approach to the song. So I think I found a good balance between him and myself. “
Fowler says he met Bowie a couple of times, including at an art gallery in New York, hanging out with Ron Wood, whose solo record, called Slide on This, Fowler was producing at the time. “When we were mixing that record, David came to the studio after,” he recalls.
As for Wood, and his other bosses, namely Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Fowler says this three-decade-plus career as the Stones' background vocalist has been, as one might expect, “incredible. “
“You know, I always tell people I've got the best seat in the house,” he says of touring with the Stones. "I still get off on watching them do their thing and, I've said this before, but sometimes I'll get so caught up watching them, watching them perform, and I miss a cue here and there.”
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Fowler’s new record, due out in April just before the Stones' next tour begins, melds his love for the band that has employed him more than half of his life with diverse new rhythms and his gift for reinterpreting classics in a faithful yet fresh way, as he’s doing on the Bowie tour. The Stones tribute called Inside Out features an array of revered musicians, including Darryl Jones on bass and Ray Parker Jr. on guitar. The first single, his cover of "Sympathy for the Devil," is out now.
“I was messing around with the idea for this record and Mick heard it,” Fowler shares. “He heard what I was doing. I actually wrote this in the liner notes, he said, ‘You know, I've heard Rolling Stones songs done many ways. But I've never heard it like that.'"
Fowler once again got the blessing of the rock god he sought to pay homage to, and that’s significant, not only to fans but to the singer himself. We’ll write more about the new record when The Stones play the Rose Bowl in a few months, but in the meantime, catch the Bowie- and Jagger-endorsed powerhouse vocalist getting his “Rebel Rebel” on this week.
A David Bowie Celebration: The Alumni Tour takes place at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Orpheum Theatre.