Carlos Alomar has been playing guitar professionally since he was 16, backing the likes of James Brown, Chuck Berry and Luther Vandross at various points of his formative years. In the mid-Seventies, he met David Bowie, who recruited Alomar to play on his funk- and soul-influenced 1975 album Young Americans. It would serve as the foundation for one of Bowie’s most consistent musical relationships, spanning his Berlin trilogy through albums in the early 2000s.
Alomar has gone on to play on albums by Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop and Alicia Keys, among many others. He’s also the director and founder of the Sound Synthesis Research Center for the Performing Arts at Stevens Institute of Technology, a post he attributes to working with Bowie on experimental albums like Low and Lodger. “Thank God for Bowie, and all these other rockers that are still out there killing it,” he says. “Why? We really have no choice.” Here, with the news of Bowie’s passing still fresh, the guitarist looks back on the most significant collaboration of his life.
My first impression of David Bowie was that he was slightly odd. He had come from London from the “Spiders From Mars” days, so he still had orange hair, he was pasty white and he weighed 98 pounds. I met him when I was recording a song he’d written for Lulu, “Can You Hear Me?” I was a professional musician, and he was a producer, and you’ve got to respect a man for being the producer.
But then the humanity of David showed up. He said all these strange, little American sayings that sound so ages ago: “Hey man,” “Oh, that’s real cool.” But he was trying, so we started hanging out. “You want to see what’s cool? Let’s go to a few after-hours joints, let’s go to Spanish Harlem. Let’s go to some salsa. Let’s go to the Apollo Theater.” And that’s how we actually met, well before Young Americans.
He was very easy to connect with. He was happy. He and I shared one gigantic, human thing: We are so damn curious. I wanted to know about everything from his Spiders From Mars; he wanted to know everything about what working with James Brown was like. I wanted to know what the hell is up with all that orange hair and all that glam-rock stuff; he wants to know about the Chitlin’ Circuit. He listened to jazz; I played jazz. It was a meeting of the minds.
He eventually said, “What kind of guitar do you play?” And I said, “I play any guitar that pays.” So when you start a relationship like that, you see that it’s professional. As always, you have a need and you have a want, and when they meet, great music is made.
I came into the situation with an open mind. On all of the records I played on, when they took a left turn, I was open to any turn he wanted to take. David Bowie had this odd way of being rock & roll, but still being funky. When he’d bring me songs, they all sounded a bit like “Chopsticks” in the beginning. But I come from a world where if that’s the chord that you like, allow me to show you 15 substitute chords that you could play leading up to that. And he would say, “Oh, that is clever! Oh, I like that. Let’s do that!” Then he’d do something else, and I’d say, “How about this?” He always used to compare writing to a Chinese menu: “Give me one from column A, two from column B, three from column C, and there’s your song.” It made it easy. For some reason he kept me in the rhythm section for the longest time.