In the studio

The majority of Young Americans was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios, at 212 North 12th Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

David Bowie’s girlfriend and backing singer Ava Cherry had recorded three tracks at Sigma on 9 July 1974. She had long wished to make an album of her own, and Bowie had promised to help her.

Cherry’s studio session was arranged and produced by Michael Kamen, the musical director of Bowie’s live shows. Musicians from his touring band also performed.

She recorded three songs: ‘Everything That Touches You’, ‘Give It Away’, and a version of ‘Sweet Thing’. Bowie himself called in at the session, and was impressed enough by the studio to use it for his next album.

Young Americans was amazing because at that time David was one of the first white artists they’d recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. David was immediately accepted by the black community. Before he arrived I’d heard that some people were sniping about him coming to the city, but I never saw anything like that. I heard there were some players who didn’t want to be on the record because David was white, but I don’t believe that. David had already mapped exactly how he wanted to do it. He had met Carlos Alomar, and he didn’t really care if there was a stigma. We went in there and just played away. David was very detailed about everything that he wanted to do. He would be writing it down and he would write in a diary and write different things every day, all the time. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and was not ruffled by any of those things. We went in and it was great.
Ava Cherry
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

11-22 August 1974: Sigma Sound Studios

Preliminary work for the album began on 8 August 1974, with recording beginning properly three days later.

On 13 August, Bowie’s old friend Tony Visconti arrived from England. Bowie had initially asked Sigma’s chief engineer Carl Paruolo to engineer the sessions, but was unhappy with the results. At the time, US studios tended to record instruments and vocals dry, without effects or treatments, and Bowie was not used to the results.

Visconti had recently worked on the David Live album, and had produced two of Bowie’s earlier albums, but was not expecting to be in charge of the Young Americans sessions.

I had just finished an album in London [Nightlife by Thin Lizzy] and flew to Philadelphia the very next day. All I wanted was to hit the bed in my hotel room but I was taken, under orders, to Sigma Sound Studios instead. My friend and colleague David Bowie, who seemed abnormally very pale and thin, greeted me. He had amassed a band consisting of Mike Garson, Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks and Dave Sanborn. They had been there a few days prior to my arrival and they were going through a new song called ‘Young Americans’. I asked the house engineer, Carl Parulow [sic], if he was the engineer and he said, ‘No, you are!’ I wasn’t expecting this at all. I already felt jet lagged prior to really being jet lagged (really, I was suffering from sleep deprivation) and all I expected to do that night was to let someone else do that job, the engineering. David took me aside and said he wasn’t pleased with the sounds and I simply had to do the engineering. Okay, how could I refuse my dear friend?
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Who Can I Be Now? book

Initially, Bowie chose to record much of the album with the full band playing together in the studio, rather than assembling the backing tracks gradually. He also sang his lead vocals as the band played, which necessitated some technical changes in order to avoid the instruments bleeding into his microphone.

David wanted to sing live in the room with the band, which meant the band would undesirably go down his vocal microphone. I applied a special technique that was only described to me but I had never used before. I put up two identical vocal mics, one in front of his mouth and the other in front of his neck. They went through identical channel paths except one was switched out-of-phase on purpose. The theory was if David sang only on the top mic he would be in-phase. The band went to both mics and they would be out-of-phase and mostly cancelled. Damn it, it worked! A lot of David’s vocals in the final mixes were live because of this wacky idea.

At some point, it could have been later that night or the next afternoon, a new musician and two singers joined us. They were Carlos Alomar, Robin Clark and Luther Vandross. They were quickly assimilated into the session as we started to put down serious takes of the song ‘Young Americans’. By late evening, or early morning we had it! What you hear was mainly a live take, with the exception of Dave Sanborn’s sax intro that was overdubbed.

Tony Visconti, May 2015
Who Can I Be Now? book
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On the second day of recording, guitarist Carlos Alomar brought two people to the studio: his wife Robin, and his friend Luther Vandross.

Vandross had sung an opening set with the Garson Band during the Soul Tour. One of his songs, titled ‘Funky Music (Is A Part Of Me)’, was reworked by Bowie with new lyrics, and was retitled ‘Fascination’ – one of Bowie’s working titles for the album.

I started making little vocal arrangements and showing them to Robin. I didn’t know that Bowie had overheard all this. He was sitting right behind me at the board, and he said, ‘That’s a great idea. Put that down.’ So I put it down and next thing you know one thing led to another, and I was doing the vocal arrangements for the whole album. I wrote one of the songs on the album. Bowie overheard it and said, ‘I want to record that. Do you mind?’ When I did it, it was called Funky Music. Bowie changed it to ‘Fascination’. He said he didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to say ‘funky music’, since he was a rock artist. He said, ‘Do you mind?’ And I said, ‘You’re David Bowie, I live at home with my mother, you can do what you like.’
Luther Vandross
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

Bowie’s band began the Young Americans sessions by jamming on a number of the singer’s song ideas. The title track, initially known as ‘The Young American’, was the first to be recorded. Luther Vandross had the idea for the hook in the chorus.

I said to Robin, ‘What if there was a phrase that went, “Young American, young American, he was the young American – all right!’ Now, when ‘all right’ comes up, jump over me and go into harmony.’
Luther Vandross
Spin, April 1987

Much of the album was written in the studio, with the musicians providing invaluable contributions.

I shouldn’t have been quite so hard on myself, because looking back it was pretty good white, blue-eyed soul. At the time I still had an element of being the artist who just throws things out unemotionally. But it was quite definitely one of the best bands I ever had. Apart from Carlos Alomar there was David Sanborn on saxophone and Luther Vandross on backing vocals. It was a powerhouse of a band.

And I was like most English who come over to America for the first time, totally blown away by the fact that the blacks in America had their own culture, and it was positive and they were proud of it. And it didn’t seem like black culture in Britain at that time. And to be right there in the middle of it was just intoxicating, to go into the same studios as all these great artists, Sigma Sound. Good period – as a musician it was a fun period.

David Bowie
Q magazine, April 1990

Fuelled by a rapidly escalating cocaine habit, the ever-obsessive Bowie worked long days and nights, with his collaborators often struggling to keep up.

When we were recording Young Americans he couldn’t really get his creative thing going until two or three in the morning, until the cocaine arrived. So consequently I’d be the only one awake, as I never used any drugs in my life. At six in the morning he’d be very wide-eyed and on top of things. It didn’t matter what state he was in, we never argued; in fact in thirty years we didn’t argue once. He was always so focused, always professional, always smiling. He relied a lot on David Sanborn and Luther Vandross on that record, because so much of the structures were complex, and the vocals were incredibly complicated.
Mike Garson
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

Bowie had always worked quickly, but even by his standards the Young Americans sessions were hugely productive. In just twelve days – from 11-22 August – at least ten songs were recorded, although not all were complete, and some were later reworked or re-recorded.

The Sigma songs recorded in August were, in their original titles: ‘The Young American’; ‘Shilling The Rubes’; ‘Lazer’, a reworking of ‘I Am A Laser’; ‘After Today’; ‘I’m Only Dancing’, later retitled ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’; ‘Never No Turnin’ Back’, later re-recorded as ‘Right’; ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’; ‘Who Can I Be Now?’; ‘Come Back My Baby’, eventually released as ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’; and ‘Can You Hear Me’, sometimes known as ‘Take It In, Right’.

During Bowie’s time at Sigma, a group of fans waited outside for glimpses of their idol. They were nicknamed the Sigma Kids, and some would wait outside the Barclay Hotel, where Bowie was staying, take photographs as he left, then hurriedly drive to the studio to intercept him on arrival.

The Sigma Kids waited patiently night after night, occasionally hearing snatches of music through open windows. On the final night Bowie brought the ten dedicated fans inside to hear what he believed was the finished album.

Bowie played the album for the ten blissed-out, formerly camped-out, devotees, who’d been ushered into the studio, finally, at 5am by Stuart George. With wine, tears and adulation flowing around and from the blessed, Bowie was an affable host as he signed more autographs, apologised for the unfinished mix of the album and agreed to play it a second time, at which point the party erupted into dance. Bowie took centre floor with a foxy stomp.
Rolling Stone, 10 October 1974

Two days after the album wrapped, Bowie began a three-day train journey to Los Angeles, where he played seven nights at the Universal Amphitheatre. These were the last days of the Diamond Dogs shows, and caught Bowie in the middle of his transitional stage.

New songs were added for the next live phase, the Soul Tour, which lasted until 1 December. On 2 November Bowie and his band appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, where they performed ‘1984’, ‘Young Americans’, a medley of ‘Foot Stompin”/’I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate’, and ‘Can You Hear Me’.

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