‘Fame’ was a result of David Bowie and John Lennon’s shared love of disco music.
Rock & roll has been really bringing me down lately. It’s in great danger of becoming an immobile, sterile fascist that constantly spews its propaganda on every arm of the media. It rules and dictates a level of thought and clarity of intelligence that you’ll never raise above. You don’t have a fucking chance to hear Beethoven on any radio station anymore. You’ve got to listen to the O’Jays. I mean, disco music is great. I used disco to get my first Number One single but it’s an escapist’s way out. It’s musical soma.
Rolling Stone, 12 February 1976
In November 1974 Bowie had performed a soulful version of the Flares’ 1961 single ‘Foot Stompin” on the Dick Cavett Show.
On the show Carlos Alomar played a simple guitar line, apparently adapted from the rhythm guitar in the Rascals’ 1972 song ‘Jungle Walk’.
In January 1975, during the ‘Across The Universe’ session, Alomar began playing the riff once again. This became the basis for ‘Fame’, which was worked up from scratch in the studio.
John Lennon later claimed that an unidentified Stevie Wonder song had been another key ingredient.
He [Bowie] writes them in the studio now; he goes in with about four words and a few guys, and starts laying down all this stuff and he has virtually nothing – he’s making it up in the studio. So I just contributed, whatever I contributed which is, you know, like backwards piano and ‘Ooh’ and a couple of things – a repeat of ‘fame’ and then we needed a middle eight. So we took some Stevie Wonder middle eight and did it backwards, you know, and we made a record out of it, right?
BBC Radio One
Another often-cited influence is ‘Shame Shame Shame’ by Shirley and Company, a disco hit released in December 1974. This claim was first put forward in Tony Zanetta’s Bowie memoir Stardust, and seemingly confirmed by Apple Records’ former A&R man Tony King.
He’d [Lennon] say to me ‘If you ever hear anything good, you know, get it for me.’ And I got him ‘Polk Salad Annie’ by Tony Joe White, he loved, and he loved ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ by Ann Peebles. Loved that Ann Peebles record. And then when disco first started in America, one of the first ever underground disco records – ’cause they were underground at the time – was ‘Shame Shame Shame’ by Shirley and Company. So he went off on holiday and he had a jukebox, and he said ‘Can you get some records for my jukebox?’ So I got him all these early disco records, and when he came back he would play ‘Shame Shame Shame’ and he loved it. And he thought it was this great record.
And then, it was really nice because a week or so ago, just here, I was reading this interview with David Bowie, about when he made ‘Fame’, and he said ‘Fame’ was based on a lick from ‘Shame Shame Shame’, which I was really rather thrilled to read. I thought, ‘Oh great, that’s a nice little memory.’
In My Life: John Lennon Remembered, BBC