In the studio

‘Let’s Dance’ was recorded at New York’s Power Station studio. It was the first of eight songs recorded for the album, over a three week period in December 1982.

In contrast to the demo recording, the New York recording was sparser with less guitar, but with an introduction borrowed from the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist And Shout’ followed by an eight bar trumpet solo.

The moment we finished off that trumpet solo, I knew we were in new territory and could play by different rules – rules that applied only to white rockers and maybe Miles, Prince, or Michael Jackson. Now I had the freedom to venture beyond pop into jazz territory. I was free to allow cats to improvise – on a pop single! It was heaven…

My instinct to start [the sessions] with ‘Let’s Dance’ paid off: We cut the song in one or two takes and it set the tone for the rest of the project. The song was going to be a major hit, and we all knew it. David relaxed into my team’s capable, wickedly creative, loving hands.

Nile Rodgers
Le Freak

The trumpets and saxophone parts heard after the line “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues” were adapted from ‘Peter Gunn’, Henri Mancini’s 1959 theme for the television show of the same name. In Mancini’s original, the ostinato was played by guitar and piano played in unison.

I actually pinched the horn line for ‘Let’s Dance’ from Henry Mancini’s theme from the TV show Peter Gunn. We had listened to all these arrangers from Oliver Nelson to Neil Hefti to … just, everybody. I recently saw an article with Tony Visconti talking about how much David Bowie likes Stan Getz. He and I were listening to what some people would call “cornier” type of jazz to the most avant-garde stuff.

‘Let’s Dance’ was special. Every now and then you do something that you like; you think that it’s good and you have to think about the public, the way it’s going to be accepted, the way the critics are going to discuss it. This particular song seemed to have everything artistically you want in a song … but something that felt like you had never heard it before. And because of David’s love of jazz, when I reharmonized it and put it in b-flat minor 13-chord — which I defy you to find in any pop song — it was such a drastic move, David loved it. There wasn’t an ounce of pushback.

Nile Rodgers
Rolling Stone, 12 January 2016

Although ‘Let’s Dance’ was edited for single release, the full version contained a breakdown which stripped the song back to just bass guitar and drums, before the other instruments re-entered one by one. This was a method frequently used by Rodgers.

If you take ‘Let’s Dance’, the thing that gave it that depth and perspective was David’s interpretation of it. Having the synth bass with the Fender bass, David threw in little elements like that and gave it that edge and excitement that I probably wouldn’t have thought of. On a song such as Chic’s ‘Good Times’ the most important part was the breakdown, when the instruments are taken out just leaving the bass, and then the piano, then the Fender Rhodes, then the guitar, then the solo, then the backing singers and finally back to the song. Whenever the band would go to the breakdown the audience would scream. We used the same tactic for the 12-inch version of ‘Let’s Dance’.
Nile Rodgers
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Bowie chose to work with an entirely new set of musicians for Let’s Dance. His long-standing rhythm section of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, who had been indispensable to Bowie’s sound since the mid-1970s, were jettisoned in favour of new players recommended by Rodgers.

I wanted to have a little relief from the guys that I usually work with. I wanted to try people that I’d never worked with before, so that I couldn’t predict how they were going to play. They didn’t have much idea of how I worked in the studio. And as I hadn’t recorded in two years, it seemed perfectly natural ’round about now to try new people. Nile picked up most of the rest of the band for me: Omar Hakim from Weather Report; Carmine Rojas from Nona Hendryx’s band; Stevie and Nile played guitar, and that was the nucleus.
David Bowie
Musician magazine, May 1983

Carlos Alomar was, however, approached and invited to play rhythm guitar on ‘Let’s Dance’, but refused after Bowie’s management offered him a lower rate of pay. The rhythm guitar work was instead handled by Nile Rodgers himself.

I went up to Bowie’s office to negotiate the deal, and Bowie had these new people that he has hired. They said, ‘Well, we don’t want you to be the band leader on this. We just want you to play guitar, and we already have a producer. We’re trying to save David’s money.’ I said, ‘Look, with all due respect to your newly found situation, I’ve played with Bowie since 1973 and my increases have been the same every year. Each time he calls me back, I take a moderate increase. And that moderate increase has brought me where I am now. If you don’t have the respect to do your homework and see how much I was getting paid before, then I’m not interested.’ You see, they were offering me scales. I haven’t worked for scales since 1968. Scales meaning $100 an hour, which is the basic rate that you would give any musician that’s coming from the musicians’ union – minimum payment. I said, ‘If I play one note on this record or if I play every note on this record, my price remains the same. If my name appears on that record then I need to get my money.’ And they said, ‘Oh, no, no.’ So I said, ‘Well, fine, I don’t need this album.’
Carlos Alomar
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Bowie threw yet another curveball when selecting a lead guitarist. He brought in Stevie Ray Vaughan, a relatively unknown young Texan blues musician whom Bowie had seen playing with the band Double Trouble at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival.

David and I talked for hours and hours about our music, about funky Texas blues and its roots – I was amazed at how interested he was. At Montreux, he said something about being in touch and then tracked me down in California, months and months later, calling at 4:30 in the morning. It was get-up-and-make-sense-quick time! That’s sort of the way on which the album came together, actually. It was the most fun I’ve had in my life. David works quickly because he knows exactly what he wants.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Musician magazine, May 1983

Having worked with experimental players such as Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew in the past, using a blues guitarist was yet another departure for Bowie, yet the decision worked well.

Stevie strolled into the Power Station and proceeded to rip-up everything one thought about dance records. After his blistering solo on the title song he ambled into the control room and with a cheeky smile on his face, shyly quipped, “That one’s for Albert”, knowing full well that I would understand that King’s own playing was the genesis for that solo. One after another he knocked down solo upon solo, song upon song. In a ridiculously short time he had become midwife to the sound that I had had ringing in my ears all year. A dance form that had its melody rooted in a European sensibility but owed its impact to the blues.
David Bowie, August 2001
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Live At Montreux 1982 & 1985 liner notes

Vaughan’s lead guitar on ‘Let’s Dance’ was recorded on 9 January, along with the horn arrangement overdubs.

When the quality of the music is so good, you get to feel all of the love that was in that room. You get to feel these relationships growing through the music. When I listen to it, I think of Stevie Ray Vaughan showing up from Texas and walking into a room full of people he hadn’t met before – remember he was pretty much a complete unknown up to the day the album was released. There was so much love, awe and wonder. After Let’s Dance the entire world knew who he was and his wonderful career as an artist was able to flourish…

One of the greatest moments in my rock and roll history is the look on Stevie’s face when he heard the groove and guitars of ‘Let’s Dance’. He was like, ‘What the hell and I gonna play? This is perfect!’ Having said that I love the contrast between my guitars and his and when you hear his first solo on ‘Let’s Dance’, it’s just one note. It’s the most perfect B flat I’ve ever heard in my life!

Nile Rodgers, June 2017
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book