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Finding Success Before "Fame": Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar Trace Their Uptown Roots

Photo courtesy of Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar.

Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar, who actually lived "Uptown Funk", retrace their uptown roots, their breakthrough at the Apollo Theater, and how they brought funk to Sesame Street.

If any two people embody the spirit of "Uptown Funk", it's Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar. The wide-ranging sounds that echoed through the Bronx and Harlem in the mid-'60s course through their DNA. Even before they reached 21-years-old, both Clark and Alomar were respected pros in New York City's community of singers and musicians. Alomar had made history as the youngest guitarist ever to take the stage at the Apollo Theater while Clark sang on countless jingles and studio dates. It's one thing to sing "Uptown Funk", but Clark and Alomar actually lived it.

When David Bowie released Young Americans (1975), the whole world finally saw what New York audiences had witnessed dating back to the couple's work in Listen My Brother, a musical revue based at the Apollo. Alomar's signature guitar style anchored much of the album, especially on the chart-topping jam he co-wrote with Bowie and John Lennon, "Fame".

Clark and her close friend Luther Vandross were two of the singers who shaped the album's lush yet soulful background vocals. In fact, the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (2013) illustrated just how integral they were to Young Americans. Viewers glimpsed Clark and Vandross rehearsing vocal parts for the key album cut "Right" as well as bringing their rich and robust vocal power to Bowie's performance of "Young Americans" on the Dick Cavett Show.

As the years progressed, both Clark and Alomar expanded their already impressive musicality with successful forays into folk, rock, jazz fusion, disco, and new wave. Amidst her prolific session work, Clark sang on CHIC (1977), the very first album that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards wrote and produced for the CHIC Organization, which spawned "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" and "Everybody Dance". She'd later join Simple Minds on Once Upon a Time (1985), an album notable for her guest vocals on the group's Top 5 hit "Alive and Kicking".

Alomar became Bowie's Musical Director for several tours while also writing and playing with Mick Jagger (She's the Boss, 1985), Paul McCartney (Press to Play, 1986), and Arcadia, a side project by Duran Duran members that generated the Top 10 smash "Election Day" (1985). Over the past few decades, Clark and Alomar have each released solo albums and performed or recorded with a roster of groundbreaking new artists and music icons that span nearly every genre imaginable.

Throughout their many musical adventures, Clark and Alomar have won praise from fans and fellow contemporaries alike. Renowned vocalist Paulette McWilliams says, "Robin's extremely intelligent, giving, and has a beautiful spirit. Her heart, which encompasses all those things and then some, comes out when she sings. She's my sister!" Legendary guitarist Eddie Martinez adds, "Carlos Alomar is authentic. I remember meeting him in '75 when he was playing with Bowie. I was just starting with Labelle at the time. I found him to be such a great, funny, and warm person. His musicality is so broad and comprehensive. He's very funky and unique with his approach, regardless of the genre. His authenticity always shines through. I'm privileged to call him a friend. He's an original and a Bad-Ass!"

This has been a memorable year for the couple both on and off the stage. It began with Mark Ronson inviting Alomar to play on his critically acclaimed Uptown Special (2015). Featuring Bruno Mars on lead vocals and Alomar on guitar, Ronson's "Uptown Funk" won "Best Single" at the 2015 BRIT Awards and held the top spot on the U.S. Hot 100 for 14 weeks between January and April 2015. Meanwhile, Bowie fans celebrated the 40th anniversary of Young Americans, an essential musical component of 20 Feet from Stardom, which won "Best Music Film" at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards in February 2015.

Clark also contributed to Reach for the Sky: the Change Anthology (2015), a two-disc retrospective of the session work she and sought-after vocalists like Vandross, Jocelyn Brown, Fonzi Thornton, Diva Gray, and Gordon Grody did for Jacques Fred Petrus' seminal disco-funk band Change. In a completely different realm of music, both Clark and Alomar sang and played on New York-based singer-songwriter David Bronson's Questions (2015) album, capping the release with a sold-out, full-band show at Joe's Pub in New York.

On the eve of the couple's 45th wedding anniversary, PopMatters presents the first of an exclusive two-part interview that revisits Clark and Alomar's impressive journey through music and how their relationship evolved from sharing a stage to sharing a life together. In this first installment, Clark and Alomar trace their roots back to New York's fervent music scene, recalling a time when Listen My Brother schooled them and other future luminaries on how to command a stage, while their appearance on a new television show called Sesame Street made counting to 20 just as funky as dancing in the street.

You've both played and sung on songs that have given so many of us our first memory of music. What song made the strongest impression on you during childhood?

Alomar: Other than playing in church, mine was "Chief Natoma from Tacoma" by Mary Lou Williams, a great jazz pianist. I was in DeWitt Clinton High School and they had a special college preparatory program at Fordham University for below-poverty kids called Upward Bound. That's where, at 16-years-old, I met Luther Vandross. At one point, I was playing bass as well as guitar. Mary Lou Williams came to Fordham to give some talks. She would play piano for the kids. I got up there and played bass with her. The next thing I knew, she invited me to play bass at a gig she was doing. It was one of those gigs where she would play at the library or very intimate little places. One of the songs I had to learn was "Chief Natoma from Tacoma".

Clark: As a child, I used to watch and listen to all kinds of music, like Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow" or anything Dinah Washington sang. A singer named Gloria Lynne had a song called "He Needs Me" (1961). I used to take my brush and stand in front of the mirror and sing (sings) "He needs me. He doesn't know it but he needs me." I was eight or nine years-old. A lot of the songs I learned came from watching television. We'd just gotten television so I was fascinated by every musical and every commercial that came on. That was my musical training.

When we were kids, there used to be the Million Dollar Movie, which would run the same movie everyday for a week, so I was able to learn all kinds of songs. The Wizard of Oz (1939) was my favorite as a kid. I wanted to be Judy Garland. (laughs) My dad was a musician so we had a lot of jazz in my house. He worked with George Shearing, Nat "King" Cole, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lena Horne, just on and on and on.

You both grew up in the Bronx. How far apart or close together did you live?

Clark: I lived in the West Bronx and Carlos and Luther lived in the East Bronx. I moved to Harlem when I was 12 and Carlos was probably 11.

Take me back to your childhood. How did you absorb the sights and sounds of New York City?

Clark: For me, because my dad was a musician, my mom took my sister and I to all the clubs around the city where my dad would play, Birdland, Café Society, Minton's Playhouse. Coming into Manhattan from the Bronx was just like going to Disney World. It was exciting. The people were well-dressed. There was music everywhere. During the time that I grew up in the Bronx, it was still like the country. It still had trees and private homes as opposed to high-rises, which didn't come until the '60s. Everybody knew you on your block. Everybody knew your parents.

Alomar: My circumstances were nothing like that! I was in the real Bronx. (laughs) I lived in an Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhood. In these tenement houses, there were alleys in-between the buildings. You could go on 115th Street, go down the alley, and come up on 114th Street. The only problem was 115th Street was Latin and 114th Street was Italian. It's classic West Side Story: "What are you doing on my block? I'll kill you!" (laughs)

As long as our parents could look out the window, they would let us go play downstairs with the other kids. My life was not like Robin's in that I'm a minister's son. It was all about church, five days a week. On the sixth day we'd go visit the sick. On the seventh day we'd have open house.

In those days, you could order this little radio that didn't need a battery from the back of a comic book. You would just clamp it to a lamp or anything electric and you could get electricity. There I was, 11- or 12-years-old, listening to Murray the K under the covers with my earphones and my little radio that I ordered. That's where I first heard rock 'n' roll! The problem was I would go to church, they'd be singing, and I started adding rock 'n' roll to the music. Ms. Gonzalez would say, "Carlos that's not Christian music." I got put "on discipline" so much because of rock 'n' roll. (laughs)

Clark: I went from loving Judy Garland — and still loving her no matter what — to the Supremes, which was a life-changer. The minute that music hit, life changed for all of us who were into the music. It gave us the idea that someday this could be us.

Alomar: Shows like the T.A.M.I. Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, Hullabaloo, Shindig! … all of these shows were not only monumental in the fact that they offered us a different genre, but we saw kids like us in the audience! Having that teen beat was different from looking at Dean Martin and even Cab Calloway. It was our music because we were in the audience. As we started developing our trade, we knew that we could rightfully take our place in that.

Robin, you and Luther Vandross both attended Taft High School. How did you first meet?

Robin: One day, I'm in the subway station, Grand Concourse between E. 170th and E. 171st Streets. Luther's on one side of the tracks going uptown to where he lived and I was going back to Harlem. I was on the other side. He yells over to me, "Hey! I hear you can sing." I said, "Yeah I sing some." He goes up to the street and comes down on the other side and says, "Well sing this." At the time, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles had a song called "Down the Aisle". I sang it.

We became friends from that moment on. We would hang out everyday. I'd go to his house. He'd put the music on and turn the lights out. There'd just be the lights on the equipment. He'd say, "Doesn't that look fabulous? Let's close our eyes and listen to Dionne Warwick."

Alomar: Luther was passionate about the female singers. I think that Luther was the one who showed us the emotional attachment that music really had. If the divas did not give Luther a goose bump moment, they would not reach his record player!

Carlos, how exactly did you and Luther get to know each other while you were in the Upward Bound program at Fordham?

Alomar: Bruce Wallace, a friend of mine who I went to DeWitt Clinton with, knew that I was really really good on guitar. He said to Luther, "I want to introduce you to Carlos." Luther said, "Oh yeah? What do you do?" I said, "I play guitar." He said, "Let me hear you play something." I started playing. He said, "Oh yeah. You're good. I'm a singer. Let's work together." We found a bass player and a drummer.

Finally, Luther said, "We're gonna form this group called the 'Shades of Jade'. We've all got to wear emerald green patent leather shoes." I said, "My momma ain't buying me no useless green shoes." That fool went to my house and spoke to my mom in broken Spanish. You know what? She bought those useless green shoes!

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