Interviews

Living the Dream: Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar Remember David Bowie and Luther Vandross

"Then we got to a point in our lives when we met David Bowie … and I didn’t even know who David Bowie was."

16 April 2016. It's the Jazz Foundation of America's 25th annual Loft Party. Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar are among a cadre of musicians holding court at Hudson Studios in Manhattan. Musical Directors Steve Jordan and Meegan Voss have invited them to perform before an intimate crowd of guests and patrons. However, the occasion is bittersweet. Part of the evening's program is dedicated to David Bowie. Tonight marks the first time since Bowie's death that Alomar and Clark have performed his music.

When Bowie passed away in January 2016, the world lost an icon but Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar lost a treasured friend, someone who occupied a special place in the close-knit musical family they shared for more than four decades. "Much that I have learned, that has changed me and brought me to this point in my life, was because of David," says Clark. Though Clark was already a prolific session singer in New York's studio scene, her vocals on Bowie's Young Americans (1975) introduced her to a whole new audience of music fans.

Young Americans also marked a turning point for Alomar, who struck a friendship with Bowie after the two met at RCA Studios in spring 1974. Alomar not only played on the album, he co-wrote "Fame" with Bowie and John Lennon. The song became Bowie's first chart-topping hit in the U.S. and even earned him a guest appearance on Soul Train. Over the next three decades, Alomar cemented his musical partnership with Bowie, touring the world as his Musical Director and playing on some of the most venerated albums in Bowie's catalog.

However, Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar's respective careers encompass several other moments of musical brilliance. "We know there are still people who read the backs of album covers," says Alomar. "To them, they know the deal. They know us." Indeed, fans of CHIC have hailed Clark ever since the group broke through with "Everybody Dance" and "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" while Simple Minds' global legion of followers are intimately acquainted with her heart-stopping solos on "Alive and Kicking" and "All the Things She Said". Rock icons like Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger have both called upon Alomar's vast musical prowess and of course Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' Grammy-winning "Uptown Funk" would not be the same without Alomar's groove on guitar.

Clark and Alomar's contemporaries readily express their abiding love and admiration for the influence each has had on other musicians. "Robin's one of those sisters who can reach a certain timbre that makes the sound jell just right," says vocal powerhouse Jocelyn Brown. "What I learned from being around Robin and sharing a microphone with her is that it's not about the competence of what you can do, it's about the love. If you love each other and have a respect for one another, you find the jell. Robin walks in and you know it's going to be alright. It's going to be good. She's very strong in herself. Her faith is true to the bone. When I get around her, and she will tell you, I melt like a five year-old kid, like I'm her little sister. To have her still here with us to throw down? I'm in heaven!" In fact, Brown even contributed vocals to Clark's solo album Surrender (1985), which featured Fonzi Thornton, Diva Gray, and other mutual friends and renowned vocalists from New York's community of singers.

Bass virtuoso and composer Carmine Rojas is similarly effusive about Alomar's genius. "I think by now the world knows of Carlos' talent," he says. "That's evident to anyone who takes the time to just listen to his voluminous body of work. What people may not know is the enormity of his heart. I first worked with Carlos in February 1983 during rehearsals for (Bowie's) Serious Moonlight tour. I couldn't have asked for a better mentor. He is patient, kind, hard-working, eager to teach, incredibly generous to others, hysterically funny, and just full of love for music and life in general."

Rojas, who played with other Bowie band members on Clark's Surrender album, was also one of the few players that Alomar enlisted for his own solo project Dream Generator (1987). "The older I get, the more I realize that what truly matters in the end is how much love you've shown for your fellow man and how someone feels about you when your name is spoken," he continues. "I can tell you that when Carlos' name is spoken, I feel nothing but love and gratitude for having been fortunate enough to have him in my life."

To see Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar revisit their life together in music is to see the personification of harmony. That quality anchors the second half of PopMatters' exclusive interview with the couple as they discuss the impact of recording with Bowie, remember their lifelong friendship with Luther Vandross, and recall some of the unforgettable, career-defining moments that have shaped 45 years of marriage.

Robin, as your session work in New York continued throughout the '70s, what was the dynamic like among background singers? Did you sense competition?

Clark: Never. I never dealt in a competitive situation where somebody was trying to steal a job from me. There was always camaraderie. It was all for one, one for all. I win, we all win. There were cliques of singers known for specific tones but we all sang together at some point. There were sessions with Patti Austin and Valerie Simpson or Gwen Guthrie and Ullanda McCullough. When you’re working with people of that caliber, you can’t come in there unprepared. You’ve got to be on point and know what you’re doing.

Alomar: There was a hierarchy. If Cissy Houston was there, and you were a soprano …

… then you knew who was going to get that soprano part!

Clark: The thing is, know what you do and do that. For instance, when we would record with Luther, he would put certain vocal groups together. Knowing everyone’s voice, tone and placement, as well as how to put those tones together, was part of his expertise.

Alomar: I think you’re right in asking what it was like during those early session days. You’ve got to understand that we were in our early-twenties when we were thrown into the studio. The ability for us to do something immediately and professionally was an extremely important aspect of this. A jingle session would go something like this: you would have the rhythm section from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. or 1:00 p.m. The arrangements were ready, so when we arrived we would just read the charts. After the rhythm section, the horn players came in. They also read their charts. After that, the background vocalists would come in and then the lead singer would come in. In one day, the song was done.

You also had the copyist and you had the arranger. People knew what they needed to do in order to be efficient. Studio time was expensive.

Clark: There were so many recording studios around New York back then and they were all full. We were all working like crazy because there were so many great people creating great music. You couldn’t walk out the door without bumping into somebody fabulous.

Alomar: It’s not like we were doing drudgery work. We were already working with major artists like the Rascals, Average White Band, Peter, Paul & Mary, Paul Butterfield, Richie Havens, and Ben E. King, just to name a few. In our very young lives we were being challenged musically to deliver for all these acts. During that time Robin did Stompin’ at the Savoy (1974) with Robin Kenyatta, I did a jazz record with Jimmy Owens. Talk about diversity. Robin’s experience would allow her to understand what was needed for jazz, yet jazz was something neither of us were known for, although Robin did grow up in a jazz household. Then we got to a point in our lives when we met David Bowie … and I didn’t even know who David Bowie was.

Amidst all of these sessions, how exactly did David Bowie come into your life?

Clark: Carlos met David through singer Tony Silvester (the Main Ingredient). David was producing Lulu at RCA studios. What’s crazy is that I saw him on The Midnight Special the week before. I thought, Who is this?

Alomar: Having seen To Sir with Love (1967), I really wanted to meet Lulu. She was a great soul singer. That's why I accepted the gig. But Lulu was not there. Who was there was her producer David Bowie. The minute that we hooked up at the Lulu session, we established a personal relationship. He'd just returned from London so I invited him over to my house. I told him, “You're too thin. My wife Robin will make you a great meal.” We talked about all the old days of R&B, my working with James Brown, the Main Ingredient, and the Apollo Theater. We hung out, we talked and laughed all night. We did it right. Not only did we feed him, we fed his soul and his yearning. That was the beginning of our odyssey.

Clark: Then David tried to get Carlos to do the end of the United States half of the Diamond Dogs (1974) tour. Carlos, by then, was working as Luther’s bandleader as well as with the Main Ingredient. He had to make a choice between his best friend Luther, the Main Ingredient, or David Bowie.

Alomar: Luther's band “Luther” had just gotten signed to Cotillion Records. Although it was a challenge, as far as my allegiance was concerned, I knew that I would need a totally different mindset going from R&B to rock and roll. By then, I had studied Hendrix, Cream, and other rock guitarists but I welcomed the challenge. Up until that point I didn’t need a manager. Realizing that I’d have to negotiate with David Bowie’s manager Tony Defries, I decided to get a manager. I was now going into the world of rock and roll and I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t want to just show up there ignorant. That manager also happened to be Luther and Robin’s manager. I thought I’d keep it in the family.

Clark: It was a vicious circle! (laughs)

Alomar: You know what? It did not work out. I was already a young kid making $800 a week with the Main Ingredient and hoping to make more. Tony Defries started at $230, but they were low-balling everything. As they approached $275, I just got up and said, "Stop. I am already making $800. If you cannot even come near $800, I'll have nothing to do with it. I am a married man and I’m looking out for my family. This will not work." They couldn’t do it, so I went back to the Main Ingredient.

Make no mistake, I was fabulous at the Lulu session! (laughs) If I had sucked, David would have moved on to someone else, but I was laying it down like it was church. So as time passed I got a second phone call from David. He said, "I'm going to Philly. You’ve got to work with me." I said, "Dude, I'll work with you but you got to pay me!" He said, "I'll take care of it."

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