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.”
The ‘Young Americans’ Sessions With David Bowie
From what I understand Robin, you and Luther came onto the Young Americans (1975) session by happenstance.
Clark: I spoke to Carlos the day he went down to Sigma Sound. I asked Carlos if I could bring Luther to hang out. Hanging out in the studio was better than going to a party!
Alomar: We were in this fabulous hotel in Rittenhouse Square called the Barclay, and I had negotiated a real nice per-diem, so I said “Sure”.
Clark: Luther and I didn’t know that we were going to stay. We were just there for a visit. Yet, we found ourselves in Sigma listening to the tracks for “Young Americans”. When the chorus section approached, Luther leaned over to me and sang “Young Americans, young Americans …” He said, “What do you think of that?” We just started singing it in the chorus.
Alomar: They were always harmonizing.
Clark: We used to walk down the street singing. Carlos used to try and run away from us. (laughs) It was what we naturally did. We weren’t doing it for David to hear us and hire us. That was the furthest thing from our minds.
It’s like you couldn’t turn it off. Singing is what you did.
Clark: Exactly. David leaned over the board and said, “Can you sing that again?” so we sang it again. By then, Tony Visconti was there as well. David said, “Would you mind recording it?” And that was that.
Alomar: Robin and Luther were almost apologetic: “We’re sorry that we disturbed …” David said, “No, no, really … Sing it again. It’s fabulous.”
Clark: At that time it was just Luther, myself, Ava (Cherry) and Warren Peace in the studio. Diane (Sumler) and Anthony (Hinton), Luther’s background singers, would arrive later.
Alomar: Robin didn’t even have extra clothes packed.
Clark: For three days Luther and I wore the same clothes that we had arrived in. (laughs) We wound up staying because David was so enthusiastic. First of all, we gave him the vocal concept. He had these lyrics but he didn’t have background parts. David asked Luther if he had any songs. Luther had a song called “Funky Music”. He played it on the piano for David and David asked him if he could change the lyrics to “Fascination”. Luther said yes and so they rewrote the song.
To me, the complexity of the call-and-response vocal section on “Right” is so thrilling.
Clark: At that point in my career I had done a lot, but I had never worked in that way. Luther helped on “Right” quite a bit. David knew where he wanted things to go. He came in and worked on those parts with us. We had the soulfulness of it, but we didn’t have the cadence or the timing of where things were supposed to fall. David wrote a chart for us. To this day, I still have a copy of that chart. It’s a bunch of words, dots, and dashes! David would coach us with: “You’re singing here, you’re out there, you’re back in here, you’re out over there.” He had this all in his head. I had never seen anything like that, but I got it and so did Luther. It was David’s language.
Alomar: I appreciated David having a sequential, linear methodology, but the minute they got it, they were singing in perfect harmony! That was crazy. But that’s how it always was with Robin and Luther.
“Win” is the song on Young Americans that just sends me.
Alomar: “Win” is a tearjerker for me too. There’s a tonality that we crafted for that song. We did a lot of experimentation with sounds. The neutron bi-phaser pedal was new at that time, so I brought that with me. It added this creamy, almost ethereal dream-like doubling sound to the guitar. David Sanborn had this wave-like digital delay on his saxophone as well. The reverberation was toned just right. And I must state that it took so much work to make sure that the tones hit the mark emotionally, because David’s words were riding on the wave of emotion created by these tones.
When I hear “Win”, I close my eyes. I do not want the distraction of whatever I’m looking at to get in the way of how that song makes me feel. I’ve often said that David doesn’t care about the meaning of a song. He cares about the feeling that you get when you hear a song. How many times have we heard an interview or read an article about David and they’re trying to make some philosophical statement about everything he says? I feel everybody has their own way of looking at things, but when you hear “Win” and you close your eyes, then you forget about the meaning. That feeling you get from “Win” takes you away. Those vocals say take me to church, please.
Robin, when you hear your voice on “Win” all these years later, what is stirred within you?
Clark: I cry. It’s the combination of all the work and all the years, going back to that period and knowing that our intention was to make the best record that we could possibly make. To hear it now? You hear the intention. It speaks for itself.
Alomar: We already spoke about Luther and how he would arrange vocalists. Luther wanted Robin’s voice out front because he knew the timbre that she had in her voice. When she sings certain notes, she almost cries them.
Clark: My timbre’s like a horn. You can take one voice and put it above me, another voice sings beneath me, and I bring it all together because my tone is so broad. Luther knew that. By then, we had been singing together since we were in high school. Young Americans was a defining moment for us. Luther and I were in heaven. This was my high school friend. Look at where we were? We couldn’t believe what we were doing. This happened so quickly for us. We did the album and the next thing we knew, we were on the road.
When we toured with David, the Bowie fans were not ready for us. We opened at the Universal Amphitheatre in California. It was the first gig we did. I remember standing on the riser with Luther. A tomato flew right between us. Another time, an apple flew by. They did not want to see us. They were begging for David to come out. When David hit the stage, he garnered us the respect. He had such diehard fans, the same ones he has now. They listened and they got it … eventually.
Alomar: He really brought them into the next aspect of the music. Let go or be dragged!
Carlos, as a co-writer and a player on “Fame”, how has the meaning of that song changed for you over the years?
Alomar: Well it hasn’t really, I mean for me. I never asked for fame, and don’t really care about it. I will always be true to my real self. What I want is respect for my musicianship. In retrospect, we can re-evalute what “Fame” means to musical history but as a musician, I’m playing the same music I was playing with James Brown. I play like I play … funky. Yes I can change it to suit a certain thing but funky is who I am. I play that kind of stuff when I’m just practicing. It is a part of my expression
Clark: The only difference is you co-wrote it, Carlos.
Alomar. Truly! What’s it like to hear a song of mine on the airwaves for the first time? Unbelievable, nirvana. The impact of that time and that song on us was humongous. It allowed Robin and I to have a wonderful life. We’re not looking for fame, just recognition. We’re famous within our own realms.
That segues perfectly to something I wanted to discuss with Robin: singing on the first CHIC album. So many CHIC fans know and love you because of “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Everybody Dance”. I know that Luther contracted the vocalists on CHIC (1977) for Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.
Clark: We’ve known Nile since the early ’70s, since our first group Listen My Brother and Sesame Street.
Alomar: He was my sub. When I left Sesame Street, Nile got the gig.
Clark: Nile also knew that Luther and I sang together. At the time, there was another singer named Diva Gray, who was my best friend. Nile asked for another singer. Luther knew Diva, so we brought Diva. At the time that we recorded “Dance, Dance, Dance”, there was really no CHIC. It was still a concept. “Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah”? All of us were like … really Nile? But that was part of what made the song. Luther was pivotal in creating that sound. Then we did “Everybody Dance” and everything came after that. Luther did many more CHIC records after me. I also sang on “Soup for One” (1982) and “CHIC Mystique” (1992). After we recorded “Dance, Dance, Dance”, I went to visit Carlos in France. We were in a club and “Dance, Dance, Dance” came on! Who knew? It was a historic moment and we didn’t even realize it.
Within the pantheon of dance music, CHIC is a style unto itself. There were so many people, specifically producers like Jacques Fred Petrus, who liberally appropriated CHIC’s sound in groups like Change. In the early ’80s, those records were getting as much play, if not more, than the records Nile and Bernard were actually producing for the CHIC Organization at the same time. People still wanted the CHIC sound, they just weren’t necessarily hip to what Nile and Bernard were doing to expand that sound.
Alomar: Politically speaking, when you start looking at the advent of disco music and the backlash from rock and roll, it created a nuance within our culture that was so combative. It wasn’t “east coast / west coast” but a real cultural divide as far as what we considered our underground, defining and re-defining what dance music was. I knew what a five-minute song was. Why? Because every song in the discos was five minutes long or longer. But if you were listening to the radio, nobody listens to a five-minute song. The radio songs were three-minutes long. In fact, the stuff that we were listening to in the discos when we’d go dancing would never be heard on the radio. If you were not into the dance scene, you were so out that it was crazy.
’80s Dance-Rock Hybrids
I’m fascinated by the dance-rock hybrids that sprouted in the early ’80s, especially in New York. I think “Fashion” (1980), both the song and video, really captures that in a compelling way. (Plays video.)
Alomar: That club was called Hurrah’s. There are all of these mixed images in the video, which in fact is what I think was reflective of our culture. They’re doing it on the dance floor, but they’re not doing it over here. Is it in? Is it out? Is it fashionable? Is it not? It’s not just a question, it’s a question mark on our culture. You’re either out of it, trying to get to the middle, or you’re in it being forced to be in the middle. Musically, David wanted this song to be like “Fame”… kind of funky. It is funky, but there’s an edge. It’s dance but it’s rock. When you called it a hybrid, you were exactly right.
In musical terms, I feel like “Fashion” also foretold the work you did in 1985 on one of Duran Duran’s off-shoot projects, Arcadia.
Alomar: When you analyze a group like Duran Duran splintering into Arcadia on one side and the Power Station on the other side, everybody was confused because they were trying to realize what the next big thing would be. It’s like the line in “Fashion” — “turn to the left, turn to the right”. You look at the Power Station. Is that the next thing? Or maybe it’s Arcadia. They both had nuances of Duran Duran.
Clark: And “Fashion” was the precursor to “Let’s Dance” (1983). David had been fighting dance music. He didn’t want to be in dance music.
Alomar: But the record company needed a hit. They gave David a huge advance and he needed to deliver, so he called a hit maker.
Clark: It was a brilliant stroke of genius — call Nile.
Alomar: With Nile, it’s simple. If you want a hit, I’ll give you a hit but it might not be what you think. “Let’s Dance” was very clever because it is dance, but who brings a blues guitar player like Stevie Ray Vaughan to the table?
Clark: David would always throw a curve like that.
Robin, around this time you recorded your solo album Surrender (1984). How did that come together?
Clark: It was so weird. We knew two musicians, George Flame and Mike Kissel. I did some sessions with George. He came to me and said, “I know this guy who has this company HME. It’s a new model for a record company. It’s set up by investors and they would be investing in you.” My record was released through this company. It turns out that Mike Kissel’s cousin was John Hammond. The reason I said it was “weird” was because John Hammond, who was the talent scout for Columbia Records, had discovered my father 40 years before. He used to troll all the clubs in the city and find talent like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Aretha Franklin. My dad was one of the people he took under his wing.
When I was a kid, my mom and dad had a brown, leather-bound phone book. I was always fascinated by the names that were in that phone book. It had the phone numbers for Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and on and on. When I was about 13, I knew I wanted to sing but my parents didn’t really foster that. My mother believed that I should get my diploma and become an executive secretary. That’s what I studied in school. I took typing and shorthand. I knew, even as a young kid, what my real soul urge was — to sing — so I went through the phone book and found John Hammond’s telephone number. Because he was a friend of my father’s and he had visited our house a couple of times, I called him on the phone. “This is Bill Clark’s daughter.” He said, “Sure, come by.” I went to Columbia, which was known as “Black Rock” (a reference to the black building), to see him. He said, “You’re too young, stay in school and come back to see me when you graduate.” Fast forward to 1984 and it turns out that John Hammond is the person who is the president of my new record label. How crazy is that?
One of the highlights of that album is a song Luther wrote called “Love, It Ain’t Easy”. Did he write that specifically for you?
Clark: Yes, he had written that song years before, maybe in 1978 or 1979. By the time I recorded my album, he was living in California. I told him I wanted to use it. He said, “Of course, it’s your song.” Years later, he said, “You should have asked me to produce your album.” I said, “Luther, you were working so much at the time and you were living in California. Of course I should have asked you to produce it, but I didn’t think of that.”
The thing about Surrender was that the producers had so many people writing songs for me. There were too many people telling me what to do. There was so much going on that my heart and soul were not in the record, although, in retrospect, I’m very proud of that record. When you listen to that record and hear the production, it’s pretty damn good.
A whole generation of MTV viewers soon came to know you through your work with Simple Minds on their Once Upon a Time (1985) album. How were you brought onto the session?
Clark: That contact came from a singer I know named Frank Simms. He was working on the album. They were getting ready to do “Alive and Kicking” and producer Jimmy Iovine said, “We’d like to get that woman from Young Americans.” Simms said, “I know her. I’ll get her.” I was called into the studio. I did the album and they asked me to go out on tour with them. I stayed on tour from ’85 to ’87.
You and Jim Kerr had such a wonderful interplay onstage. What was your rapport like with him?
Clark: We had a great rapport because we shared the same birth sign. He’s a Cancer and I’m a Cancer. There were no issues. He was like a brother. There were only two women on this tour Sue Hadjopoulos, who was the percussionist, and myself. We traveled all over Europe in the company of 35 Scottish men! We became a family on the road with all the shouting, crying, laughing, and all that goes along with being a family, but at the end of the day, we made great music, we did great shows, and we loved each other.
Alomar: Simple Minds were a bunch of nice guys. They could get rowdy, but they were sweet. They cherished being with Robin. When I would visit her, they protected her like a sister.
I remember loving the video for “All the Things She Said” with all those wardrobe changes. (laughs) You really do elevate the song, Robin. You bring such sass to it.
Alomar: I’ve always said that “Robin brings the goosebumps”. When she sings her ad libs on that song, you can’t stop the goosebumps. I think that’s what makes it so special.
Clark: It was produced by Jim Kerr, Jimmy Iovine, and Bob Clearmountain. They didn’t try to control me. They were of the mind that “These are the words, let her loose.” I have found that’s when I do some of my best work. Tell me what it is and let me go. I am easy to work with. I am not attached to anything. If you don’t like it, I’ll give you something else. We’ll keep doing it until you get what you want.
Alomar: That has been our M.O. for all of these acts. They’re always shocked. You want us to make a left turn? How about this?
Carlos, what was the genesis for your solo album Dream Generator (1987)?
Alomar: There’s a lot of music in my brain. Something happened to me when the Macintosh Plus Computer and music software was introduced. It showed me that the music that I was doing could be put into a place that could be held indefinitely. You could record something into it and then immediately unleash all of these ideas out of your brain. Then I discovered that they had developed the synthesizer guitar. At that time, there were only a few people exploring and experimenting with electronic music via a synthesizer guitar. I was working on it as well as Andy Summers from the Police. I started looking at music from the point of view of how a computer analyzes music. I knew then that the one thing I wasn’t going to do was waste this fabulous stuff on rock and roll!
Clark: That was unexpected because everyone thought he would do a rock and roll record.
Alomar: I decided to take a page from the work I did on the Bowie trilogy (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger) and do an album that was more of a soundscape. Brian Eno had put me on the path of thinking about a more sonic environment than a simple rhythm section. But this meant that I had to abandon the concept of song writing … you know, lyric, melodies, verse-chorus, things like that. Think concept. What’s the concept? I decided to do something I didn’t know anything about. Well, I don’t remember my dreams. I just go to sleep, have a nice calm sleep, and wake up. So that was the overall concept for Dream Generator.
I started doing research on dreams and I would spend time in the library and ask myself, “Why don’t you dream?” I do dream, but I just don’t remember dreams. I started analyzing the beats per minute of rapid eye movement. When a cat sleeps, his tail whips, so what’s the pulse wave of it? On “Siamese Dreams” I thought, I dream the same thing that you dream but you live in Thailand and I live in New York. We share the same dream, the difference is the environment, you know, the buildings, vegetation. These thoughts flooded my mind and gave me the vision for my soundscapes.
I was very happy with the album. I didn’t really care what anyone thought of it because It showed my musicality. Most critics recognized me as a funky guitar player and David Bowie’s lynchpin. Some knew me as someone who was able to bridge all of the different rock styles. Yet, they never looked at me as classically minded, they never considered I worked with computer music or electronic music, and they never looked at me as someone who was trying to pioneer the advent of computer sciences. But look at me now: I’m the director of the Sound Services Research Center for the Performing Arts at Stevens Institute of Technology. Our program was ranked as the second most innovative music program in the nation. Not bad for a self-taught Puerto Rican guitarist from the Bronx.
Robin, if you were teaching at an Institute, what would your specialty be in the classroom?
Clark: I have given voice lessons, but I feel my strengths are in performance and improvisation. I would love to teach my students how to interpret a song, to be free enough to step outside of themselves, so they can deliver a believable performance. You can then sing in any genre or style with conviction. I’ve seen performances that are not believable. They know the music, but they don’t have the performance … there are no “goosebump” moments. A large part of my experience with the Listen My Brother troupe was that we paid just as much attention to performance as we did to singing. You’ve got to know how to sell it. If you can move yourself to tears, then you’re going to be able to move someone else to tears.
Speaking of which, your performance on David Bronson’s “Song of Life” (2015) does exactly that.
Clark: David and I fell in love with each other. He was like someone that I’d known from another time. When Gordon Grody called me for the session he said, “Girl you gotta come and do this. It’s not a lot of money. He’s an independent artist but the songs are good, he’s a great guy, and we’ll get to do what we do best, which is sing.” So Carlos drove me to Godfrey Diamond’s studio in Brooklyn. I’d known Godfrey from doing records in the ’80s. We drove up and Carlos dropped me off. Godfrey comes to me and he asks, “Is your boyfriend gonna come in?” I said, “He’s not my boyfriend, he’s my husband.” Gordon said, “Her husband is Carlos Alomar.” Then David said, “Carlos Alomar? Tell him to come inside.”
Gordon wound up not being able to do the whole album and so it was just me. Then David asked “Who can we get?” I said, “I sing with my daughter all the time.” Carlos was already in the studio and he’s sung on David Bowie records. We had our trio. That’s how “the Alomars” wound up doing his album. We were there for the music, which allowed David to be who he was. David has released other records, but this time he said we allowed him to do something that he’s never done before, which was to explore different harmonic directions. It was quite a change.
When I listen to your work on David’s Questions (2015) album, it seems like you were able to exhale. Carlos, there’s another moment on the album that also stands out: your solo on “Connect the Dots”.
Alomar: Every musician strives to be able to deliver a kind of emotional attachment to a song. We’re there to hear something in our mind’s ear, to be able to interpret it, and then to ask our body or our fingers or our voice to be able to interpret what we just heard in our brain. We’re not there to play something that we heard somebody else play. We’ve got to come up with something original that the song exacts from us. “Connect the Dots” is a very spiritual song that cannot be treated with heavy hands. To that end, I came up with a backwards guitar sound for “Connect the Dots” that just took that song to the next level. I was very proud of that sensibility. With the David Bronson sessions, everything was seamless, no sweat. It just happened.
You both performed in David’s band for his CD release concert at Joe’s Pub last year. However, 2015 also marked a decade since Luther passed away. I wonder if you can find the words to describe the emotional journey of these past eleven years without him.
Clark: Losing Luther was tantamount to the biggest heartbreak of my life. We had a language that we spoke with each other. We did everything together. For ten years, we went on vacations together. Luther loved Hawaii. We’d always go to Hawaii. The joke between us was that I had three husbands, Fonzi, Luther, and Carlos. (laughs) Luther and Fonzi were my brothers. We’d known each other since our teens. Fonzi is my child’s Godfather. We shared a very close relationship, to the point where people couldn’t understand: how could four people be so close?
Alomar: The answer was easy, we loved one another and music too, but really … How do you get over a loss? You don’t get over it. You just deal with other things. Should you be reminded of it, it all comes rushing back.
Clark: There was a long period in there where we didn’t see each other as much. Luther’s success found him moving to California. Carlos was on the road. I was on the road and Fonzi was touring as well. We would speak on the phone occasionally and connected as best we could.
When Luther had his accident in California in the ’80s, I was on tour with Simple Minds in Europe. I heard about it and I called him in the hospital. Fonzi, Carlos, and I were his family support group because we’d known his family since we were kids. His mother would often say, “You know my son better than I do.” That’s what friends are for. There are things that you share with a friend that you would never share with your mother, sister, brother, or cousin. There’s a side of you that you have given to this friend that they don’t know about. Later on, Luther suffered a massive stroke. We all hoped that he would get as well as he could and we’d still have him.
Alomar: As long as we were there, he could continue to live the moments that he cherished and that we shared. His cognitive memory loss, which was short-term and long-term loss, was always less when we were with him because of the memories that we were able to bring. We even got to the point where we used music therapy. We were shown photos of his brain damage and told of his memory loss. Although we didn’t know exactly what the black holes in the MRI meant, we knew that they were lapses in time and that there were certain memories that he would not remember. We could not understand how he could remember the Jackson Five, but not know who Michael Jackson was. We started to realize that the brain damage that we saw in the MRI photos correlated exactly with certain years of memory loss. So we eventually created a time line that related to his black holes of memory loss. It was sad yet interesting at the same time. It was a very sad period mostly.
I imagine it’s difficult to strike that balance between holding on and letting go, especially when your friends are admired by millions of people. Similar to Luther, you had a very close relationship with David Bowie. Robin, he even called you his sister in the liner notes he wrote for your Surrender album. Where have the last six months taken both of you emotionally in terms of reconciling the death of a friend who was also such a beloved and influential figure in music?
Alomar: It was very hard for me. We saw him at Visconti’s birthday the previous year and then, of course, celebrating David’s birthday, which we did yearly. Everything seemed hunky-dory. Then we were broadsided by the news of his passing. But it didn’t stop there …Then the passing of Iman’s mother, their hairdresser and our friend Tony Antolin, and our beloved drummer Dennis Davis. It was too much.
I went dark for a few months and could not even listen to Bowie music. To this day, I have not yet previewed his last album. As the tributes started, I couldn’t deal with hearing anyone doing Bowie songs and I could not bring myself to play his music.
The breakthrough came when we performed for the Jazz Foundation. They had been very kind to musicians we knew, who have been in need. Robin and I felt it reasonable to support their tribute. So drummer Steve Jordan (Rolling Stones) got some of the Bowie band members together and we did an awesome tribute to Bowie. I even sang my farewells to David in Spanish at the end of “Fashion”. It was therapeutic. Now Robin and I are planning two ridiculously awesome tributes that will take a year to prepare.
I came to realize that one emotion that ran true was pride. I was so proud of David’s strength and the way he orchestrated his life and death. He was true to himself even to the end, creating his last character in order to put even “Death” in its place. Well done, Mate. Well done.
Clark: It’s been very difficult for me as well because David was like family to Carlos and I. He was there when our daughter was born. We watched his son grow up. We watched David grow from the time we met him, when he was just 29 years old. We were neighbors. We were there through difficult times as well as joyous moments. A lot of our life and career was spent with David.
Just as with the loss of a family member or friend, it’s been very hard to reconcile that he’s gone. The thing that has helped us, or helped me, get through this is remembering all of the great times, the love and the laughter that we shared. In the past few months, I have tried to embrace the five steps of grief. I have now reached the point of acceptance and I am able to finally hear his music and his voice.
I was truly blessed that he saw something in me that he believed in. It fills me with pride to know that David will always be a part of my history, and someone who directly affected my life. I have nothing but gratitude to have been in the right place, at the right time, being among the chosen to share my life and times with such a great human being.
I appreciate you both offering such personal and heartfelt sentiments. Mourning is such a private and individual process. I imagine it’s compounded by the reality that people expect you to issue a public statement when you’re still trying to process the loss. Thankfully, this year brought a bit of good news for you when Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” won a Grammy for “Record of the Year”. Carlos, I’d love to know more about your work with Mark and the team he assembled for the Uptown Special (2015) album.
Alomar: Mark is so cool. He’s an old-school producer. He put a bunch of great cats in the room with analog recording, no digital, and the minute that rhythm section hit it, you knew you had a bad hit.
Clark: Mark knows his music history. He grew up on it. Some interviewer wrote that “Uptown Funk” was a rip-off of James Brown or something like that. I just said to myself, “It’s called homage, you silly nut. Don’t you get it?” He’s not trying to reinvent the wheel.
Alomar: The Time had a million songs that had funk like that. There are certain things in music that you use as triggers. A song like “Let’s Dance” is supposed to make you go, “That’s my song! I can’t talk to you right now!” “Uptown Funk” has got that.
What I love about Uptown Special is that it traces a variety of moods. That’s what I look for, more than anything, in an album experience.
Alomar: I love the Mystikal track too, “Feel Right”. He’s such a sweet man. They were all really, really nice. I don’t really use “Carlos Alomar” in hip-hop because I find it unnecessary, so my hip-hop name is “Guitarlos1”. Music is generational. Some people would respond more to, “I’m the guy who played on Alicia Keys’ tracks” than “I’m the one who played on David Bowie’s tracks”. And which David Bowie are you talking about? It might not be the David Bowie that they thought was very hip. The issue of who you are based on who you were is a very dangerous proposition. You’ve got to be who you are right now and deliver. You’ve got to have the goods to step up every year and redesign yourself.
Exactly. Well, spending all this time with you has been such a privilege and a pleasure for me. As you know, part of the catalyst for this interview was seeing 20 Feet from Stardom (2013) at a press screening and wanting to know more about your history together. Even before it appeared in the film, that clip of “Young Americans” from The Dick Cavett Show was probably posted somewhere on social media at least once a day. I have to ask: what did the experience of seeing that vintage clip on the big screen evoke for you?
Clark: It was thrilling. I just realized the other day that Luther and I are both wearing blue. David did that. All those clothes, everything up there is David’s concept.
Alomar: Especially those colors.
Clark: What an amazing thing to be a part of. Luther and I whipped that choreography together. We couldn’t just stand there. That’s our Listen My Brother training.
There’s freedom in the movement but you also have to be on point. Carlos, you’re standing towards the back near David Sanborn. What was going through your mind all those years ago as you were playing in front of the cameras?
Alomar: Wow, I was thinking, My people are on stage! What I was looking at was this wonderful family picture: you’ve got Emir Kassan my bass player buddy from the Main Ingredient, you’ve got me, Pablo Rosario my Puerto Rican brother, David Sanborn — a New York session musician, you have Robin, Luther, Diane, Anthony … it’s like my whole musical family is there and we’re doing what we do.
Clark: We were living a dream we never thought we’d live. To this day, we’re still living that dream.