Friday, 7 September 2018

Bowie's "Fame" - Whose Riff Is It Anyway?

(Work in slow decline....)

There has been talk on music forums over the  years regarding the main riff in Bowie's "Fame" because shortly after it was released, James Brown recorded and released "Hot (I Need To Be Loved)". The riff is the same in both songs. Indeed, the speculation is not just that Brown copied the riff, but that he had his musicians play along to the track as they listened on their headphones.

The consensus is that Brown copied Bowie's track, and there is an unevidenced assumption by some people that he did this because Bowie's guitarist who wrote the riff, Carlos Alomar, had stolen the riff from Brown in the first place. This is loosely supported by the known fact that Alomar played in Brown's touring band for several months during 1968-1969. There is further unevidenced belief that Alomar wrote the riff for Brown, but Brown either rejected it, or didn't use it.  Anyway, seems that Alomar liked the riff so much, that he kept it, and used it five years later for a live cover of an old 1961 song "Footstompin" that Bowie did on the Dick Cavett Show in 1974. Bowie and Lennon and Almomar were later jamming in the studio, and used the riff as the basis for what would become "Fame". And James Brown then released "Hot (I Need To Be Loved)".

Added to this story is Bowie's live cover, in 1972 at Hemel Hempstead, of Brown's "You Got To Have A Job", which had been recorded by Brown in 1969, around the time or just after that Alomar had been playing with Brown. It hasn't  got the riff; though  Mick Ronson and Trevor Boulder play something sounding very much like it during Bowie's cover of the song. For a while I wondered if Bowie and Ronson had developed the riff during the Spiders From Mars tour. But then I listened to the late 1969 live version of  "You Got To Have A Job" that Brown played during Marva Whitney concert at the Apollo Theater, and that does have an embryonic version of the riff - a sound similar to that which Ronson and Boulder play during the Hemel Hempstead concert.

The chronology

 The Flares (1961)

This is the original version of the song that Bowie covered on the Dick Cavett Show in 1974. There is no "Fame" riff here, so the riff did not come from this song.

You Got To Have A Job
James Brown & Marva Whitney (1969)

This is the original version of James Brown's "You Got To Have A Job", which he wrote for Marva Whitney. There is no "Fame" riff here.

You Got To Have A Job
Marva Whitney & James Brown 
live at the Apollo "late" 1969

This is, as far as I can tell, the earliest example of the riff. It's not exactly the same, but is recognisably similar, and is the same sort of sound that Ronson and Boulder are making in the Hemel Hempstead concert.

Got To Have A Job 
Bowie (1972)
This was for a while the earliest hint I found for the "Fame" riff, and I wondered how come Bowie's group had it, but it's not there on the Brown original. Well, it seems that Bowie was following not the original James Brown original release, but the Marva Whitney live version on her album Live & Lowdown At The Apollo, released Dec 1969.

Bowie & Alomar (1974)
During the Dick Cavett Show, Bowie, supported by Carlos Alomar's band and a then unknown Luther Vandross, do a cover of the 1961 song "Footstompin'", during which the "Fame" riff can be clearly heard.

Fame (YouTube)  Spotify
Bowie (July 1975)
The song we're talking about.

Hot (I Need To Be Loved)
James Brown ( Dec 1975)

And Brown's "Hot", which copies the riff from "Fame" note for note.

The riff was not sampled - it is speculated that the band must have copied it note for note by playing along to "Fame" on their headphones - or that Brown played it to his session band without telling them it was Bowie's song. It is a fairly blatant copy, yet Brown does not give Bowie or Alomar any writing credit. Apparently Bowie and Alomar were aware of the copy, and discussed suing Brown, but Bowie said to wait to see if "Hot" became a hit - which it didn't. So Brown was never sued. It might have been interesting to see what would have happened if Bowie had sued Brown, because Brown could have pulled out the 1969 live recording of "Got To Have A Job", and might have instead got all Bowie's royalties! Who knows!

1086  April 2019

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