Steve Elson: David Bowie’s Sax Appeal

It’s not really work / It’s just the power to charm

Saxophonist Steve Elson in the East Village, Sept. 2019. (Photo by Ken Kurson)

If you ask a David Bowie fanatic to name his greatest album, there’s little chance 1983’s Let’s Dance would earn the distinction.

But if you sit down and listen to it today, 37 years later, with an appreciation of Bowie’s stated desire to write American singles and have them produced by the era’s greatest hitmaker, it’s actually staggering how much art the great one crammed into all that naked commerce.

Bowie spent the last years of the 70s in Berlin, making three perfect albums that didn’t sell – Low, Heroes and Lodger. He returned to civilization – ie. The Power Station in Manhattan – determined to put his finances back together. He spent real time composing and arranging and in 1980 released Scary Monsters. Instead of the drugged out, improvisational feel of the Berlin records, Scary Monsters arrived packed with chart-friendly guest stars (Pete Townshend, Robert Fripp, Carlos Alomar) and a more accessible sound (Eno was out, longtime conspirator Tony Visconti back in).

It worked, kind of. “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion” and the title track all charted, while the record itself went to No. 1 in UK and top 20 in America. 

Bowie wasn’t satisfied.

He spent three more years in calculated study of what makes an American hit. Bowie noticed that Nile Rodgers had graduated from Chic (and helping invent hip-hop) to start producing the freshest sounding songs on the radio. Bowie asked Rodgers to produce his new record (and kinda forgot to tell Visconti, which caused a rift that was thankfully healed in time for Visconti to re-emerge and produce Bowie’s startlingly good later records). One night, Bowie heard an electrifying kid killing a lead guitar in a club. You’ve got to play on my record, Bowie said to Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had yet to release his debut, Texas Flood

Let’s Dance, the 18th David Bowie album, was by far his most commercially successful. It sold over 10 million copies and produced three massive hit singles – the No. 1 title track plus “Modern Love” and “China Girl” – and more if you count “Cat People” (which was re-recorded for the record) and the Queen collaboration “Under Pressure,” which was from the same era and included on later versions of the Let’s Dance CD. 

Bowie has pejoratively referred to that period – where he was selling out arenas and repairing his finances after years of obscurity and drug abuse – as his “Phil Collins years.” He remarked that he would look out at these huge crowds of new fans and “wonder if anyone here owns a Velvet Underground record.”

But to me, who loves the Berlin period and Ziggy and Blackstar and Tin Machine and Space Oddity with equal and overpowering ardor, Let’s Dance measures up to all of it. When it was time to put together a horn section, Bowie knew where to turn.

You know that great baritone sax solo on “Modern Love”? That’s Steve Elson, who I recently sat down with to discuss his career with the Duke. Here are the highlights of our chat.

Bowie saxophonist Steve Elson in the East Village, Sept. 2019. (Photo by Ken Kurson)
Saxophonist Steve Elson in the East Village, Sept. 2019. (Photo by Ken Kurson)

STEVE ELSON: I came out to the Bowery 42 years ago as a jazz player really. I was studying with a guy named Joe Henderson, a great jazz saxophone player out in the Bay Area. I wanted to be in the jazz world, but then the punk scene interested me. There was a band called Strange Party started by a fellow named Joey Arias, also with a man named Klaus Nomi, a German counter tenor and we started playing CBGBs and that scene and I really enjoyed that. A lot of my friends were surprised, because most of these guys couldn’t play. But they had such good ideas. It was such an interesting theatrical scene that was exciting for me, because the jazz scene at that time, they are great players and always have been, I just felt there weren’t a lot of ideas and it felt kind of almost reactionary in a certain way, very closed-minded for new ideas. 

 

VIDEO: Strange Party “Imitators”

To make it as a player in New York you’ve got to have a lot of things going on. I was a good jazz player. I got into the rock world a little bit with singer/songwriter friends and stuff like that and occasional studio dates you know. There was more of a recording scene in New York back in those days. There was a jingle scene. For years, I actually didn’t want to do that. That wasn’t what I was looking to do on this planet. But it’s a pretty good paycheck, you know, — if you get on with kind of a hit jingle it could run for years. 

I was playing with a three-man horn section – The Borneo Horns. We became David Bowie’s touring horn section. Three saxophones, which is kind of unusual for a horn section. I played baritone, tenor, some soprano, some flute, but mostly baritone sax.

I grew up with Lenny Pickett — We were kids together out in California. He’s with Tower of Power and a phenomenal musician. He’s been the bandleader on Saturday Night Live for the last 30 something years, but we grew up together. And so we formed this trio and we kind of became very close on the road because during the Serious Moonlight Tour in ’83 we did like a hundred shows all around the world.

 

VIDEO: NYU Conversations With Lenny Pickett – one of the three Borneo Horns.

And on tours like that there’s a lot of down time because those guys don’t like to work more than three or four nights a week at the most. I’m used to playing seven nights a week in the jazz world and in the creative music world if you don’t play every night you’re losing money. So we had down time and Lenny did a lot of writing and I was doing some writing so we started playing as a horn section a little bit, and then Nile would use us as a horn section. We would add trumpets sometimes and a trombone occasionally, and then Nile would call me for solo acts and stuff, a whole bunch of different things over the years: his own record, Grace Jones, Nona Hendrix, Thompson Twins, Duran, Peter Gabriel, Sister Sledge, Sheena Easton, Philip Bailey, Al Jarreau, INXS, Ric Ocasek….

But to get back to Bowie, there’s a fellow named Stan Harrison. He’s the third Borneo Horn—Lenny Pickett, Stan Harrison and myself. Stan is out on the road right now with Steve Van Zandt for this past year and he’s been sort of a friend and a fan. I had a band years ago called Slickaphonics with a trombone player named Ray Anderson, a new music jazz star, and he liked it so he called me up and said, “Look, I’ve got this record date for Nile Rodgers for David Bowie, do you play the baritone sax?” Now I owned a baritone sax and I’d played it before, but I was smart enough to say, “Yes, and I’m the best baritone sax player you’ve ever heard in your life.” I showed him my baritone sax and it went really well and I did that solo on “Modern Love” that very first day.

 

VIDEO: David Bowie playing sax on “Pallas Athena” on The Arsenio Hall Show. Steve Elson gave Bowie a sax during the Serious Moonlight tour. 

David is – was – a saxophone player. I don’t think he ever really practiced very much. The last time I saw him he said, “Steve I want to come by and take some lessons.” I said, “Man, absolutely.” I thought to myself, ‘I give lessons and I charge on a sliding scale depending on your income. Man, my ship just came in!’ But he was kidding, of course — he didn’t really want lessons. He always liked the baritone, that Lou Reed record Walk on the Wild Side. That baritone player on that record was David’s original teacher.

On the Serious Moonlight Tour, I bought him a horn early in the tour and on the last song, I think it must have been “Modern Love” was the last song, and he played saxophone. Everybody played saxophone, a couple of background singers – we had saxes for everybody. But I worked on a deal with the sound man that we would turn David’s mic down a little bit, just because of placebo frankly, you know. But anyway, the first time I met Bowie, the first time I met Nile, and I knew who Bowie was but I didn’t know much about him. I had heard “Young Americans” and other hits, and we were having lunch that day and I said, “David if you ever go on the road, I’m interested in traveling,” and two months later we hit the road and had a lot of success with one of the biggest tours in history.

It was the same players as on the record, except there had a trumpet player on the record and David didn’t want trumpet on the tour. He actually specifically thought that trumpet, I know a lot of rock guys the trumpet takes over the stage. It’s so light and loud you know. So it was me and Stan and then there’s another saxophone player on the recording session named Robert Aaron. That was the guy that was on the record with us. He had some other issues, so he didn’t go on the road with us. [Editor’s Note: Aaron, whose real name is Robert Aaron Vineberg, was arrested after Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose in 2014. He was exonerated of selling heroin to the actor and reflected after the awful dust had settled: “It’s all over. The worst part is that I still lost my friend.”]

We rehearsed in New York first then went down to Texas and rehearsed down there with Stevie Ray Vaughan. But the day we were meeting to go on the road we were meeting at the Mayfield Hotel up there near Columbus Circle and Stevie was there but his career was like just skyrocketing at that point, so he bailed on the tour at the last minute. He was planning to play the whole tour, but the guys in the band had done studio work and they were comfortable playing different kinds of music.

 

AUDIO: David Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughan Dallas Rehearsals ’83

Stevie was a blues player, a great musician, but he wasn’t used to playing different kinds of music. So it was a stretch for him to learn all the songs and the rehearsal period took longer than we thought it would and we were in Texas for his sake, So we were miffed at him at the time for bailing on us, plus he’s such a great guitar player. So David got in touch with Earl Slick, a great player who had done a bunch of tours already. Slick stepped in right away and learned the parts. Carlos Alomar was essentially the band leader at that point. Carmine Rojas joined on bass and we rehearsed. We started putting the horn stuff together ourselves. We had a list of tunes that David was interested in doing, so we arranged them and then we got together first a little bit without him, and then he came in and we were really good players so it didn’t take that long to figure things out. For David, it was a revelation. He felt very comfortable with the band. He really liked hanging out with us. He could hang loose with us and it was a good time for him. The record was doing really well. He had been through some difficult stuff the years before that. He was kind of broke, you know, he had lost all this money. When we first started booking the tour they booked it in smaller places. They had no idea what was going to happen. They negotiated with us and then it started blowing up and they moved it to bigger places and added more and more dates and it became a monster. And at that point it was the biggest tour in rock and roll history.

Later, he would come to think it was … I won’t say dishonest, but a little disingenuous in some kind of way. I played on a bunch of his subsequent recordings, including The Next Day. I am the only horn player on that record, and I have a couple of big baritone solos. That’s the last time I saw him. 

Bowie was a pretty astute guy. I really liked him as a person. We didn’t spend a lot of time together. He never gave me his phone number and said, “Let’s get together and hang out,” but I would run into him every once in a while in the neighborhood and when we were on the road, we spent a lot of time together. We did a record up in Canada. It took about ten days with Iggy and the horn section, and there were two houses that he lived in and Tina Turner was there, and the producer and then another house with all the musicians about a mile away. But there was one room and they said, “Hang out here.” So we spent about ten days together and at night we watched videos. This was early in MTV and Bowie was real interested in videos at that point. He wanted to direct and be part of that scene. Every night after we had dinner —we had a chef come in and cook—and we would sit back and just watch and really spent a lot of time hanging out together. I think he felt comfortable around me because I wasn’t starstruck by the guy and his career didn’t throw me, and I think he felt relaxed. I never asked him for anything. I never asked him for an autograph, anything like that.

 

AUDIO: Steve Elson At Play (full album)

On my last record, there was a song that I thought I would see if I could get David to sing on it, do a cameo. I played around with the idea and I talked to people about it and I decided, if he doesn’t want to do it, if he says no or doesn’t respond, it might make it uncomfortable for us to see each other again and I don’t want that. My relationship with him is more important that whatever help he could give me on my record. 

To be honest with you, I haven’t listened to Blackstar yet. I don’t have it in me. It just makes me too sad right now. I still feel heartbroken by him passing. I would see him on the street every once in a while and even walking by his house. I would look up and think maybe I will run into him today. It was nice to know that could happen.

He was always very kind to fans. A lot of people would come up to him and want his autograph. He was never less than present. I mean, he looked you right in the eye. You felt like you were the only person in the room with the guy, and that’s pretty amazing to have that kind of stardom and still be that sweet. He retained that. It got heavy at times when there were bunches of people and he had a bodyguard who occasionally would have to step in, but other than that he would be standing on the streets and people would come by and ask for an autograph and he was always absolutely pleased to do it. It never felt like a hardship for him.

 

VIDEO: David Bowie answers fans’ questions from Austria hotel room

 

 

 

Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and greenmagazine.com and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership, co-written with Rudy Giuliani.

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