Over 50 minutes into an hour-long chat with the voluble, entertaining Earl Slick, the mention of his imminent visit to Glasgow for a very special tribute show stirs in him the memory of one of the city’s finest musical exports.
“Frankie Miller!” he proclaims, as if receiving a revelation from above. “For some reason, you guys spawn singers like rabbits, but I gotta tell you – to this day, without a doubt, he could be my number one white soul singer.”
High praise for the gravel-voiced hard man with the soft touch, especially given the number of white soul singers Slick has played guitar for. Miller’s countryman Jim Diamond for one – the pair had a duo called Slick Diamond in the late 1970s before Slick got the call to work with an infinitely more high profile soul man, John Lennon. Slick duly added his licks to the Double Fantasy album, recorded and released months before Lennon’s death in 1980.
And then there is the matter of the man who casts the longest shadow over Slick’s career: David Bowie. Or “DB”, as Slick calls him. He joined the Bowie roster at a time when he was embarking on his incredible and unpredictable post-Ziggy Stardust run of creativity, kicking off with the blue-eyed soul classic, Young Americans, and switching apace to the astonishing hybrid experimentation of Station To Station and the birth of Bowie’s troubled Thin White Duke incarnation.
It is this latter album which looms largest in Slick’s personal catalogue, so much so that he has recruited a tantalising troupe of players, led by primo saxophonist and musical director Terry Edwards, to perform the album in its entirety – all 38 minutes of it – so there will also be some additional material from the Bowie catalogue and beyond, “and you don’t get to know what that is until you turn up”.
Just don’t call it a tribute show or, worse, a cash-in. Slick is at pains to point out that the tour was conceived and booked well before Bowie’s big exit at the start of the year. Also, Slick has deliberately chosen musicians who can communicate the spirit of the record rather than slavishly recreate its experimental patchwork of sounds – including longtime Rolling Stones backing vocalist and sometime Tackhead collaborator Bernard Fowler as singer and frontman. He’s not an obvious pick to render the songs of David Bowie which, perversely, makes him an excellent choice.
“There’s plenty of tributes out there and if somebody else wants to do it, that’s fine. But you can only be disappointed if somebody is trying to be David Bowie,” says Slick. “Bernard is gonna do justice to everything in his own way.”
Slick has been a massive Stones fan since childhood, their early R&B recordings providing his gateway back to his chief inspirations, blues pioneers from Muddy Waters to Bo Diddley to Howlin’ Wolf, who informed his visceral, untutored playing style. It was his credentials as a “street guy” which got him hired by Bowie in the first place, initially to replace Mick Ronson as lead guitarist on the Diamond Dogs tour, and informed his contributions to Station To Station, not least the title track. “The solo in the middle starts off as pure Keith Richards/Chuck Berry,” says Slick. “It don’t get more street than that.
“But that album was off the f***ing wall,” he continues. “There was an R&B feel behind it, then my rock’n’roll bluesy guitar over that, mixed in with some of that Kraut weird shit… we really didn’t know what kind of record we were going to make, it was all on instinct. David didn’t ever walk in there with a song and dictate how it was going to be done. There was always room for that little experiment… I don’t know, we were bad boys, we could have been up for a couple of days, and he goes ‘I got an idea’, and he set up some amps in the back of the studio and we were just feeding back like crazy people. We had a blast doing the record.”
This was a notoriously chaotic period in Bowie’s life, characterised by heavy drug use and his immersion in religious – and irreligious – mythology. “Oh, I was part of the chaos!” roars Slick. “That’s probably how it worked so well because we were both out of our goddamn minds when we made the record. You know what that is? That’s being in your 20s and being able to handle debauchery or whatever you want to call it. But the funny thing is that as out of control as we were, we were extremely focused. The music really did come first, no matter what condition we were in. Not that I’d go out and do that again, that’s for sure…”
Thanks to paranoid miscommunication, Slick didn’t take part in the Station To Station tour and wasn’t invited back into the circle until he was recruited for the Serious Moonlight stadium tour of 1983. Like all Bowie’s collaborators, he was ready to respond to the summons whenever it came – most recently on his audacious 2013 comeback, The Next Day.
Slick was blindsided by Bowie’s death in January. Like all but his closest confidants, he was unaware of his illness and found out about his death the same way as the fans, via an online news alert. Slick was part of the band of Bowie regulars who paid heartfelt tribute at this year’s Brits, along with DB favourite Lorde.
“He left instructions for things that are going to happen in the future and it would not surprise me if he picked her knowing that something was going to happen,” Slick says. “I thought she sang like a champ.”
Yet how bittersweet, knowing that he will never back Bowie again. Slick recalls the conversations during the making of The Next Day when Bowie insisted his touring days were over. “I saw the look in his eye, he damn well meant it – but when he died, that made it final. And yet you were never surprised by the surprises, because that’s all there were, goddamn surprises for 42 years.”
• Earl Slick and Bernard Fowler perform David Bowie’s Station To Station, ABC, Glasgow, tomorrow