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Ava Cherry: the 17-year-old singer who changed David Bowie’s career

Before his move to Berlin, David Bowie got seriously funky thanks to inspiration from Aretha Franklin, James Brown and his 17-year-old mistress



When David Bowie arrived in New York to play Radio City Music Hall on Valentine’s Day 1973, Cupid’s slender arrow was already in motion. On the second of a two-night stint he met Ava Cherry – the 17-year-old from Chicago with short, peroxide hair who would soon become his backing singer. Her first gig was at Ziggy Stardust’s final appearance, The 1980 Floor Show, filmed at London’s Marquee in October that year. 

“When I met David he was infamous but not famous,” she says. “I knew who he was. There was a party I helped organise at a place called Genesis. All the greats were there: Stevie [Wonder], Aretha [Franklin] and Gladys [Knight]. David walked in with his bright red hair and a stunning suit. He said: ‘My name’s David. I love your hair. It’s very rebellious.’ I said: ‘Yeah, a lot like you.’” 

There began an affair that would soon fan the flames of Bowie’s creative hunger. When plans to hire Cherry as a backing singer for a Japanese tour floundered, she decided to track him down. “I followed him to Europe where he put me up in a hotel. I then lived at his house on Oakley Street in London for about two months. Angie [Bowie] freaked, but it was her idea – she said to just stay at the house.” 

Raised in a working-class neighbourhood on Chicago’s South Side, Cherry provided Bowie with an authentic line into black experience, language, fashion and culture. “In London we talked about the idea of a soul band, way before he became involved with Carlos [Alomar, guitarist]. He discussed wanting to record a soul record similar to the artists he loved, like Aretha. I showed him a picture of my dad, who was a trumpet player in the 1940s – his group played with Count Basie. 

“David said: ‘My God, that suit. Do you still have it?’ I borrowed one from my father, and David had Freddie Burretti [the designer behind much of Ziggy’s sartorial elegance] knock up the suit for him. He was then The Gouster, which was a Chicago term for the black men who would slow dance with the ladies. They would wear zoot suits with the baggy pants and little jackets.”

Cherry continued in her role as backing singer while Bowie toured Diamond Dogs in the States and recorded at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios. “David surrounded himself with the best there was. Luther Vandross [backing vocals] added a lot of flavour to the sound. David Sanborn [sax] was also one of the superstars of that time – he played like a bat out of hell.” 

Young Americans was a key breakthrough, with Fame delivering Bowie’s first No.1 hit single. The song was a late addition from a session at Electric Lady with John Lennon that changed the direction of the album. Co-written with Lennon and Carlos Alomar, it emerged from an aborted attempt to record The Flares’ Foot Stompin. Bowie salvaged something of Alomar’s riff, adding more guitars and a melody, while Lennon played acoustic. Bowie would admit it was an “angry” track and had no idea it would be a hit. 

“It really was about the bullshit of the industry,” says Cherry. “His manager Tony Defries had been good for David in the early stages, but they were having some trouble. The high backing vocal at the end was me singing in the booth with David and John.” 

One of the inspirations for the Young Americans album was Aretha Franklin. Her influence on Bowie is clear during the BBC documentary Cracked Actor that shows him prior to the 1975 Grammy Awards, singing along to Natural Woman in the back of a limo while high on cocaine. James Brown’s Live At The Apollo also left its mark. It seemed the influence was now cutting both ways. 

“James Brown tried to claim the riff for Fame was his,” says Cherry. By the end of the year, Brown would produce a rip-off with his 1975 single Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved, Loved).

Bowie once revealed that his follow-up single, Golden Years, was written for Elvis Presley. It continued in a similar funky vein to recent work, suggesting little of the true direction of his next album, Station To Station. The riff was provided by Earl Slick. 

“I have to say thank you to Eric [Clapton] for that one,” the guitarist admits. “It came from Cream’s Outside Woman Blues, and there was a little of Funky Broadway by Wilson Pickett.” 

Carlos Alomar, who helped flesh out the track, suggested that Bowie had banged out some chords on the piano that reminded him of The Drifters’ classic On Broadway, a song he had referenced during the Diamond Dogs tour, and steered him away from making it sounding too close. For the lyrics, it appears Bowie drew upon his recent break-up with Cherry. 

“As soon as I heard that song, I knew it was about me,” she says. “I wasn’t with David in the period before he left for Berlin, but I know things were dire. He had some serious financial problems and was heavily into the drugs phase. I felt destroyed by the whole experience. I didn’t know how to piece it all together, and that was really the end of the relationship. 

“When I heard Golden Years I was in a supermarket and broke down. I was having some trouble launching my own career. David was involved in a project that had been shelved. It seemed to be his way of saying ‘Don’t lose faith, and keep going’, even though we wouldn’t be together any more. 

“He was a creature that had to keep moving through experience after experience, and mine was beautiful and unique. But then he had to move on. I was blindly in love and lost in his aura.”

Ava Cherry’s autobiography All That Glitters: The Ava Cherry Story is out now.

Roger Chapman on Fame

“Bowie’s Berlin period always fascinated me, especially as I was heavily ensconced in Germany myself at the time. I was never really much of a fan before that era, but the Fame album [Young Americans] gave me a feeling that I wasn’t on my own. It was cold and clinical, much like Germany itself, but I loved it. Fame is a smashing song and I never tire of hearing it.”

Glenn Hughes on Golden Years

“Competition is fierce, but it will always be my favourite Bowie song because he wrote it at my house – on my couch, to be precise. Golden Years; it’s such a beautiful piece. I’ll never forget him sitting next to me and writing the melody. In a way, being so close at its birth, I became absorbed into it – that’s how I feel, anyway. I’ve often wondered whether it’s a goodbye song to Angie because they were on the way out at that point. 

“Back then [as a member of Deep Purple], I was up there with him in the A-league. He came into the studio while I was recording Hold On with David [Coverdale], and through the glass I saw him dancing along. All these years later, to me he’s still an orange-haired young guy.”