Photo: Austin Lord
Peter Frampton Band
Peter Frampton On Whether He'll Perform Live Again, Hanging With George Harrison & David Bowie And New Album 'Frampton Forgets the Words'
At 70 years old, Peter Frampton is happy, creative and generally healthy. But whether he'll finish his thwarted farewell tour depends on when the world reopens—and if he can keep his degenerative muscle condition at bay
A year and a half ago, Peter Frampton may have played his final concert. Standing alone at the Concord Pavilion, just north of San Francisco, on October 12, 2019, he didn't want to follow his band offstage at the end of his performance. He didn't want to stop.
"I had to wait until the crowd would calm down," Frampton tells GRAMMY.com. "In the end, I had to shut them up to say 'Thank you.' And I never said goodbye. I just said, 'I'm not going to say goodbye.'" Despite the fact the 70-year-old is creatively active and taking care of himself, the time will come when he has to say goodbye to touring. When? His inclusion body myositis, or IBM, will dictate that.
The degenerative muscle condition, which has no cure, may one day claim his guitar mastery. And at that point, Frampton says, he will stop. But if it's cruel that the COVID-19 pandemic potentially robbed him of his final viable year as a live performer, Frampton doesn't carry any detectable resentment about it. The one-time GRAMMY winner and five-time nominee is too busy playing guitar—and every time he picks up the instrument, he says, it feels like the last time.
That bittersweet parting between a man and his lifelong communication tool colors the Peter Frampton Band's latest instrumental album, Frampton Forgets the Words, which drops April 23 via UMe. (His last album 2007's Fingerprints, won a GRAMMY for Best Pop Instrumental Album; his cover of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" won Best Rock Instrumental Performance.)
Frampton Forgets the Words is a grab-bag of 10 covers of rock songs that just plain move Frampton, and he imbues every lick and line of tunes by Radiohead ("Reckoner"), Roxy Music ("Avalon") Lenny Kravitz ("Are You Gonna Go My Way") and other legacy artists with deep feeling and panache.
GRAMMY.com gave Frampton a ring about the future of his touring career, why he chose these songs, and his relationships with David Bowie and George Harrison—both of whom he covered on this album. Check out Frampton Forgets the Words' version of Bowie's "Loving the Alien," which premieres exclusively above, and read on for the interview.
The pandemic interrupted your farewell tour, yeah?
Yes. We were lucky. I was so, so lucky that we decided to start it in May of '19 because we managed to get halfway through. We finished the U.S.-Canada portion in mid-October. And then, of course, by March, we were shut down. We were supposed to go to Europe in 2020, in May. Realistically, it was the right thing. We're all in the same boat, so it was definitely the right thing to do. But, yeah, it was disappointing.
Did you record Frampton Forgets the Words before or after COVID-19 hit?
Before. It was recorded before the finale tour. We did three, nay, four albums before coming off the road in 2018—again, in October-ish—with Steve Miller. Then, took nine or 10 days off, went straight into the studio and did the All Blues album and another blues album, which has yet to come out. Then, we took Christmas off and in early 2019, we did Forgets the Words.
And then, we started after that, all the way up to April sometime, we were working on my first new solo album since the last one.
Peter Frampton in 1973. Photo: George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Were you playing some of the Frampton Forgets the Words tunes during the farewell tour?
No, we were playing stuff off All Blues, but we were not playing anything off the instrumental record. Because it wasn't out yet, and also, that meant we could do some of the Fingerprints instrumentals, like "Black Hole Sun" and occasionally some of the other ones in there from that album.
This album feels very personal, in a sense. I remember reading a past interview where you said your playing has become more soulful over the past few years due to some of the physical issues you've been facing. It sounds like you're profoundly feeling every note of these songs.
I think it's a combination of things. I treasure being able to play so much, and of course, it's weighing on my mind that I do have my muscle disease clock—the IBM clock, I call it. Because I am slowly, slowly, slowly… but it's very slow.
I think it's a combination of having played so many notes over the years—I've chosen what not to play anymore [laughs]—and I feel like every time I pick the guitar up, it's like I'm playing for the last time. So, I put my heart and soul into it, especially on stage. Especially on the finale tour, because the audiences were different every night, but the feeling I got from every audience was exactly the same. It was a phenomenal feeling of them all putting their arms around me and saying, "It's going to be OK." I got chills saying that. But I did, I felt that, and I realized I've touched a lot of people and their lives.
It really brought it home to me, how much my music has meant to so many people. It was just a two-way "Thank you" the whole night, on every show. I have to say, every show. And at the end, I would be left on my own on the stage, the band would leave, and I had to wait until the crowd would calm down. In the end, I had to shut them up to say "Thank you."
They didn't want us to leave. And I never said goodbye. I just said, "I'm not going to say goodbye. I'm just waving." It was just phenomenal. The best experience of my whole career of touring.
That's lovely, truly. I noticed while listening to Frampton Forgets the Words that even without lyrics, each song's intent came through loud and clear. Just your guitar "singing" them. Do you feel the emotions of "Isn't It a Pity" or "Reckoner" come through simply in the melodies and performances when you strip away the verbal element?
Well, I started as an instrumental player because of The Shadows, this incredible pre-Beatles instrumental band that was Cliff Richard's backup band as well. They had so many hits. You would call it "surf music," but we would call it The Shadows. So that's how I started—with very melodic stuff.
Let's home in on "Isn't It a Pity," a song of compassion and tender concern. Your instrumental version telegraphs those emotions even without George's words.
My guitar is another voice. It's like I sing with my voice and I play with another voice. It's always been the most expressive part of what I do, is play. So, when I chose these songs to do instrumental versions of, I chose them because of my capability, of what I thought I could do.
"Isn't It a Pity," I tried to sound like George's voice but in my voice, if you know what I'm saying. It was an emulation of what he was singing. Obviously, with an instrumental, you don't have the second verse with different words to keep peoples' attention. So you have to make it more interesting as it goes along, with the notes you choose.
So, that one is what I enjoyed doing the most. That one and also Roxy Music's "Avalon." I'll play my own trumpet here, even though I play guitar: Brian Ferry's voice on "Avalon" is like, "Is there something coming out?" It's so laid back and I wanted to be able to emulate not the sound of his voice, but the effect his voice had on the listener. I'm very, very proud of the sound and the playing, especially on the verses of "Avalon."
You're terrific at building drama, too. You may not be able to add a second verse, but you can add embellishments that up the ante.
You have to do that. Otherwise, it would be boring.
We're touching a lot of spheres in rock history with this tracklist. What's the common thread between these 10 tunes, beyond the simple fact that you love them?
It's something that these songs all stir emotion within me. Especially Radiohead and even "Dreamland," which is the Jaco Pastorius tribute. I couldn't do most of these songs because as a guitar player, I can't play as fast as he could play on bass!
But it's all a choice of notes. That's the common thread. If you compare "Dreamland" with [Alison Krauss’] "Maybe," which is the end track, it's about the melody. It's about that choice of notes over that chord sequence. And I think it rings true with all of them.
"Isn't It a Pity" has got that diminished kind of chord that George does on the second line, and that just sets it apart from every other song on All Things Must Pass. And it was the first one I heard when I went into the studio. They had already done that track when I sat down and started cutting tracks with them, with George.
I've never forgotten… well, first of all, it's my first time walking into Abbey Road. I'm not going on a tour; I'm going to play on an album with George Harrison and all these incredible players, you know? Ringo, Jim Gordon, Klaus Voormann, Billy Preston. It was just unbelievable. So, I've never forgotten that moment when I heard "Isn't It a Pity."
It's always been the one that just… again if I get goosebumps, you're in!
What was your relationship like with George?
I had a very, very good relationship with George. Apart from meeting him the same day as he asked me to play on the Doris Troy album, and then asked me back for All Things Must Pass, my wife and I—Mary, at the time—would go down to Friar Park, where they lived, and spend time on the weekends with George and Pattie. It became kind of a thing. He was a dear friend and I miss him terribly.
We've got David Bowie in there, with "Loving the Alien." Did you know him as well?
We went to school together. I met David when I was 12 or 13 [years old.] My father was his art teacher in high school for three years. He became—as well as my friend—almost closer to my dad because my dad was the head of the art department and it was every form of visual art known to man, from typography to fine art to you-name-it. History of architecture, the whole bit.
My dad obviously taught everybody, but when there was a student—in this case, a couple; there was George Underwood, who did the Ziggy Stardust cover as well as many others for David, who's a fantastic fine artist, a painter. I have some of his work here. He was Dave's best friend for life.
So, it was the two of them I met. At one point, my dad said, "Well, you boys all play these guitars and this rock 'n' roll music. Why don't you bring your guitars to school, and I'll stick 'em in my office, and you can play them at lunchtime? So we did, and David became sort of more of a family friend.
When we did the introduction to the Glass Spider tour in London, my parents came up and afterward, there was a press conference and we played about four or five numbers. So afterward, my parents were backstage. And I'm talking to Mom and I'm saying, "Where's Dad?" She's saying, "Oh, I don't know. He went off with Dave somewhere!" They would just disappear off together.
When I lost my dad, Dave was the first person to call. That gives you some idea.
Such intimate connections! I also wanted to touch on Radiohead, since they're the most contemporary act of the bunch. What's your relationship with those guys and/or their music? I'm not sure if you know them personally.
No, I don't know them. But from afar, I'm amazed by that band. It's one of the most inventive bands ever, I think, and they keep reinventing themselves with every album, every piece. It's something so special; it's very unique. I mean, every band is unique in some way, but Radiohead are way ahead of their time, I think, which is wonderful.
I can learn so much from them just listening to the way [Thom Yorke] sings, plays, the way they all write, the basic chord sequence and the track and the riff. You know, I delve in there. It's a lesson for a musician. It's a really big lesson listening to any one of their songs.
Let's say, best case scenario, venues start to open this summer. Are you going to try to finish up your farewell tour?
This is where I have to give you the realistic chat. Not you—I have to be realistic because we all have one clock. Well, we've got two clocks right now, worldwide, that we live with. One is our life-clock and one is the COVID clock.
The COVID clock is stopping everybody from being around each other, for good reason, right now, obviously. And the more we stay away from each other, unfortunately, at this time, the better it is. But I have a third clock, which is my IBM—inclusion body myositis—clock. Slowly but surely, unfortunately, I'm losing strength in my hands, my arms and my legs.
It's specific muscles it hits. It picks and chooses the muscles and there's no rhyme or reason for it. They don't know; there's no cure. If it takes another year before we can reschedule any dates, I will have to be realistic to see if my hands work or my legs will keep me up.
That's what I have to deal with, and I think there's a certain level of playing where I won't perform anymore. If I can't play certain things the way I want to—I don't want to be that person to go out there and people feel bad for me because I don't play as good but I am Peter Frampton. That's not going to happen.
If I go out having played my last show [near] San Francisco on October 12, 2019, if that's my last show, then so be it. But obviously, I am hoping more than anybody else that within a year—or if it is a year; I'm imagining it's going to be at least a year—if things aren't doing good, then that will be it for me, unfortunately.
In the meantime, it seems like you're feeling good and you're creatively percolating. What are you listening to lately? If you were to make another instrumental record, what might be on it, based on what you're checking out these days?
Oh, gosh. I can't answer that question. That's a whole thought process I'd need, like, a month for!
Photo: PA Images via Getty Images
7 LGBTQ+ Connections In The Beatles' Story
As "Another Kind of Mind" podcasters Daphne Mitchell and Phoebe Lorde revealed in a recent episode, the Beatles' world had many LGBTQ+ people in it — not just their manager, Brian Epstein.
After 2,000 books and counting, is there much more to uncover about the Beatles' story? Apparently so, because two queer women who run a Beatles podcast — and a nonbinary singer/songwriter who made a queer Beatles rock opera — constellated something that even diehard fans may not know.
In a 2022 episode of their podcast "Another Kind of Mind" titled "Queering the Beatles," hosts Daphne Mitchell and Phoebe Lorde, interviewed Caleb Nichols about his eccentric and radiant 2022 album, Ramon — which explores his queer identity through the lens of Beatles fandom.
Of course, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were not gay, or otherwise. But through the academic lens of "queering" — that is, viewing something through a LGBTQ+ and/or queer theory lens — the three dug deep into their philosophical connections to LGBTQ+ identity, from their leather-bound early days in seedy bars, to their cultivation of an androgynous group look, to their rainbow-hued Sgt. Pepper suits.
Naturally, their transformative manager, Brian Epstein is a link to LGBTQ+ identity in Beatles lore — he was a closeted gay man, and tortured about it. Plus, there's that did-they-or-didn't-they holiday to Barcelona that Epstein took with Lennon — still a point of debate among diehards.
But aside from speculation and extrapolation, there is one core truth: LGBTQ+ people other than Epstein were around the Beatles throughout their history, and after they broke up. Some of these people were pivotal to their very existence — and a world without them would have resulted in a very different Beatles, or none at all.
As Pride Month winds down, read on for a list of queer figures in the Beatles' universe — compiled thanks to "Another Kind of Mind."
One Of Their Essential Cavern-Era Movers Was Gay
A larger-than-life figure in the Merseybeat scene and driving force behind the Carvern Club's success, Bob Wooler is crucial to the Beatles' early story; he played a pivotal role in introducing them to Brian Epstein.
Unfortunately, this connection took a dark turn at McCartney's 21st birthday party, in 1963 when Wooler made a reference to Lennon's Barcelona trip with Epstein, calling it a "honeymoon." A drunken Lennon proceeded to attack Wooler, landing him in the hospital.
A Gay Man Aided In Their Hair Evolution
Near the top of Martin Scorcese's must-see 2011 documentary on George Harrison, Living in the Material World, you'll see a teenaged George Harrison with an impressive coiff.
That photo — and hair — were by Jürgen Vollmer, a German student who befriended the future Fabs during their Hamburg days.
While Vollmer's sexuality isn't a public matter, it's established that he had a crush on Harrison; he even altered an I LIKE IKE badge to read I LIKE GEORGE.
"It was chemical," Vollmer once said. "I liked George the most. He was very quiet and shy, like me, and also a dreamer."
Paul McCartney Was Mentored By This Gay Art Dealer
Three hours into episode two of Peter Jackson's Get Back documentary, a suave gentleman, dressed to the nines, saunters into the studio. "Ah, here's to Robert Fraser," Lennon sings; the caption reads "Art dealer Robert Fraser."
Robert Fraser sold art to McCartney, but he was a whole lot more than that; he was a flamboyant, hard-partying dynamo, and a pivotal figure in the London art scene. His artists also worked on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and White Album covers; a Magritte painting he turned McCartney onto acted as inspiration for the Apple Records logo.
Fraser moved to India in the 1970s, and returned to the London scene in the early 1980s. Sadly, his life was cut short; he died of AIDS in 1986, at just 48.
The "TV Director" From A Hard Day's Night Was Played By A Gay Man
Remember the TV director in the fuzzy sweater A Hard Day's Night that the Beatles give a hard time? That's Victor Spinetti, the only non-Beatle appear in three Beatles films — Help! and Magical Mystery Tour included.
"George Harrison said, 'You've got to be in all our films,'" Spinetti later recalled. "I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Well, if you're not in 'em, me mum won't come and see 'em 'cause she fancies you.'"
"Polythene Pam" Was Partly Inspired By A Bisexual Man
It's long been Beatles lore that Lennon's Abbey Road medley snippet "Polythene Pam" is about a strange character from the Beatles' Cavern days.
Pat Dawson (née Hodgett), a fan from their Liverpool days, used to consume the titular material.
"I used to eat polythene all the time. I'd tie it in knots and then eat it," she said in an interview — and that's how she became known as "Polythene Pat," which became "Pam."
"That was me, remembering a little event with a woman in Jersey, and a man who was England's answer to Allen Ginsberg," Lennon recalled in 1980. "I met him when we were on tour and he took me back to his apartment and I had a girl and he had one he wanted me to meet."
Who was said man? None other than Royston Ellis, a bisexual beat poet who often wrote homoerotic yarns.
He met the Beatles when they were the Silver Beetles, in the early 1960s. He once claimed to the four Beatles that "one in four men were queer"; as McCartney put it, "We looked at each other and wondered which one it was."
For that — and his debatable claim that he convinced them to drop the second 'e' in their name — Ellis's place in Fabs lore was set in stone. He passed a few months ago, in 2023.
A Gay Man Connected John Lennon And Elton John
"The first time I met John Lennon, he was dancing with Tony King." John later wrote in his 2019 memoir Me. "Nothing unusual in that, other than the fact that they weren't in a nightclub, there was no music playing and Tony was in full drag as Queen Elizabeth II." (This was for a TV advertisement for Lennon's then-new-album, Mind Games.)
Lennon and John went on to spend plenty of time together in what's known as Lennon's "Lost Weekend" period in the mid-'70s; they recorded a hit song together, "Whatever Gets You Through the Night." If that song resonates with you, thank King, who was gay.
Billy Preston, Who Helped Them Forge Ahead At The End, Was Gay
With the Get Back documentary in the rearview, the story of Billy Preston and the Beatles is etched in stone.
As the band seemed to reach its most threadbare, Preston came in and supercharged them with a newfound sense of jubilation. ("You're giving us a lift, Bill!" Lennon crowed at one point.)
Preston continued on as a Fabs associate post-breakup, especially with Harrison — although he performed on solo records by Lennon and Starr as well.
Although Preston remained vital through the '70s, his career took a downturn in the '80s. He had a string of drug, legal and personal issues in the ensuing decades, although he turned in a stunning performance during the Concert for George, as well as other noteworthy moments.
It wasn't widely known until after his 2005 death that Preston struggled with his homosexuality, through the lens of his Christianity and devotion to the church.
This recontextualizes the triumphal highs and desperate lows of Preston's story — and renders it a lesson in allowing people to be who they are. There are few more Beatlesque messages than that.
Photo: Joseph Rosen
Here's What Went Down At The 2023 Blues Music Awards In Memphis
A crowd of more than 1,100 filled the ballroom of the Renasant Convention Center in Memphis for a music-filled show. Here are four takeaways from the soulful evening.
For more than four decades — even during the pandemic — the Memphis-based Blues Foundation has annually recognized the genre's best, including such GRAMMY-winning luminaries as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
On May 11, the foundation presented the 44th Annual Blues Music Awards, featuring a host of blues mainstays — as well as younger artists who combine the various strains of the blues with diverse strands of Americana.
A crowd of more than 1,100 filled the ballroom of the Renasant Convention Center in Memphis for a music-filled show that packed 25 awards and more than a dozen musical performances into a deceptively tight five-hour show.
Here are four takeaways from this year's Blues Music Awards:
Big Winners Were Touched By Tribulations
This was the second in-person BMA ceremony following two years of virtual presentations due to COVID. But while the pandemic has abated, illness still loomed over some of the night's wins.
Tommy Castro, who won B.B. King Entertainer of the Year for the second year in a row — and whose band is, ironically, called the Painkillers — missed the ceremony because he was recuperating from back surgery. His award was accepted by his frequent collaborator, Deanna Bogart, also a winner for Best Instrumentalist - Horns.
BMA regular John Németh, who recently survived a bout with a jaw tumor, was thankful just to be alive to accept his two awards on the night, one for best instrumentalist-harmonica and another for Best Traditional Blues Album for the aptly-titled May be the Last Time, a collaboration with Elvin Bishop and others that was recorded two weeks before his cancer surgery.
"I had no idea if I was going to be able to make it here tonight, but I did," said Nemeth to a round of applause. "I want to thank the Blues Foundation, I want to thank their HART Fund, and I want to thank everybody who donate to my GoFundMe to help me get a brand-new jawbone so I can play some more harmonica."
Repeat Winners Ruled The Night
A lot of familiar names were called out from the stage. In addition to Nemeth, Buddy Guy (Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album) and blues rock up-and-comer Albert Castiglia (Blues Rock Album and Blues Rock Artist) each won two awards on the night.
Meanwhile, Castro led the way among artists winning categories for consecutive years, including Albert Castiglia (Blues Rock Artist), Danielle Nicole (Instrumentalist Bass), Curtis Salgado (Soul Blues Male Artist) and Sue Foley (Traditional Blues Female Artist).
Perhaps most impressive though was GRAMMY-winning blues guitarist Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, who won Contemporary Blues Male Artist for an impressive fourth year in a row.
While ccepting the award, a humble Ingram said he hadn't prepared anything to say because he didn't expect to win. Right then, he thanked his fellow nominees, and returned to the stage for an acoustic set that showcased his strong, assured vocals as much as his adroit fretwork.
Hill Country Blues Are Alive And Well
The night before the BMAs, the Blues Foundation held a ceremony at the Halloran Centre in downtown Memphis to induct a new class into the Blues Hall of Fame.
This included departed greats Esther Phillips, Carey Bell, Snooky Pryor, Fenton Robinson, Josh White, and Junior Kimbrough, the late Holly Springs bluesman who helped pioneer what has become the North Mississippi Hill Country style.
At the BMAs, the sound made famous by Kimbrough and his close contemporary, the late R.L. Burnside, proved to be alive and well.
R.L.'s grandson, GRAMMY winner Cedric Burnside, who holds an impressive 10 BMAs, was, scheduled to perform but, for whatever reason, missed his slot.
His uncle Duwayne Burnside, who has written and played with his father, Kimbrough, and the North Mississippi Allstars, among others, carried the torch. He played an acoustic set of hill country classics backed by R.L.'s longtime guitarist Kenny Brown.
Young Artists Made Their Mark
Veteran blues artists dominated this year's BMAs, but a handful of young performers broke through at the show as well, wowing the audience with their performances.
McComb, Mississippi's Mr. Sipp (aka, Casto Coleman) returned to close out the night with a gospel-infused closing set that brought the crowd to their feet.
Two more former emerging artist winners also provided show highlights: GRAMMY-nominated band Southern Avenue rocked the house with an inspired acoustic stage mini set, featuring a trio of female voices.
Meanwhile, Detroit's Annika Chambers and her musical partner Paul DesLauriers delivered a high-energy segment that fused rock and soul into their blues.
Joining these up-and-comers was this year's Emerging Artist winner, 22-year-old St. Louis native Dylan Triplett.
A prodigy blessed with a four-and-a-half octave vocal range, Triplett took the stage early with his band to play R&B-inflected selections from his debut album, Who Is He? When his name was called for his award, he acknowledged his faith and thanked his parents — including his father, saxophone player Art Pollard.
Clearly, the blues are alive and well — and the 2023 Blues Music Awards remain a critical part of this magnificent musical sphere.
Photo: Derek Blanks
Living Legends: Smokey Robinson On New Album 'Gasms,' Meeting The Beatles & Staying Competitive
Fresh off the MusiCares 2023 Persons Of The Year gala that honored him and Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson is out with his first album of new material in 14 years. 'Gasms' is about everything that lights up your brain.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com presents an interview with GRAMMY winner and lead Miracle Smokey Robinson, whose contributions to the American musical canon — chiefly via Motown — cannot be overstated. In 2023, he was honored alongside Motown founder Berry Gordy at the MusiCares Persons Of The Year Event. Robinson's new album, Gasms, is available now.
Smokey Robinson listens to everyone. If you're on the radio, he claims, he's heard you. It doesn't matter your age, or your genre — as the 83-year-old is still in the ring, he intends to keep his gloves up. "I'm not a prejudiced musical listener," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I've got to compete with them. I've got to know what they're doing."
In the middle of a question about who, specifically, he's enjoying from the new guard, his rep's drive through a tunnel abruptly ends the call. But the Miracles and Motown star's assertion checks out — partly on the strength of his new album, Gasms, his first album of new original material since 2009.
On hot-and-bothered highlights like "I Wanna Know Your Body," "Roll Around" and "Beside You," God's gift to green eyes — to borrow a phrase — proves his writing, vocal and performance abilities remain undimmed.
There's a lot of chatter about Gasms. Of course, that's by design, and Robinson's OK with the album title subsuming the conversation. (When asked about the central thesis of the record during its conception, he responds with one word: "Controversy.")
But by Robinson's assertion, Gasms refers to anything that makes you feel good, and the high-thread-count music signifies far more than horny man is horny. It's a treat to hear that the GRAMMY winner responsible for innumerable culture-shifting classics — who has been around long enough to have met the Beatles when they were playing basements — is still a force.
With the 2023 MusiCares Person Of The Year gala, which jointly honored Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy, in the rearview, GRAMMY.com sat down with the man himself about his past, present and future. The results might give you a… well, you know.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did it feel to be honored along with your best friend, Berry Gordy, at the MusiCares Persons Of The Year 2023 gala?
That was a wonderful experience. They had never honored two people at the same time, and for me to get honored with my best friend like that — it was an extraordinary night.
When you met all those years ago, was there any inkling your relationship would stretch so far into the future — and impact the planet on this scale?
You can't tell about people and relationships, man. We just struck up a relationship. And we were good in the very beginning, and it just lasted. I couldn't be with him then — or he with me — and say, "Oh, well, this is gonna last forever," like it has, because you just never know. Fortunately, for us, it has, and we're still best friends.
How do you keep a relationship like that going on such a grand scale for decades and decades?
You know, people have asked me that many times. Sometimes, it's six months and I don't even talk to Berry. But when I do, he's my best friend, and I'm his best friend. It's never "Let me get to know you again, or feel you out," or any of that. There's none of that happening.
As you've stated, the title of Gasms isn't expressly sexual. Rather, it refers to any number of mindblowing experiences. What was the last big experience in your life or career that gave you a "gasm," as it were?
I've had so many of those. You know, gasms are what makes you happy, and makes you feel good. Recently, I had one when I did "American Idol," because I hadn't been in a long time. I was on the second panel for judges when Simon Cowell was there. I got a chance to see [judges] Lionel [Richie] and Katy [Perry] and Luke [Bryan], and it was a wonderful night.
I've been a mentor; I've been a judge. "American Idol" is one of the main state talent programs in the world, so it's a great thing for the kids. Because before they even made a record or anything like that, from the very first auditions, being seen by millions of people is a great thing for them.
Let's get to the ground floor of Gasms, when you first picked up a pen and made some calls and put together these songs. What was the central idea you wanted to put forth, musically and creatively?
That was it, huh?
To raise curiosity, and have people wondering what it was before they even heard it.
It seems you succeeded.
It worked. So I'm very happy about that, man.
How did you curate the accompanists and producers on Gasms?
Most of the guys are guys I've worked with all the time in the studio. I've been working with them for years, so I didn't have to get to know them. The main guy — my arranger, David Garfield — is a well-known jazz pianist who makes his own albums and stuff like that. We just got together and did the arrangements at the studio.
I'm sure you were raring to get back to original material, as wonderful as the old Miracles songs and your Christmas stuff is, and flex your songwriting muscles.
I write all the time, Morgan. It's something that I just do. It's not a conscious effort where I set aside some time to write or anything like that. It doesn't happen like that. For me, it just happens.
What are you working on lately?
Well, at the same time we were working on the Gasms album, we were working on one in Spanish. I've got two more songs I've gotta re-record for that. That's what I'm up to musically.
Is it a learning curve to record in another language, or are your Spanish chops sharp?
I've been learning Spanish for probably about a year. My housekeeper is a Spanish lady. She's from Guatemala, and she speaks four different languages, so she's been really helping me with it.
I'm not fluent in it where I understand everything. I watch the soap operas and news shows on Telemundo and stuff like that, trying to get better, but they're talking so fast. I try to get a word in every now and then and then try to pick out what they meant by the rest of the stuff.
But it's a great language, and I enjoy it very much, so I've been trying to write some songs in Spanish also.
Your voice is so pristine on Gasms. At times, it's like you haven't aged a day. How do you keep your instrument — your voice — sharp as the years and decades go by?
Well, first of all, I appreciate you saying that, man. Thank you very much.
Your voice is like your instrument, and if you take care of yourself, you have a better chance of it lasting and doing well for a long time. I don't think there's any secret formula — Lipton's tea with lemon and all that stuff like that. I've never done anything like that.
I just try to take care of myself. Occasionally, of course, your body will wear down and get hoarse, because you don't know how to play your instrument. I don't do any special stuff.
What are your habits, or what's your regimen, to keep your physical vessel in shape?
I think that the main one is yoga. I've been doing yoga for about 40 years, and I do it almost every day of my life. Then, I have workout programs I do. I have a half-hour workout program and then an hour one. At home, I do the full monte, because I can do everything; I have weights in the basement and so on and so forth.
When I'm on the road, I have a 45-minute regiment that I do most mornings, and it starts with stretching.
I really enjoy how you didn't feel the need to reinvent the wheel with Gasms. The songs could have been written 60 years ago or yesterday. What is it about the timelessness of songs about love, romance and sensuality?
Well, yeah, they all have a connotation; you can use your own ideas of what they mean. For instance, "gasms." That can mean whatever you want it to mean. I try to put that connotation in all of them, so whatever the person means, or who is the listener, it can be that for them.
Smokey Robinson performing in 1964. Photo: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
Speaking of timeless love songs, you play a huge role in the Beatles' rise. They worshiped you, and beamed you into millions of kids' heads via "You Really Got a Hold On Me" on With the Beatles. And you've covered them, too. Does it feel surreal to look back to your youth, and to these recordings, and say I wrote that?
You know, I don't think about that nowadays, man, unless somebody brings it up. It's not something I concentrate on, or anything like that, but it's a wonderful thing.
It was especially wonderful — back then, they were the number one group in the world — to pick one of my songs. They were great songwriters themselves. So, to pick one of my songs to record was especially flattering.
What are your memories of those guys?
Oh, they were cool dudes, man. I had met them before they became [Adds air of thunderous significance] the Beatles. We met them in Liverpool; they were singing in a little club down in the basement. They were good guys, and I especially got close to George while he was alive, you know? He was my closest friend in that group.
He sure loved you. He wouldn't have written "Pure Smokey" if he didn't. Can you offer more memories of George?
George was just a great guy, man. He was a nice man. He was one of those people that if you meet him, you like him.
With Gasms out in the world, what do you hope people take away from it?
Oh, take away some enjoyment. I hope they enjoy it with themselves, alone, and with others also. That's what I want them to take away from it. If I can accomplish that, then I feel that I've done what I set out to do.
What has been giving you "gasms" lately? What are you watching, reading or listening to that has been inspiring you?
I listen to everyone, man.
I'm a music lover, so I listen to all kinds of music. Especially when I'm in my car, and there's no telling what musical mood you're going to catch me in. Weeks happen where I don't listen to anything but classical — Chopin and Rachmaninoff and all that. Sometimes, I listen to hip-hop or jazz or alternative. I just love music, man.
What newer artists have you been checking out?
All of them, that are making music that I can hear on the radio. I listen to all of them, because I'm still making records, too. So, I've got to compete with them. I've got to know what they're doing. I'm not a prejudiced musical listener, whereas I think, OK, these are young people, so I'm not gonna listen to their music.
No, they're in the forefront of music right now. So I listen to everybody.
Photo: Robin Platzer/Getty Images
'Let's Dance' At 40: How David Bowie's Biggest Album Became His Most Conflicted
On his 1983 album 'Let's Dance,' David Bowie wanted to create the decade's defining soundtrack. While incredibly commercially successful, the release left Bowie with mixed feelings. On its 40th anniversary, revisit the album's history and complexities.
"Fame puts you there where things are hollow," David Bowie sang on his 1975 first U.S. No. 1, a riposte to the superficial nature of celebrity he'd once so desperately craved. The phrase "careful what you wish for" could equally be applied to 1983's Let's Dance, which later thrust the 19-time GRAMMY nominee into his highest level of stardom.
The triumphant title track was a self-described "post-modern homage" to the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" — its powerful vocal crescendo actually borrows from the Beatles' cover — and reached No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming Bowie's default floorfiller in the process. But for an artist always more interested in "nibbling at the periphery of the mainstream" than entering it wholeheartedly, this mainstream success presented a conflict.
Bowie's attempt to provide the mid-'80s' defining soundtrack arrived after a period of turbulence for the Thin White Duke. He'd left RCA after recording his 11th album for the label, 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), suffered the tragic loss of his close friend John Lennon and began a feud with longtime producer Tony Visconti that would last a remarkable two decades.
You might have anticipated Let's Dance, therefore, to be something of a somber, soul-searching affair. Yet not for the first, or the last, time in his career, Bowie subverted all expectations. Instead, he delivered a pure party record specifically designed to take residence at the top of the charts.
Appointing Nile Rodgers — the GRAMMY-winning mastermind behind seminal albums by Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, as well as his own outfit, Chic — as producer was the clearest sign Bowie meant business. With the intention of creating a pure "singer's album," Bowie handed over all the instrumental duties to him, too.
Rodgers had been looking forward to venturing outside his Studio 54 comfort zone, and was taken aback to discover Bowie wanted more of the same. "I felt a little hurt, like after all of our conversations about music and freedom I was being ordered back to the hit-making plantation," he wrote in his 2011 memoir Le Freak. Rodgers soon came around to the idea, later telling the Guardian that an album cover in which a pompadour-sporting, red-suited Little Richard gets into a Cadillac was the starting point. The album was completed in just 17 days at New York City's Power Station studios.
Despite its chart-unfriendly lyrics ("Visions of swastikas in my head"), the Oriental pop of "China Girl" — a polished reworking of Bowie's contribution to Iggy Pop's 1977 classic The Idiot — added to his Billboard tally. So did opener "Modern Love," a meditation on faith which impressively manages to sound both incredibly effervescent and resolutely nihilistic. "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," a retooling of his theme to Paul Schrader's same-named erotic horror, abandons Giorgio Moroder's brooding synth-based atmospherics for arena rock guitar licks courtesy of a then-relatively unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan. Fans remain divided as to which version is the definitive.
But Let's Dance is a more multifaceted body of work than its singles would suggest. "Criminal World" is a spirited take on the transgressive debut single from new wave outfit Metro (perhaps surprisingly for someone so famously open-minded, Bowie removes the original's bisexual overtones); the 60s-tinged falsetto pop of "Without You" and contemporary art rock of "Ricochet" exemplifies his ability to bridge the gap between the past and the future. Only closer "Shake It," a blatant retread of the album's eponymous smash, foreshadows the creative rut that would follow.
Bowie's profile was further bolstered by his embracing of the burgeoning MTV (while promoting the record, he called out the network for its snubbing of Black artists). Designed to highlight the disparity between Australia's Caucasian and Aboriginal communities, the striking promo for "Let's Dance" found itself in constant rotation, its depiction of an Indigenous couple's daily hardships and clever red shoes metaphor providing both substance and style. The From Here to Eternity-referencing clip for "China Girl" even beat Michael Jackson's blockbuster "Thriller" for Best Male Video at the inaugural VMAs.
This wasn't the only awards recognition Let's Dance received, either. Earlier on in 1984, Bowie earned GRAMMY nominations for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Vocal Performance Male for "Cat People," losing to the King of Pop on both occasions.
And then there are the figures. Let's Dance reportedly became new label EMI's fastest-selling since the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 16 years earlier, sparking a renewed interest in Bowie's back catalog — at one point he had nine entries in the UK Top 100, suggesting the record was a vital entry point into the far more weird and wonderful treasures lurking within his discography. Its current sales tally stands at a career best 10.7 million, firmly eclipsing the 7.5 million of closest challenger, 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie wanted a juggernaut and he sure got one.
Of course, the press reception wasn't always as enthusiastic, with Robert Christgau, one of America's most esteemed music journalists, describing it as "pleasantly pointless" and the New York Times' Debra Rae Cohen arguing it was Bowie's "most artless" record to date. Yet the biggest critic of Let's Dance proved to be the man who made it.
Bowie first started to distance himself from the record in 1987 when he claimed Let's Dance was more Rodgers' vision than his, which the producer has since refuted. A full decade later, Bowie revealed the album's accompanying tour confirmed one of his biggest fears: "I was something I never wanted to be. I was a well-accepted artist. I had started appealing to people who bought Phil Collins albums."
Even more worryingly, Bowie acknowledged he'd stopped caring about his audience — which perhaps explains the existence of 1984 follow-up Tonight, a surprisingly throwaway record which he'd eventually concede was the nadir of his career. "I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it," he told Interview in 1995, also adding that he'd pandered to the success of Let's Dance and subsequently "put a box around" himself.
Reeves Gabrels, guitarist in the Tin Machine group Bowie put together to help restore his creative integrity, could vouch for such despondency, telling Uncut, "[David Bowie] felt he had lost his way after Let's Dance. He didn't like where he was going and wanted to change it, so Tin Machine fell on that grenade."
Bowie's attitude to his commercial heyday appeared to have softened since, however. He even defended Let's Dance in 1997, denying it was mainstream but instead a new hybrid which paired dance beats with blues-rock guitars ("It only seems commercial in hindsight because it sold so many," he said). Its big three singles were staples of his last major tour, A Reality, in 2004. And although he tried to shift the blame for its populist sound toward Rodgers, Bowie still asked the producer to oversee 1993's Black Tie White Noise, a much more experimental listen.
Perhaps buoyed by Rodgers' increased pop cultural cachet, Let's Dance has also received a critical reevaluation: in 2014, Rolling Stone hailed it as "the conclusion of arguably the greatest 14-year run in rock history" while four years later it graced Pitchfork's Best Albums of the 1980s poll.
Let's Dance could never be considered Bowie at his coolest. However, for a man who often thrived on contradiction, it’s perhaps fitting that the record he almost disowned was the one that connected the most.