After 30 years of vocal work with The Rolling Stones, Bernard Fowler is releasing an album of his unique interpretations of some of the band’s back catalog. He talks with Bob Gourley about his time with the Stones, his work with the ‘Bowie Celebration’ and Public Image Limited, as vocal arranger and John Lydon’s vocal coach.
For over 30 years, Bernard Fowler has worked with The Rolling Stones as a backing vocalist and musical collaborator. He is now releasing Inside Out, a collection of his own interpretations of songs from the Rolling Stones catalog. Generally eschewing the hit singles, Fowler has focused on material that could be adapted to a more spoken-word style influenced by the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. Songs featured include “Sister Morphine,” “Time Waits for No One” and “Dancing with Mr. D.”
Hailing from New York City, Fowler made his recording debut with The Total Eclipse in 1975. In 1982, he appeared on two club hits; “Don’t Make Me Wait” with the Peech Boys (featuring Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan) and “I’m the One” with Bill Laswell’s project Material. Work with a wide variety of artists followed, including Philip Glass, Yoko Ono, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Public Image Limited and Herbie Hancock. Fowler has been with The Rolling Stones since 1989’s Steel Wheels but has still found the time to take on such projects as fronting Tackhead and performing with “A Bowie Celebration.”
PKM: What inspired you to record your versions of Rolling Stones songs?
Bernard Fowler: Well, there was a lot of inspiration to do this. After my second solo record The Bura was finished, I started to think about what I was going do next. I really wanted to do something different from the last two solo records I did. I had been toying around with the idea of a spoken word record, and things started happening that kind of concerned this idea that I had. I had been working with Steve Jordan, and he called me to do the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a tribute to the Rolling Stones. I found out that Chuck D was going to be a part of the band that he put together, and Chuck D missed his flight.
So, I asked Steve what was he going to have Chuck do, and he said he wouldn’t be really clear until Chuck got there and they actually discussed things. I told him, “You know what? I’ve been toying with ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ and I’ve started to do it in kind of spoken word thing.” And he said, “Hey man, if Chuck doesn’t show up, then you can do it like that.” Well Chuck did show up, which was great, he did an incredible thing, but I did perform the song that night in a spoken word poem. That pretty much planted the seed deeper. And then I was on tour with the Stones, messing around with it on stage doing it before sound check. The guys seemed to get a kick out of it, and Mick said, “Bernard, I heard Rolling Stones songs a lot of different ways but never like that.”
And I said, “Well when the tour is over Mick, I’m going to cut it.” And he said, “Well, I think you should.” And there it was. True to my word, when the tour ended, I had some free time, and I started the recording process.
PKM: Have you received any feedback from the Stones?
Bernard Fowler: I don’t know if they have heard the whole thing, I know I had sent them some early roughs when I started recording it. Mick was like, “Wow, sounds good.” And I got to see Keith. We were in a studio, and I played him a little bit of a rough, and he said, “Wow, Fowler,” He said, “You went pretty deep, brother.” And that was it. But as far them hearing the complete album, I don’t know if they have yet.
PKM: What factors went into song selection?
Bernard Fowler: Well, you know, any of the songs that most people are familiar with, which would probably be stuff that they play on the radio, didn’t seem to fit. None of that worked for me. The only one that like that I knew would work was “Sympathy for The Devil,” but then again that’s too familiar so I kind of put that aside. I went through the songbook and started reading lyrics to a lot of the songs. The songs that had really strong lyrical content are the songs that I grabbed out of it. I didn’t read the songbook from top to bottom, I just flipped through the pages, and I saw titles. Again, once I read the lyrics, if the lyric was strong, I tried doing it in my head, and figure out which ones worked, and which ones didn’t. And the ones that really worked I decided to keep.
PKM: When you recorded “Sympathy for The Devil” for the album, Mike Garson played keyboard.
Bernard Fowler: Yeah, well “Sympathy for The Devil” was the very last song that I tracked for the record. Because again, my initial idea was not to put anything that was familiar. I was pressed for time, and I was pressed for money because the record was done without a budget. So, I got Wilfredo Reyes and Lenny Castro to lay done the percussion. Once I had the track pretty much done, I needed a piano, but I didn’t want it so nice. I was looking for an avant-garde kind of feel. And I had worked with Mike on the Bowie Celebration gigs. And so, he just he seemed like the right fit for that particular track, so I gave him a call. Mike played exactly what I needed that day. It’s funny, he said he didn’t remember what he had done. I guess he was going through something. He didn’t hear it until two or three weeks ago.
PKM: How did you initially get involved with the Rolling Stones?
Bernard Fowler: I was singing for Herbie Hancock at the time, I was touring with Herbie, and I had a ten-day break. Exactly ten days I had, and so I get home, and I walk into my apartment and the telephone rings. And it’s Bill Laswell, producer Bill Laswell. He asks me, “Hey, man, what are you doing?” And I’m like, “Hey, Bill, how you doing? I just walked into the apartment.” He said, “go to the airport,” and I’m like, “no, you don’t understand, I just walked into my apartment,” and he said, “okay, go back to the airport, there’s a ticket there for you.”
“Are you serious?” “Yes, I’m serious,” so, I go to the airport, I don’t know where I’m going, and I asked the lady, I said, “there’s a ticket, do you have a ticket for me?” She said, “do you know where you’re going?” I said, “I don’t, I don’t know where I’m going.” And she looked it up and said, “I have a first class ticket for you to go to London,” then I said, “okay.”
So I arrived in London, and Bill is there to meet me, and I still don’t know why I’m there, we’re talking about music. We even picked up a journalist on the way, did an interview, dropped the journalist off, continued on the way, and we just continued talking about music.
The only question that he asked me that was a hint to what we were going was whether or not I liked the Rolling Stones. And I’m like, “yeah, I love the Stones.” I said the first record my dad ever bought me was a Rolling Stones record, and we continued talking about music. And then we pulled up to a house and walked up the steps. A big black dude answered the door, we walked in, and the guy pointed to a door, we walked in the door. Bill walks in, I follow, and there was a guy sitting on the floor, he had a guitar in his hand, and Bill walked in front of the guy and said, “hey, man, this is Bernard, this is the guy I’ve been telling you about,” and the guy on the floor turned around, and it was Mick Jagger.
And Bill left the room and left me standing there. I stood there, in surprise and shock. And he invited me down on the floor, and he was strumming, and I started humming, and the next day we went to the studio to work on She’s The Boss [Jagger’s solo album]. And that’s my introduction to the Rolling Stones world.
I never realized it. I never realized it. I thought, maybe I’d do a couple of records, and then Mick called me and asked me if I would do a tour, and I never realized that it would last as long as it did, even when I was there, even after ten years of it, I still didn’t know how long it would last.
PKM: What do you feel the highlights have been during your time with them?
Bernard Fowler: I’ve worked on almost every album since Steel Wheels. Highlights would be being just in the room with Keith, writing songs. Being in a studio with the Rolling Stones is a highlight. And other highlights I would have to say would be Copacabana Beach , 1.5 million people, it was without a doubt, one of the biggest audiences anybody’s ever played for and I would say that also Cuba, which was maybe 900,000 people, was also a highlight. And you know, every time I’m on stage is a highlight. I’ve watched the world’s greatest rock & roll band, so it doesn’t get of more of a highlight than that.
PKM: You’ve also been on the road performing the music of David Bowie. How did you get involved with that?
Bernard Fowler: It’s called “A Bowie Celebration: The Alumni Tour,” and we’ve been on the road now since January. It’s been really good, playing with Mike Garson and Earl Slick. I started in this whole Bowie experience with Earl Slick. He and I did a tour for the anniversary of Station to Station.
The year that David passed away, Earl called me and told me the anniversary for Station to Station was coming up, and he wanted to do a tour, and he asked me if I would sing. And I said, “absolutely, it’s one of my favorite records,” and so we did that.
And I said, “I’ve got to ask you, have you talked to David about this?” And Earl started laughing and he said, “I knew you were going to ask this question.” Then I said, “and?” He said, “well, yeah, I’ve been talking to him a lot.” “Well, what’s he say?” And he said, ‘ first he told me that was a good idea’ and the next thing he said was, “well, who are you going to get to sing?” And Earl said, “I’m going to ask Bernard Fowler if he would do it,” and David says to him, “you know, Earl, that’s a good choice, for a second, I thought you were going to find some skinny white guy and do “Bowie-oke.”
And, it was really cool, you know, to get that blessing from him, and he even went as far as to post it on his social media what we were going to do, and when we started rehearsing, we started that tour in London, and when we started rehearsing, we got the news that he had passed away. At which point, I asked Earl, “Earl, did you know?” He said, “Bernard, I talked to him every week, sometimes twice a week, and he never said a word about how ill he was.”
PKM: There are several projects now that perform the music of David Bowie, and it seems that his music lends itself to being interpreted by different groups of musicians.
Bernard Fowler: Yes, you’re probably right, but you know, when I was asked to do it, I had to really think about it, because, you know, David had just passed away, and that tour that I did with Earl, we booked the tour way before anybody even knew David was sick. We didn’t jump on the bandwagon and try to capitalize on his death. We were already booked.
But, you know, it was important that when I did do it, that I could have sung those songs the way I sing, and I do, but it was important that in my performance of those songs that I had added some of his inflection, some of his phrasing, and not just try to make it all my own. And the response from fans that I’m getting, they are really pleased to hear that, some of them have even said: “that at some point I close my eyes, and I swear that it was David up there singing.” It’s a mixture of myself with his inflections. David’s not an easy person to sing, and most people wouldn’t dare try to add inflection, they’ll just try to sing it the way that they sing. Some people do it well and pull it off, and some don’t.
PKM: Could you discuss your involvement with Public Image Limited’s Album?
Bernard Fowler: That’s one of my favorite records that I was part of, that Public Image Limited record, it was incredible. I was hired to be John Lydon’s vocal coach. We met, and we hit it off. And it wasn’t so much coaching him vocally. It was just things that I tried to help him with, like breathing and stuff like that. Because John’s style is John’s style. That’s him, so it wasn’t about changing his style, just strengthening and reinforcing what he does. And it was a great experience, I helped a little bit with his lead vocals, but I did all the vocal arrangements, all the extra vocals that are on the record, I did and performed. I sang them all. That experience was great.
Ginger Baker was on it. It was the first time Ginger Baker had been to the States in ten years or whatever. He came over to record. I think that was the first rock record that Tony Williams played on. Seeing that was a treat. I remember going to the studio, I think it was at Electric Lady, and I walked into the studio, and I hear this blazing guitar, and I walk into the room, and there’s this young cat in the room, doing his thing. And I asked Bill, “who the fuck is that?” And he started laughing, “oh, that’s Steve Vai.” That was the first time I met Steve Vai; that was during the making of that record.
For me, it is one of my favorite things that I’ve done in my career. That was an incredible record.
PKM: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Bernard Fowler: Yeah. Well Inside Out could not have been done without all my friends. Walfredo Reyes Jr., Lenny Castro, Michael Bearden, Steve Jordan, Keyon Harrold, Vince Wilburn Jr., Daryl Jones, Ray Parker Jr., Mike Garson, Tim Ries, Ron Dziubla, all those cats, man, you know. I always give them thanks, because, like I said, I did this record myself. I didn’t have a budget to do this record, and then the time, and the time that I had they all came, and they played, and they played their asses off. They did an incredible job.
Inside Out will be released April 19, the day before Fowler was scheduled to once again hit the road with The Rolling Stones, though plans are on hold because of Mick Jagger’s health situation.