Gail Ann Dorsey shared stages with Charlie Watts, Lenny Kravitz, Jane Siberry and Olivia Newton-John, but she was there for Bowie for nearly 20 years
Disillusioned early on by working with record labels as a solo artist, bassist/vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey channeled her love and talent for music into a career as an in-demand session and touring player. Dorsey is best known as bassist/vocalist in David Bowie’s band, a position she held for almost 20 years. Her first outing with David Bowie was the 1995 “Outside” tour, which saw the ‘hits’ excluded in favor of lesser-played catalog material. She continued with the live band until Bowie’s final live performance in 2006 and appeared on his secretly recorded 2013 album The Next Day.
Even during her tenure with Bowie, Dorsey found the time to work with such artists as Dar Williams and Jane Siberry. She has built a staggering resume, including work with Tears for Fears, Charlie Watts, Gang of Four, and Olivia Newton-John. Currently, Dorsey is part of Lenny Kravitz’s band.
Hailing from Philadelphia, Dorsey initially pursued music in New York City before heading to London. She released her debut solo album, The Corporate World, in 1988 and followed it up with Rude Blue in 1992. It was at that point that Dorsey decided to focus on session and touring work. She continued to work on solo material as well, but on her terms and without label interference. Her third solo album, I Used to Be came out in 2003 and she’s looking to have another album out this spring.
PKM: Having started out pursuing music in New York, what made you move to London to launch your career?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I was influenced by so many things. It wasn’t easy to define what I was trying to do or where I should be. I was a black female, so there was this assumption that I should be playing R&B or that I could sing like Aretha Franklin. There were always these assumptions in this country, these tags. I had an opportunity to go to London at 19, and with no ties to anything and nothing but a devotion to making music, I went. I had nothing to lose, and it turned out to be the best thing I could have done. In London at the time, there wasn’t a pigeonhole with those categories for me. There were black artists, people of mixed race, people from all kinds of walks, who were hitting the charts and making music. It didn’t seem like it mattered what they physically looked like as opposed to if the song was cool. It was just a better climate for me creatively, and it opened up my eyes to the rest of the world as well, having access to Europe and the opportunity to become a working musician. I think that music was more of an important part of the culture in England and Europe, and it is even to this day. It’s important in America but it doesn’t seem to have the real support behind it.
PKM: How long were you based there?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I moved over there in the summer of 1983, and I came back to live in New York in 1994.
PKM: Starting out, did you see yourself focusing on being a solo artist, or working with others?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I initially planned on focusing on the solo career, especially with my first couple of records done on major labels. My second album on Island was never really properly released, because the label dropped me. And at that point, I thought, ‘You know, I enjoy doing my own music, but I also really love playing other people’s music too.’ I love the variety of it all, because I like so many different types of music. I realized the record label thing was a nightmare. I liked that I had the option to make a record when I felt like making a record, but then I still got to play all this great music with all these great artists. I don’t have any regret in that. Maybe when I was really young, I wanted to be the star, but it’s been a learning process for me, because after getting to see what that means, I changed my mind. We learn from experience.
“I thought, ‘God, I don’t know why [Bowie’s] called me, but I hope I can do what’s asked of me.’ In my eyes, I wasn’t Earl Slick or Carlos Alomar. I don’t have any training in music, I can’t read music, I don’t know theory, I don’t know scales, I don’t know any of that. I just hear a song and I figure it out and I play it.”
PKM: After you’d started working with David Bowie, you continued to work with other musicians. For example, you did a holiday concert in New York with Jane Siberry. What was it like juggling a variety of musical styles, or performing in front of varying types of audiences?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I think she [Jane Siberry] is one of the greatest artists in the world, the same as Bowie. It was this incredible privilege to work with someone like her. To me, she’s at that level.
It’s so fulfilling to me, that’s what I mean about enjoying my position as not being at the front of the stage. I’m so happy to be 20 feet from stardom! It’s like being someone who loves food and gets turned loose in a big buffet of every gourmet dish you can imagine. And you just think, ‘Wow, I can have all of these things. How lucky am I?’ It’s like an education, growing as a musician. Each time I would go into a different genre of music or work with a different artist, I learned something. I’m learning how to transition and how different people write songs and all this stuff is feeding me.
PKM: Were you ever faced with difficult decisions regarding what to take on, perhaps having to balance steady gigs with the desire for new creative challenges?
Gail Ann Dorsey: That’s still happening. I’ve been working with Lenny Kravitz; I’m a member of the band at the moment, which is very nice. It feels nice to have a unit that feels secure. It’s fun and I know the music, so it’s really comfortable and I play it really well. But I’ve had many offers in the 6 years going into 7 that I’ve been with Lenny. We work on a regular basis, even though it’s not advertised, because we do a lot of private events. Corporate shows and special events, even very, very wealthy people’s weddings and things sometimes. We do work a lot, so it’s hard for me to say to another artist that I’ll go on tour with them for 6 months or 3 months, because I’m not sure when I’m going to get called to do something with Lenny. So, I have to make that choice. I’ve turned down a lot of things, and it’s hard because some of them are maybe more creatively challenging or just a whole other sphere. I had to say no to David Gilmour [Pink Floyd], for example, which was pretty big. And Squeeze asked me to do their last album and tour with them all last year. Melissa Etheridge I had to turn down. But at the moment, I’m making the choice to stay where I am, working with Lenny and getting my own stuff off the ground. It’s a good position to be in right now, and hopefully, I can do those things in the future.”
“It’s like an artist mixing colors. He could read their personalities and know how to put them together, just like he knew how to blend the paints on a canvas. And then boom, there you have the sound that’s indescribably David Bowie.”
PKM: You started with David Bowie on the “Outside” tour, which itself was interesting since many of the hits had been retired for the time being, and it was with Nine Inch Nails. What was the experience like for you?
Gail Ann Dorsey: First off, it was just so overwhelming, almost shocking, to suddenly realize I was playing bass with David Bowie. Not that anyone else who I’ve worked with is chopped liver; they’re all amazing. There are a few artists, like him and maybe Frank Zappa, certain artists who if you’re in their band, like you’re the shit. Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick were names I’d seen on the records; if somehow you end up playing with someone like David Bowie, you’ve got to be the best, you’ve got to be special. You’re not just the average musician. So, suddenly all I knew was that I had the job and I had to make it work because I didn’t know if I was good enough. I thought, ‘God, I don’t know why he’s called me, but I hope I can do what’s asked of me.’ In my eyes, I wasn’t Earl Slick or Carlos Alomar. I don’t have any training in music, I can’t read music, I don’t know theory, I don’t know scales, I don’t know any of that. I just hear a song and I figure it out and I play it. And so, I rely on my memory and my ear and the patterns in my own mind that I have developed on the [bass] guitar that I know how to find what I need to find. But, I can’t explain it to another musician. I’m self-taught, and I assumed that those people had all gone to music school, which many of them had, or had music lessons or mentors. So, I felt like I was the black sheep of the band. I was really worried.
For the most part, that first tour for me was full of fear that I wasn’t going to live up to it. All I could think about was the music constantly, like, ‘Let’s get this bass part right’ and I just drilled and I played and I practiced. I listened to all the songs, which are not easy. His songs are not your average 3-chord songs. The changes are weird, and they have weird licks and sounds. So, I felt that I had been dropped into a crash course, a creative boot camp, and I just had to tough it out. That took me up to another level, and it made me a better musician. He was gracious as he could ever be. I couldn’t imagine working for a better person in terms of allowing his musicians to just do it, to figure it out. There was not a lot of pressure.
Having known him after that for so many years, I know that he had many gifts, and one of his gifts was being able to see something in people that I’m not sure they can see in themselves. He would bring musicians in, or photographers or stylists, you name it. Whoever was involved in a project, he always knew what that person was going to bring to make his vision come to life. And now I realize, knowing Earl Slick and Carlos, and all those people whom I thought were the gods of guitar and popular music, they have limitations as well, the same as me. But what they can do is something very specific, and that’s what Bowie was able to see. It’s like an artist mixing colors. He could read their personalities and know how to put them together, just like he knew how to blend the paints on a canvas. And then boom, there you have the sound that’s indescribably David Bowie. I was just one of those colors, and I didn’t even see it in myself. But he saw that in me, and he allowed me explore and get better at it, and here we are.
PKM: Many of the old hits were re-introduced on later tours; were there any songs you were particularly looking forward to performing?
Gail Ann Dorsey: Almost all of them, really. I knew all the hits. The irony is that the Bowie songs that I always wanted to play we never played. We never played ‘Young Americans’; that album itself is my favorite Bowie album of all time. We only played ‘Space Oddity’ one time; that’s my favorite Bowie song of all time, and it is a genius song. But he decided that he was going to give in and do more of the popular catalog; everybody chimed in with their favorite things and hoped he would give it the OK. I got to do ‘Suffragette City,’ which was something I used to do in a cover band when I was 14 and silly. So I wanted to do ‘Suffragette City’ with the real person, just once. That became part of the set, and I loved doing it. ‘Under Pressure’ of course and ‘Changes’ were great.”
PKM: You were great on “Under Pressure” and seemed ideally suited to the song. How did that come about?
Gail Ann Dorsey: He just asked me if I’d be up for doing that one day. This was during the Nine Inch Nails tour, so it started early on. There are quite a few different clips of it from different times, but by the time we did the definitive version of it on the ‘Reality’ tour, I had nailed it. I just remember him coming into the dressing room and asking me if I’d be up for singing ‘Under Pressure’ like he did it with Annie Lennox at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert. I was like ‘What? Who is going to play bass?’ and he said ‘You’re going to play the bass and you’re going to sing it at the same time.’ That was seeing something that I never ever imagined I could do, ever. I would never have attempted to even think that I would be capable of doing that, honestly. I was just horrified, because I thought ‘This is it, I’m going to get fired.’ I thought I’d had my little moment with Bowie and now I was going to fail him. He just kind of smirked, in retrospect knowingly, and he said ‘I’ll give you two weeks and we’ll try it in a sound check.’ We were already in the middle of a tour with Nine Inch Nails. I went away and started figuring out how to play it. He gave me a cassette of that version and I listened to it and just started figuring it out. I drilled it, I learned it section by section, really, really slow. And then I got a metronome and slowly brought it up to speed. By two weeks’ time, I could do it at the right tempo and hoped it was going to come together. We started trying it, and it worked. So again, he knew it would work. I didn’t, but I had to try, and I’m glad I did.
PKM: During the making of The Next Day album, you were performing with Lenny Kravitz and going into the studio whenever you could get a break. And then you had to keep it secret. What was that experience like?
Gail Ann Dorsey: At the same time, I was playing with Olivia Newton-John, who was one of my childhood heroes. I was doing gigs with her and some with Lenny, and then David would call and say, ‘Are you free next weekend?’ or ‘When’s your next break?’ I couldn’t tell anyone, we were all sworn to secrecy. The only person who knew was my very best friend, who’s a great bass player as well, Sara Lee, because she drove down to the city the first day. He knew Sara, and knew she was my best friend and was in the pact as well. It was this secret project and it was very important to him that nobody knew. I couldn’t hear the music beforehand, and after you would do a track, anything that we scribbled down, or any sheets of music at the end of the session, he would come around and put it in his briefcase to take them home. Everything would be taken away, every single day. There was not a chance for a single thing to be leaked. There were no phones around, there were no cameras, nothing. It was wonderful. We could just make music. He’d come in and give us the songs that day. I was there in the early part, so I’d be playing rhythm section and not know what the vocal was going to be or what was going to be added when I was gone. I didn’t even know if the record would come out. Because we did it, and then that was it, and there was silence for a long time.
I remember the clock radio went off on his birthday in 2013 or whenever it was, and it said ‘David Bowie has just released a new single on his birthday; we’re going to play it now.’ And it was ‘Where Are We Now,’ which is one of the songs that Tony Levin had played bass on because I couldn’t be there to do everything. So, I knew the way the rest of the world knew. It suddenly dropped on his birthday. I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s coming out! I can say something now!’ It was quite an exciting day. I should have known he would plan something like this.
PKM: How did you feel when you finally heard it?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I cried. I thought it was brilliant, like he always is. Again, I hadn’t heard it for so long, but I had played on it. I didn’t have any tapes at home. I couldn’t remember what we even did. You just get in there and do song after song, and I was trying to get as many things finished as I could in the little bit of time that I had. I just thought it was great, and I was so proud to be a part of that record. To me, it’s another masterpiece of modern music.
“Stop on By” – early tv performance
“Space Oddity” from The Sound and Vision of David Bowie – A Celebration (2017)