David Bowie’s time in Philadelphia marks one of the turning points in his career – as he transitioned away from his glam-rock Ziggy Stardust to a more tailored persona.
In 1974, on the initial leg of his Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie recorded his first official live album at the Tower Theater, a 1927 former movie house just over the Philadelphia border in Upper Darby. Interestingly, this live recording led to a revolt by Bowie’s touring band. The band confronted Bowie an hour before the first show and refused to take the stage after being informed that Bowie’s management intended to pay them only the standard union fee required for a live recording (only $70). On the basis of the likely sales of the album they calculated they were entitled to $5,000 each. Bowie agreed to pay them, and they went on stage. However, the resulting album met with a poor response from critics (Mick Jagger said, “Christ, I mean, if I’d got the kind of reviews that he got for that album, I would honestly never record again. Never.”) and Bowie claims to have never listened to it – he said it should have been titled “David Bowie Is Alive And Well And Living Only In Theory.”
Luckily, the poor response to “David Live” didn’t dim his affection for Philadelphia, and he returned soon after to record “Young Americans.” The album contained the single “Fame,” which would go on to become his first #1 hit in America. It was during the first leg of his Diamond Dogs tour that Bowie connected to the soul music that was playing on radio stations across the US, and he returned to Philly to record the soul infused “Young Americans” at Sigma Sound Studios, where Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had created what was known as the “Philadelphia Sound,” and what Bowie called “Plastic Soul.”
Not only was “Young Americans” a commercial hit, it received ultimate approval when Bowie became one of the first white artists to be invited perform on Soul Train. During the recording sessions at Sigma Studios a group of Bowie fans (called the Sigma Kids) camped outside the studio rain or shine. Their persistence was rewarded at the end of the final recording session when Bowie himself invited them into the studio to hear the rough mixes.
Sigma Studios is no longer a recording studio, but the building still stands in Chinatown. The Tower Theater is still an active music venue. If you visit, take time to check out the other art-deco buildings in the area. Just across the street from the now tower-less Tower theater is a small art deco shopping enclave. The main focal point is the 1928 McClatchy building with its amazing terra-cotta tiles and stained glass window (viewable from inside the H&M), but the streets behind (Garrett and Terminal Square) also contain a bunch of art deco and modernist buildings.
While admiring the art-deco buildings along Terminal Square, pop into H-Mart for some Asian shopping, then head up to the second floor Korean food court for sizzling rice bowls, sushi, bubble tea, and other yummy treats.
If you’re around Philly for David’s birthday, local ice cream favorite Weckerly’s has an annual Bowie special ice cream sandwich, with proceeds going to the Bowie cancer fund at Children’s Hospital. The 2022 version had sweet cream ice cream with cocoa cookie crumble and marshmallow fluff sandwiched between a sugar cookie and cocoa wafer – with a lightening bolt cutout filled with strawberry/blackberry jam!
Side note: The music on “David Bowie Narrates Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf ” was performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra.