The Mystery of Drexel’s Rare David Bowie Recordings

Rare finds from David Bowie’s personal archives of handwritten lyrics and stage costumes are currently shown at the “David Bowie Is” retrospective exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. But which ones are stored away in the legendary musician’s personal collection, thanks to a Drexel University professor?

The "Young Americans" album produced from the sessions. Photo credit: Wikipedia
The “Young Americans” album produced from the sessions. Photo credit: Wikipedia 

It took over 30 years, but Bowie finally was in possession of two reels of tape containing alternate song versions and unreleased tracks leftover from the 1974 “Young Americans” recording sessions at Philly’s famous Sigma Sound Studios. Once the musician personally found the tapes listed for sale on Ebay, of all places, he contacted Toby Seay, director of Drexel’s Audio Archives and an associate professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, to digitize the tracks and prepare the physical copies to be sent to him. As a courtesy, Bowie allowed the Audio Archives to keep the digital tracks to be included in the collection of archived tracks.

Bowie chose Seay because the professor had already sent over digital copies of tracks on one reel of tape from the studio session that Drexel inherited in 2005 when it received 6,200 master tapes of artists who recorded at Sigma Sound Studios from 1968 to 1996, when the studio switched to recording tracks digitally.

Until Drexel took over the archives, Bowie had no idea where the tapes from the Sigma Sound sessions were located—a space oddity for someone who has employed a personal archivist to keep track of personal and professional mementos.

Interestingly, the tape that Drexel currently stores in the Sigma Sound Collection at the University’s Audio Archives was simply labeled “reel 4” and dated August 14, 1974. But Bowie had recorded at the studio from August to November that year, and the whereabouts of reels 1, 2, 3 and any possible recordings after reel 4 were unknown.

“Bowie had the forethought from the very beginning to own his recordings. That’s so rare,” said Seay. “From what I understand, he knows where every tape of every record he’s recorded exists except for “Young Americans’ and ‘Station to Station.’”

Toby Seay, project director of Drexel's Audio Archives and an associate professor in the Westphal College, holds "Reel 4."
Toby Seay, project director of Drexel’s Audio Archives and an associate professor in the Westphal College, holds “Reel 4.”

For now, Drexel and Bowie remain the only known holders of official physical and digital tapes of songs from the “Young Americans” sessions. But Drexel also holds a tape someone made of the musicians working and recording songs. It’s a revelatory “fly-on-the-wall” listening experience not just for Bowie fans, but for anyone interested in the creative process of a hugely successful and innovative musician.

The other tape is even more mysterious: no dates, notes or anything to suggest it was from the Bowie suggestions except for a simple “DB” written on the container. Seay found it on accident and listened to it on a hunch. Upon listening, he realized it was actually a recording of a studio session in which “DB,” or “David Bowie,” and his musicians are heard chatting, going over song parts, and practicing “Who Can I Be Now” and “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again).”

During the hour-long recording, Bowie is heard asking his male backup singer Luther Vandross, who later won eight Grammy Awards for his solo career, to come in stronger on the “Who” in “Who Can I be Now.” After demonstrating the kind of vocal he wanted, Bowie self-deprecatingly tells Vandross, “I mean, I’m not as good as you, but you know what I mean.”

“I don’t know how illicit this was, but somebody just rolled a reel of tape in the studio while they were working,” Seay said. “Even though they’re making music in a studio, after a while you get that it’s just people doing their job.”

Drexel's official "Reel 4" tape from Bowie's Sigma Sound Studios sessions.
Drexel’s official “Reel 4” tape from Bowie’s Sigma Sound Studios sessions.

Unfortunately, the tapes from the “Young American” sessions can only be heard in person, by appointment-only. Drexel owns the physical property, and not the material stored on the tapes, because of copyright laws, but the tapes have remained a popular item for musical anthropologists and historians, archivists, writers and even a Bowie biographer interested in the turning point in Bowie’s career when he stopped performing glam rock

“Imagine it’s 1974. Sigma was hot. Coming out of Philly and coming out of Sigma was hit record after hit record,” Seay said. “It would be very enticing for an artist like Bowie to say, ‘Let’s go there and see if some of that ‘magic’ wears off.’”

The “magic” helped “Young Americans” reach the Top 10 List in America and the song “Fame,” which was later co-written and featured vocals from John Lennon in New York City, was Bowie’s first No. 1 single in America.

Now, about 40 years later, there’s still some magic left in the story of Bowie’s time in Philadelphia. And it will remain in Philly while the other Bowie artifacts in “David Bowie Is” have travelled the world.