IMAGINE THE fairy-tale scene this way, since this is how it actually happened: It is 1973, the setting is RCA’s recording studios in New York and a Puerto Rican session guitarist with impressive credentials named Carlos Alomar is approached by RCA staffer Tony Sylvester. Sylvester tells Alomar that RCA has somebody coming over from England to produce a song called, ‘Can You Hear Me?’
Alomar agrees to do the session, and he and the producer hit it off instantly; the producer is really impressed with Carlos’ musicianship and professionalism. For his part, Carlos is struck by the producer’s physical appearance: gaunt, some would say emaciated, his mere ninety-eight pounds, it seems, stretched over a six-foot frame. Carlos brings him home, where his beautiful wife, Robin, puts together a meal fit for a king. They all eat, drink and make merry, and when dinner is over, David Bowie turns to Carlos and asks if he wants to do a tour…
Now, if this were a fairy tale, the story could end right here with the traditional “…and they lived happily ever after.” But, reality being the way it is. Carlos never participated in Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour, and for a single simple reason — money. Carlos had run a long road to establish himself musically and financially, and he didn’t want to lose everything he’d made for himself for one risky shot. As things turned out, opportunity knocked at his door again — but that is getting ahead of the story.
The road that led Carlos Alomar from The Bronx to the beginnings of his relationship with David Bowie was built with hard work and marked with some legendary names. It began in 1967, when the then teen-aged guitarist joined one of black music’s outstanding venues as a member of the house band at the famed Apollo Theater. The performers who passed through during Carlos’ tenure there constituted a Who’s Who of soul: Martha Reeves, the Stylistics, Edwin Starr and, of course, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Alomar honed his chops in the company of the great. From 1969 to 1973 he backed an amazingly diverse group of stars, including Wilson Pickett, Chuck Berry, the Main Ingredient, Bette Midler and Chuck Jackson. He even recorded for TV’s Sesame Street.
So it was in 1973 that he found himself in the RCA studios backing Lulu, whose producer at the time happened to be David Bowie. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Diamond Dogs tour took off without Carlos, but halfway through it, Bowie started getting ready to go into the studio and record what would become the Young Americans lp, and he called Carlos to ask him to do the gig. This time the managers, agents and other money people sorted out their differences, so Alomar and Bowie found themselves together again in the studio to make music — and, as it turned out, at least one rock classic. Bowie had been using a song called ‘Foot Stompin” in concert, but when he tried to get it down on tape in the studio he hated the way it sounded, except for the guitar lick. He kept that, added a I-IV-V blues tag and laid down bass, drums and guitar tracks with Carlos. At this point, enter John Lennon, who added an acoustic guitar recorded backwards to make it sound like some kind of keyboard instrument. Thus was born ‘Fame’, for which Lennon and Alomar share writing credits with Bowie.
After that, Alomar and Bowie became inseparable. Carlos went on Bowie’s 1974 tour, and has been with him as musical director ever since. (Along the way, he’s found time to sit in with John Lennon, Luther Vandross, Iggy Pop, Yoko Ono and Graham Parker.) Bowie’s faith in him is so complete that he doesn’t even come to rehearsals for the tours until Carlos decides the band and the music are ready. As New York Times music editor Robert Palmer put it in a review of Bowie’s latest tour, “[Alomar] is the mainspring of Mr. Bowie’s music — the player who sets tempos, cues dynamics and generally keeps the show going. At [Madison Square] Garden, he showed his talents both as a soloist and as an incisive rhythm guitarist. Somehow, Mr. Alomar never seems to get mentioned in discussions of the black guitarists who are Jimi Hendrix’ true heirs. He should be at the top of the list.”
Alomar loves the concept of chimes, high frequencies, strange intervals and an odd bar of time superimposed on top of a very slick rock-funk format. Carlos’ own guitar sound is a high-tech one, and any thing that he can pick up or throw into that to further its aims, he will do. He has everything he needs at his fingertips, and he signals the band with a nod of the head. Carlos will take a simple ninth funk chord and — before slapping it out — he’ll slide up and down the neck, hit two dissonant intervals in between the funk and slap on his digital delay to make it sound like birds chirping. Then, he’ll signal the band to go to the next section. Or, he might start off playing with the micro-synthesizer on, sounding like the guitar’s under water, switch on the multi-effects with the sound of angels and then rip into an outrageous heavy-rock thing by slapping on some overdrive. This works out to the kind of sound, for example, he got in ‘Fame’: that is, funk chops all over the place laid over a clean, whack-flack execution; all kinds of cool chord inversions and substitutions; and the freedom to go wild with volume and sound effects through his mammoth rig of equipment in a huge stadium or hall.
Recently he has simplified his stage rig, and no longer uses the customized 700-watt system that in the past blew away the folks in the front rows. Now he plugs into two Roland Jazz Chorus Amps, with a Roland GP-120 that clicks in for solos. For special effects, he has two top-of-the-line Ibanez multi-effects digitals mounted on racks, and also uses two Electro-Harmonix micro-synthesizers. His favorite performing axes are his stereo Alembic, his 1958 mapleneck Stratocaster with a Kahler tremolo system and his new Steinberger six-string, which he was the first performer to introduce onstage.
Carlos received an education in his rhythm playing by backing up all those soul and R&B artists over the years; his weird side of playing benefitted by an association with some of the excellent technicians who have come through the Bowie organization, people like Adrian Belew. “Always learn from the best and adapt your style from there,” says Alomar.
As you might expect after a close association of ten years, Alomar and Bowie think very highly of each other, and so Carlos’ reaction to the rumors surrounding the much-publicized Bowie-Stevie Ray Vaughan split comes as no surprise. Vaughan allegedly quit the tour before it got off the ground because of money disagreements; but Alomar, who has been down that road, set the record straight in the Billboard magazine. He said, “We’re doing a lot better than three hundred dollars per show (the amount Vaughan claims he was offered). David has never made any money before, and on this tour there are a lot of people making sure that he’s going to make some money. As for our money situation, it’s just fine. Everybody’s making over four figures, plus we have a real good per-diem and everything’s fine. And, once David makes some money, he bonuses everybody out.” Alomar also notes that for a working musician, a tour that lasts from March through December offers a security seldom found. “We’re purring like crazy,” he says.
Nor is the Bowie-Alomar relationship strictly professional. They share working-class backgrounds, live in the same building, are both married [David reportedly broke up with his wife recently] and both have children that are very important to them. In fact, their personal lives occasioned the most important change the duo has gone through — their mutual decision to stay off the road for a while after the 1977 Heroes tour so that each of them could attend to Family. Carlos considers this the most momentous choice he and Bowie have made: “Now I’ve been able to spend the most important years at home with my daughter, and David has had the chance to get closer to his son.”
Outside of his relationship with Bowie, Carlos’ future plans revolve mostly around his own recording projects (still unsigned) and his vocalist-wife Robin’s recording deal with the John Hammond Organization. Aside from that, he says, “Right now my dreams for the future have to do with my daughter, still have my ambition, but I have a lot of things taken care of for me. I’ve got it all now — money, family, happiness, my ambition.” He says that with the satisfaction of someone who’s earned it.
© Gene Santoro, Guitar World, January 1984