"Here's David!" At NBC/Burbank For Bowie's September 1980 "Tonight Show" Appearance
Three weeks before debuting on Broadway in "The Elephant Man," David Bowie sang two songs on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." I was there.
As fans camped out overnight for the day of taping for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, I didn’t want to be one of those two hundred. Not that the NBC Studios Burbank, California sidewalks weren’t comfortable…
But, I hung out outside the studio gates adjacent to the artists’ entrance/studio employees parking lot during the taping, and was rewarded with an unexpected close encounter with the elusive star during his exit.
Setting the Scene
Shirley Wood was likely the Tonight Show talent coordinator who booked Bowie for his September 5, 1980 taping. If not Wood, it would’ve been Jim McCawley, also a Tonight Show booker at the time.
My brother, Clint, had moved to L.A. from Houston a couple years before and was doing stand-up comedy. While trying to break in at the Comedy Store and other clubs in the area, he’d make a regular, 3-mile trek from his N. Hollywood apartment down W. Alameda Boulevard to NBC for Johnny’s 5:30 afternoon taping.
Like most practicing comics, his hope was that one day he’d be invited (usually by a talent procurer like McCawley, who would have already seen your set at an area club) to do 5 minutes on the show. He wanted to soak in the studio ambience so he’d be less overwhelmed should that coveted call ever come.
Clint would tell me stories of being backstage before a taping. One anecdote included the sight of a chain-smoking Carson puffing furiously just behind the rainbow curtain mere seconds before going onstage. The NBC Orchestra would blare out the well-known, Paul Anka-penned theme song, prompting Ed McMahon to bellow his, “And, now, Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”
It’s at that exact moment that Johnny would drop and stamp out his cigarette at the same time a stage hand pulled open one side of the curtain to allow Carson’s emergence to thunderous applause.
I had followed Clint to southern Cal a couple years later, landing in his same small N. Hollywood apartment complex near the corner of Vineland and Burbank Blvds in January 1980, some eight months before the Bowie/Tonight Show appearance.
Having just finished three years in retail records (Cactus) in Houston, I was able to quickly land at popular record retailer, Music Plus, at their Glendale location. We were well aware of the upcoming release of Bowie’s 14th RCA studio album, Scary Monsters, set to hit the streets a week after air date, on September 12, 1980.
In fact, it was that album’s “Ashes to Ashes” which was slated to be the initial single off the album, that prompted Bowie to include it in his Tonight Show appearance.
As it happens, this would be Bowie’s last album for RCA. His increasing dissatisfaction with the “His Master’s Voice” label led him to shop elsewhere for a deal. RCA, however, was willing to re-sign the ground-breaking artist whose career they helped build for the previous decade.
Bowie, though, found a willing suitor in EMI America, the two-year-old label whelped by EMI as a second domestic sister label with Capitol. Curiously, his next (and first for EMI America, Let’s Dance) wouldn’t be released for nearly three years after Scary Monsters.
Related: Behind the Scenes of the Bowie & Bing Christmas Duet, 1977:
Back to the Show
Bowie, as it turns out, was only in the L.A. area for just this day, Friday, September 5. This necessitated at least one accommodation, especially considering it had been months since Bowie’s last concert:
Most notably, Bowie’s band for the night was a one-off grouping of cats he likely never played with before or again (with the exception of longtime keyboardist/guitarist, Carlos Alomar): G.E. Smith, who, at the time of this performance, had been married to Gilda Radner for six months; he formerly was Hall and Oates’ lead guitarist (1979-’85) and SNL band leader (1985-’95).
Joining Smith onstage was keyboardist Gordon Grody, Steve Goulding (of Graham Parker and The Rumour) on drums. and from Maine, John Kumnick on bass.
“[Bowie] had an aura about him that was unmistakable.”—John Kumnick, bassist
Kumnick sat down with David Bowie News in 2019 to share his recollections of that historic taping: “I had a great respect for Bowie and his musicians before I was asked to play with him. So I was very excited to work with David. Meeting him was interesting because he was very relaxed and dressed fairly normally. But he had an aura about him that was unmistakable.
“When I moved to New York City (from his Portland, Maine-area hometown) in 1979, I would listen to the Berlin albums, “Heroes”, Low, and Lodger.
“I loved those records and also heard some live bootlegs from the later 70’s. I remember thinking what a great band that was, and that I would love to play with Bowie. And then I met Carlos [Alomar] and played with him, and that led to Carlos asking me to play with Bowie on The Tonight Show.”
With a big-name show like this one in the can that also featured Bob Hope and Richard Pryor, NBC brass had little trouble tub-thumping such a diversely star-studded program, especially for a Friday night telecast, a night when the show usually saw a ratings bump.
Listen carefully for the piano key note for Bowie to begin “Life on Mars” acapella; notice how he pulls off his James Dean/Rebel Without a Cause look so effortlessly.
Listen, also, between songs, for David to look toward the couch (to his right) to greet Richard Pryor with, “Richard, it’s great to have you back, man!” It was earlier that year that Pryor had his horrible freebasing accident, which forced him to take time off from performing for several months. Cue Johnny:
Meanwhile, Out on the Street…
While the show was taping, I spent time with a couple handfuls of friends and fellow fans across the street from the studio entrance/exit, standing on what I recall was a median. This cement island on W. Alameda had a stoplight planted on it, and it was here where our close encounter would happen within about 15 minutes of the show’s ending.
Several of the fans had items to be signed should David’s car swing by. I had nothing to sign; I guess I wasn’t as optimistic as some of the others. Sure enough, the metal studio gate wheeled itself open, and out drove a typically huge, black limousine, swinging itself around to bring it, not only just in front of the red light, but right in front of us!
Roughly even with the front bumper of the limo, I was about 15 feet from the back, passenger side window that suddenly whirred itself down, and just as quickly, a right arm jutted out, and grabbed an album jacket thrust into its hand. As the car accelerated without warning, that same beneficent hand managed to find the album cover’s rightful owner, and the car sped westward up W. Alameda Blvd.
We all gathered round the lucky recipient to see what David had time to sign in the precious few seconds it took for the light to turn green: “Bow.”