Drummer Sterling Campbell: My Time With David Bowie
NEW YORK—It was 1978. I was 14 and I had already been learning the drums for a few years. On this particular day I happened to be walking in through the lobby of our apartment building on the Upper West Side when a drummer by the name of Dennis Davis was walking out with a cymbal bag and stick bag. I didn’t know any professional musicians so I simply asked him, “Where are you going?”
When Dennis said, “I have a gig tonight, I’m playing at Madison Square Garden,” I was floored! Then even more so when he followed with, “I have a gig with David Bowie. You want to go?” And he gave me a ticket.
At that time, all I knew of David Bowie was one song, “Fame.” The influential music Dennis had recorded with him—”Young Americans,” “Station to Station,” “Low,” “Heroes”—wasn’t yet part of my musical vernacular.
Despite that, I was very excited at the idea of going to my first concert by myself. I wanted to be a drummer, and here I was receiving an invitation from a professional musician to the Madison Square Garden.
I was just happy to be there, with no idea what I was in for. Then it began.
The lights dimmed and David emerged on stage—I had never seen anything like it. It looked like a spacecraft with white fluorescent lights, and it had this ominous feeling to it. The show didn’t start with a big bang, but with a sobering piece of music called “Warszawa” from the “Low” album.
There was this ambient pastoral sullen sound coming from the speakers, with David playing a Chamberlin keyboard and Carlos Alomar conducting the band. I had already been exposed to a lot of different genres of music, but this was something totally new. This was no ordinary bell-bottom rock band—I was in the presence of a visionary. This was Stanley Kubrick with a mic and a backing band. It was a new experience and I will always cherish it.
David was able to merge an urban aesthetic that was soul and R&B and mix it with this European aesthetic, which was classical pastoral dissonance and electronic (Krautrock). The band was amazing and played so well together. It was Dennis Davis on drums, Carlos Alomar on guitar, George Murray on bass, Adrian Belew on guitar, Roger Powell on synths, Simon House on violin, Sean Mayes on piano.
It was a magical experience and a turning point for me, because that night I decided to dedicate my life to music. It also opened me up to how expansive music could be.
I spent many hours over the next years in record stores discovering new music and developing my taste for bands from overseas.
The ’80s came and I was in high school. I went to the original LaGuardia High School of Music and Art on 137th Street, starting the same year the movie “Fame” came out, about the school I was in.
I had been an uptown person all my life, but as the ’80s began, I ventured to the downtown scene. I was playing the famed CBGB’s, The Ritz, Peppermint Lounge, and Limelight on a regular basis with bands like The Pedantiks and Urban Blight.
Music had changed a lot from the ’70s, and David’s Berlin Trilogy (1977–1979)—”Low,” “Heroes,” “Lodger”—had a massive influence on the sound of the ’80s.
It was a vibrant time. Hip-hop, dance music, and the new romantic movement emerged and David transitioned right along with it, releasing “Scary Monsters” in 1980. Then “Let’s Dance” in 1983 became his first No. 1 hit on both sides of the ocean. David brought in Nile Rodgers of the disco band Chic to produce it. Nile went on to have massive success with Madonna, Duran Duran, and INXS—and would later be the one who connected me with David.
In 1986, I auditioned for Cyndi Lauper and was asked to join her True Colors Tour. That got me in the door, which led me to a stint with the band Cameo. Afterward, I wanted to live out my dream and spend more time in Europe. I played with an emerging band called So and started to get my name out around London.
In 1988, I received a call from Duran Duran to tour and eventually join the band. That’s where I met Nile. We stayed in touch, and after my time with Duran Duran ended in 1993, I received the call: Nile wanted to know if I was available to do David Bowie’s new album “Black Tie White Noise.” I was over the moon!
The Magic Begins
My first meeting with David was wonderful. I was finally meeting my hero and he was so inviting, smiling; he seemed excited to make a new album. He basically had demos of new songs and it was pretty simple: play. He didn’t yet know I was from the school of Dennis Davis. I studied both David’s music and Dennis’s drumming. So I did me, but added some sprinkles of Dennis.
David and Nile seemed pleased with the results.
David for me was like a university with an incredible alumni. Part of his genius was his uncanny ability to cast talent—not only musicians, but producers, fashion designers, filmmakers, art designers, photographers, and everyone else. And we became family.
While Dennis was David’s drummer in the late ’70s, Zack Alford, Poogie Bell, and I were around Dennis, so we ended up getting involved. There is a kind of family tree there and I still have a bond with them almost 40 years later. In fact, I have that bond with quite a few Bowie school alumni, spanning some 25 years.
So being with David was also a brotherhood and sisterhood. It was a special place. Only bands like U2, The Who, and The Stones have it. I’ve never met Woody Woodmansey or George Murray or Tony Newman, but if I did, I would want to hug them. Because they played a role for me.
It is an incredible class of alumni and your diploma is the musical possibilities that David inspired.
A couple of years after recording “Black Tie White Noise,” I received a phone call from David himself, asking if I was available to record a new album, “Outside,” this time with Brian Eno in Montreux, Switzerland.
We were surrounded by Lake Geneva and the Evian Mountains of France—such an incredible setting.
This was a very special time for me. I was so lucky. Every day I would have breakfast with Brian and he would share stories with me. Then we would go to the studio and just try left of center ideas, like Brian having the band play with “Baby Love” by The Supremes in our headphones. He told the band to play along with the song, but do something totally different from the song. David and Brian would listen to the results of the experiment and if they found something good, they would develop a song around it.
One time, Brian printed up role play characters for each of us, which we had to keep secret, and told us to play “in character.” This was mine (here were the others):
You are a musician at ‘Asteroid,’ a space-based club (currently in geostationary orbit 180 miles above the surface of the Moon) catering mainly to the shaven, tattooed and androgynous craft-maintenance staff who gather there at weekends. They are a tough crowd who like it weird and heavy, jerky and skeletal, and who dance in sexy, violent styles. These people have musical tastes formed in their early teens in the mid-Nineties. Your big influence as a kid was the Funkadelics.
It was always experimental. It was a dream to be a part of it and to watch their interplay, all while having such a laugh. It was very funny most of the time. David did a lot of painting and portraits of all of us in the band while we were playing. Once again, magic.
Around 1994, I became a full member of the band Soul Asylum, not knowing if David would tour “Outside” or not.
Then one day I received a call from David that they were going on tour, which was my dream. But I was already committed to Soul Asylum and it wouldn’t have been right to leave them, so I had to say no. I asked David to use Zack Alford, my childhood friend and a great drummer, instead.
It worked out so well with Zack that he did the Outside Tour then also recorded and toured “Earthling” (a great record)—I was so proud of him.
Second Time Around
In the late ’90s, I received another call from David to recruit me for the album “Hours.” To hear David calling me, inviting me to play with him, was the most wonderful sound. He had such a great speaking voice—it was a gift to receive.
He put together the band consisting of myself, Gail Ann Dorsey, Earl Slick, Mark Plati, Mike Garson, Catherine Russell, and Gerry Leonard. At one time we added backup singers, Emm Gryner and Holly Palmer. This lasted from 1999 to 2004, during which we had some wonderful adventures. We played the world and made great music.
In that same overall timespan, David invited me to record some of the “Heathen” album (2002) and most of “Reality” (2003) with Mario McNulty playing drums on one track and also engineering the record. Once again, I still have a deep bond with Mario and also Hector Castillo, an engineer involved with “Heathen.”
David’s last big tour was the Reality Tour. It was my personal favorite and the one that will stick with me forever. We covered so much of his catalogue. We learned over 50 songs, if memory serves me right. We played around the world—over 100 cities in 9 months—and we laughed a lot.
That’s definitely a strong memory of working with David—he was just so funny. We’d always try to make each other laugh on stage. One night in Vegas, we were playing the last song, “Ziggy Stardust,” and at the very end there’s a pause where David sings by himself before a big band ending. The pause gave me enough time to get up from my kit and walk over beside David. When the band came in again, there I was standing beside him, and the drum tech J. W. was playing my part. David looked at me, looked over at the drums, and cracked up. During another show the whole band did it to him.
Another time we were bussing through middle America and at a roadside stop, we all had a laugh at this stuffed “jackalope.” Then lo and behold, the jackalope showed up as a mascot on stage that night. David must have picked it up.
Six years passed. Then one day, when I was sharing a studio at Rivington St. Rehearsal Studios in New York with an amazing group of musicians, out of the blue I got a call from David. It had been a while since we’d seen each other. He asked how I’d been, then asked if he could come by. I was shocked and said, “Of course.”
It was great to see him and once again be charmed by him. He asked my availability to work out some songs in this real lo-fi studio for what would become “The Next Day” (2013) album.
It was awesome. The drum set was falling apart and we would work out the arrangements and record them in a very simple way onto a digital recorder with one mic. This went on for a week or so, then he took the music home to further hash it out.
When it came time to do the album, there was a catch: I couldn’t let anyone know about it. This went on for two years. Zack started and did most of it; I had a scheduling conflict, so I came in toward the end and did a couple of tracks.
That was the last time I saw David. We would correspond a bit but not too much. Then the news came that he had a new record coming out. I emailed him when the first single came out and his last words to me were, “Thanks, Ster.” That was his nickname for me. Then he left us.
So now he’s a myth and I am left with my tales of my time with David Bowie.
David was a genuine person, one of a kind. He was a humanitarian. He cared about many things, he cared about human rights and he knew what was going on in the world. He was a voracious reader.
In 2002, I went to China to protest the genocide against Falun Gong, an ancient Chinese meditation practice I do. I was ultimately detained and expelled from the country.
It was this incredible two-week period where one week I was being detained by police in China, and the next week I was doing a show with David for Tibet House at Carnegie Hall, along with Adam Yauch from the Beastie Boys, Philip Glass, and the Kronos Quartet. I missed the rehearsal, but I made the concert.
There are so many stories. Everybody who’s been in David’s circle has a Frodo Baggins adventure to tell about it. I’ve spent almost 25 years in the business and most of it was creating music with him. I gained so many lifelong friends—Dennis, Zack, and others—from being a part of his family.
David let me and all the other musicians be ourselves. He rarely told us how to play the music. It was left to us to be creative. He respected my beliefs and wanted everyone involved to express themselves. It was truly an honor to work for David and something I will always cherish.