When David Bowie hired New York keyboardist Mike Garson in 1972, the deal was Garson, who was unfamiliar with Bowie’s music when he got the call would do the final eight weeks of the Ziggy Stardust Tour, then they’d go their separate ways.
The partnership turned out to last much longer than that: Garson ended up having the most longevity of any Bowie band member in the legendary pop culture icon’s career, performing on his most influential albums and at more than 1,000 concerts — including Bowie’s first and last shows in the U.S.
“In my first two years he fired five bands. I was the only one who remained,” says Garson, who now leads A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni Tour, which will stop at Irving Plaza on Tuesday, March 5, and the Keswick Theater near Philly on Sunday, March 10. “Before I joined, all I did was practice the piano every day. He had the ability, like a film director, to pull out of me anything that I had studied, like I brought the history of classical music and jazz to his rock music.
“It separates him from a Bob Dylan of Mick Jagger, and that is something about I think where his genius lied. Flexible jazzy or classical or avant garde or simple as a gospel piece like ‘Can You Hear Me.’”
Bowie died on Jan. 10, 2016, and since then, the various tributes Garson has been a part of — starting with a BRIT Awards performance in February of 2016 with Lorde — has sparked an even greater appreciation for Bowie’s music.
We chatted with the keyboard player about his decades of work with Bowie, including on the albums “Aladdin Sane,” “Diamond Dogs,” “Young Americans,” “Ziggy Stardust – The Motion Picture” and “Black Tie White Noise” and the celebration tour, which also feature prominent Bowie alums Earl Slick, Carmine Rojas and Charlie Sexton (who’s also Bob Dylan’s longtime guitarist) as well as A-list guests like Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler and Living Colour frontman Corey Glover.
Why did you decide to put this band together?
I was asked to do a show in London with some of the Bowie alumni and the singer Lorde, and we did “Life On Mars” at the BRIT Awards and it went out to a billion people. I started to realize David’s music is so powerful and so many people were affected by this music, it was the soundtrack to their lives. So the idea started that maybe I need to do this. We did about 100 concerts with a variety of bands and now I have a band that’s very stable.
How would you describe David as a bandleader?
Magnificent. Maybe the best bandleader I’ve ever worked with. He would never micromanage. I’d call him the ultimate casting director. Anyone he ever hired was the perfect musician at the perfect time. He had a sense for who he wanted.
What’s something about David that fans might be surprised to hear?
He had a hilarious sense of humor. He also was frighteningly smart, he was so well-read and he could discuss philosophy or classical music or paintings or the artists of the centuries. It was actually frightening his wealth of knowledge, and he was always reading. He was a very engaging person. Also, he was very caring. The music meant a lot to him. He had a gift and he shared it in many types of music throughout his life.
What was your favorite album with David?
“Aladdin Sane” would be my favorite because that’s where I contributed the most. The title track got me a lot of accolades over the years. I also loved “Young Americans” and “Diamond Dogs” and “Outside” and “Reality.” I played on about 20 albums and did 1,000 concerts or more. I’m starting to really appreciate the guy a little kind of late. I’m realizing he was a genius.
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